Over the years, PBS has been involved with many excellent dance documentaries – most of us owe a big chunk of our dance historical knowledge to programs like Dance in America, Live from Lincoln Center, and American Masters. Which is why the most recent addition to this catalog is so frustrating—American Ballet Theatre: A History, which premiered on PBS stations in May and is available on their website, is a dance documentary produced by someone who doesn’t seem to trust dance to tell the story. Ric Burns, brother and colleague of Ken Burns, has directed some excellent work in the past. But given the assignment to honor American Ballet Theater (and by extension, ballet in America) on their 75th anniversary, he’s cast his net so wide that he can’t really hone in on the subject.
The main narrator is Jennifer Homans, author of Apollo’s Angels and the director of the newly created Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University. Homans is currently in the unusual position of being a dance writer with a general readership—Apollo’s Angels got the kind of mainstream publisher that dance histories rarely get, and her other appearances, including a TED talk, have made her a center of critical attention. And although some of her scholarship has raised questions in the field (especially the conclusion to Apollo’s Angels, where she declared that ballet is doomed) she has sparked conversation and debate. Burns seems to have given her the daunting task of outlining the development of the art form from the Renaissance to contemporary times, and she takes full advantage of the opportunity. Some of her claims about the spiritual nature of technique might seem hyperbolic, but illustrate connections and raise questions that will make even knowledgeable viewers think again about what they believe they know.
But all of this background means that we don’t really get to the main topic of the film, American Ballet Theatre, for quite some time. ABT, which was founded as Ballet Theatre in 1940, sits at the middle of multiple threads in the development of American dance. As one of the first companies founded by an American in America, its bold claim, that it would present the best of ballet from the past and the future, set an extraordinarily high bar—seeing how the company dealt with that challenge would be more than enough for any one film to take on. Unfortunately, by starting with the roots of ballet, Burns didn’t leave himself enough screen time to really examine his main topic. Between the archives at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center, and multiple closely-held personal collections, he had a gold mine of interview and performance footage available. It’s frustrating to think of the materials he could have included if he’d narrowed his focus a bit.
As it is, we get excerpts from pre-existing interviews with founder Lucia Chase and early company members like Agnes deMille, and fresh conversations with Frederick Franklin, Alicia Alonso, and Donald Saddler. Both Lupe Serrano and Ruth Ann Koesun talk about the years of touring (Koesun pages through one of her scrapbooks, with pictures of the company flying in cargo planes, looking more like paratroopers than dancers). And we get snippets of performances and rehearsals from those years of works by Anthony Tudor, George Balanchine, deMille, and Jerome Robbins.
These clips from the past are as tantalizing as they are brief. Nora Kaye, whose skills as a dancing actress really exemplified the Ballet Theater style, is just one example—we see bits of her performances in Tudor’s seminal Pillar of Fire and deMille’s Fall River Legend, where she plays Lizzie Borden. In those works, and others, her use of weight and focus is highly refined, and almost unseen today. In one shot from a rehearsal, we watch her walk upstage with her hands on her hips—her weight is dropped but her feet on the floor are anything but casual. She is stalking something and we are grateful it is not us.
But the bulk of the actual dancing in this film comes from contemporary productions, with much of it slowed down to the point that it resembles biomechanical analysis. While it’s fascinating to see something like Kitri’s explosive sissonne from her entrance in Don Quixote in that much detail, the musicality of the phrasing is eliminated. The kinesthetic impulse that helps us “feel” what a dancer is doing is gone, replaced by a special effect. Daniil Simkin, who is known for his allegro work, seems to hover over the ground like a UFO in a slowed-down solo from Benjamin Millepied’s Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once, but we cannot get a sense of how he looks in real time from this doctored footage.
The film does its best work with contemporary interviews—Julie Kent, who is retiring from the stage this season, speaks very personally about her sense of responsibility to the art form. And artistic director Kevin McKenzie puts a thoughtful finger on the fundamental nature of performing when he observes that a dancer needs both hubris and humility as they dance iconic works while continuing to refine their skills.
It may seem unfair to complain when there are so few dance programs on television—after all, the internet is packed with all kinds of dancing. But that resource works best for those who know what they’re looking for—the true strength of the old Dance in America programming was in its ability to explain the art form and contextualize the work. If I want to compare Mikhail Fokine’s 1910 choreography for Firebird with Alexei Ratmansky’s new version from 2012, I can likely find enough footage online to do the job. But if I don’t really understand that there are multiple versions of the ballet, and that the latter ones are often commenting on the original, I need some help. Likewise, if I’m curious about the creation of American ballet in the 20th century, American Ballet Theatre: A History raises more questions than it answers.