The latest installments of creative dance videos will premiere this week on American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) YouTube page. Eight new dance films created by current and former ABT company members make their virtual debut this Wednesday and Thursday. Dubbed “Moving Stories: An ABT Film Festival,” the two hour-long events will be hosted by ABT principal–and arguably their most famous dancer–Misty Copeland along with Emmy Award-winning producer Leyla Fayyaz. Donations will be accepted on YouTube during the festival and will benefit the ABT Crisis Relief Fund, which provides assistance to ABT’s artists, staff and faculty during the coronavirus pandemic.
ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie reached out to specific dancers in late May with the idea of “Moving Stories” and nine agreed to make a total of eight short films, four to be available for viewing each night of the festival. The films—created by current ABT dancers Claire Davison, Zhong-Jing Fang, Erica Lall, Duncan Lyle, Jose Sebastian, Eric Tamm, Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, plus former ABT dancer Alexandre Hammoudi—were all shot on the dancers’ smart phones and range in length and topic with each director having complete control of their narratives and process.
The only constraint was time: three weeks to be exact. “I was slightly nervous about the timeline. Three weeks is very fast,” said Tamm, a dancer in the corps de ballet who had created a dance film before. “I made the decision to make it a one-person operation. I had to do it on my own. That was the easiest path for me.”
Soloist Zhong-Jing Fang (ZJ for short) took a different approach. She went big. While Tamm’s solo offering clocks in at 3:26, Fang’s group effort is just over 10 minutes long and features a number of ABT dancers (and even a few non-dancers). The piece is heavy on symbolism from an abstract pile of soil representing Mother Earth to the very literal act of dancing in front of a nearby hospital with refrigerator trucks just outside the shot as a way to say thank you to the doctors on the frontlines.
The mood of the films also reflects the personalities and quarantine locations of the creators. Tamm shot his footage at the rural home he shares with his partner in New Jersey and Fang stayed in New York City with her husband. Tamm’s is light and fun, opening with a “Star Wars” scroll intro; Fang’s is poignant, yet hopeful, leading with a quote from Maurice Bejart and the sounds of an orchestra warming up.
“This quote came up and it was exactly what my piece is about,” she said. “After watching the film, I thought it might be a good way to draw the audience in before the show.” She also added the familiar sounds of an orchestra warming up to the beginning of the film, creating at once a sense of comfort and sadness. “If you go to a theater, you hear the musicians getting ready. In a sense, we’re missing a performance. Even though we’re not on stage, we’re constantly preparing for a performance. When I first watched it, I had tears in my eyes. I didn’t realize how much I missed it. The dancers, the stage, the sounds…it’s very powerful.”
On the light side (“Star Wars” pun intended), Tamm opted to stick with what he knows best: his own life. Self-isolating in New Jersey, he decided to use his real-life schedule as fodder for the film which is a quirky spin-off from the Cortege Rustique section of Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Sylvia.”
“There is a section where we all come out with wheelbarrows and rakes and dance together,” Tamm said. “The film is from my own schedule. I needed to do weeding. The grass needed to be mowed. How would a dancer mow the grass? Wouldn’t it be fun to do it in an arabesque? This is the real life of a dancer in quarantine. And I have this beautiful garden and back yard at my disposal, so why not use it?” The light take, including cameos of Storm Kitty and Daisy Duke (his 2-year-old Labrador), was an immediate directorial choice to bring some positivity to counterbalance the pandemic.
The day we spoke, the ABT dancers had just learned the Metropolitan Opera House, where they perform, cancelled its 2020-2021 season, so we may be seeing even more dance of film in the near future. “I’m a big believer in dance on film. I think there’s a big future for that,” Tamm said. “As a whole, the world needs to explore and push. I look forward to that.”
"Moving Stories: An ABT Film Festival" is presented over two nights, Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 at 6:00pm CST on ABT’s YouTube Channel.