Michaela DePrince, Alvin Ailey, and Bill T. Jones lead three feature-length films highlighting this year’s San Francisco Dance Film Festival, opening Oct. 15. Each fascinates in its own way, offering sunshine and sorrow, poignancy and triumph.
Coppelia, not the story ballet you might imagine, is DePrince’s first full-length movie, although you may have seen her in Beyonce’s Lemonade video. DePrince, a soloist in the Boston Ballet, is Sierra-Leonean/American, adopted from Africa by an American couple. Her story was part of the 2011 dance documentary First Position. Deemed unadoptable at her orphanage because she has a skin condition called vitiligo, treated as a “Devil Child,” she was inspired by a magazine cover of a ballerina and eventually became a fine one, moving from Dance Theater of Harlem to the Dutch National Ballet, whose dancers are featured in this live action and fantasy mashup. It has a simple, sunny charm, its storyline best suited to kids.
Swan, as Swanilde’s name has become, lives with her mother in a little Dutch village — we can tell from the homes, the bicycles and how happy everyone is — where the dancers are pretty uniformly spectacular, legs slicing through the air with knifelike precision, twirling in unison, leaping to great heights (this part feels real, not CGI-animated.) Swan gets a few showcase moments, and they prove how gifted and personable DePrince is.
Each morning, Swan lovingly greets her mom in the kitchen, where she has an orange and toast before leaving for her job. The action comes in candy-colored pastels, seamlessly moving the cast between real objects and an illustrated world — from the village square, with a real kiosk where Swanilde works as a fruit juice and maybe tea barista — dancers, evidently, only drink, never eat — to painted fields of flowers where Swan and her beau, Franz, who has a bike shop, slowly fall in love.
Coppelia the doll (a toon, a toon!) arrives as the anodyne, robotic brainchild of Doctor Coppelius (Vito Mazzei) an evil genius who rolls into town in a menacing limo with darkened windows. Coppelia has a blonde helmet head, hot pink dress with matching shoes and purse, and blue, blue eyes. She’s a Barbie for the ages.
Coppelius sets up a huge dome for his laboratory that blocks the village’s sunlight, staffed by identical robot assistants in white mini dresses and spike heels. He aims to make everyone idealize and mirror Coppelia, through the magic of his technology. He has plans for the village men, too, in fact for everyone, even Swan’s sweet mom, the Mayor (Royal Ballet star Darcey Bussell), and the Butcher (Irek Mukhamedov). Everyone needs to acquire seamless, ripped perfection like a movie star, to use a retro term, and this they do by sitting under a wired helmet into which he pumps nasty computer impulses. Coppelia is armed with a hot-pink atomizer that she sprays in the face anyone who comes near, making them passive, ready to receive their beauty treatments.
If this all sounds like an Instagram/Facebook plot, then the movie’s oft-humorous attack on social media’s pressure toward blind conformity has arrived at a most propitious time. The special effects inside the lab, and the townsfolk’s uprising, will hold the imagination long enough to underscore both the dancing and the delightful mix of tech and art. Choreography by Tes Brandsen to music by Mauricio Malagnani. Directed by Jeff Tudor, Steve de Beul, and Ben Tesseur.
No, you can’t have the ending. But you can guess.
Ailey and Can You Bring It: D-Man in the Waters, complementary though dissimilar documentaries on two of the 20th Century’s most brilliant choreographers, intermingle triumph and tragedy on many levels. As someone who spent years covering the art and consequently moments in the lives of both Alvin Ailey and Bill T. Jones, seeing both films together was wrenching and inspiring.
Ailey looks back, with archival performance footage and contemporary interviews with Ailey and his dancers and successors, perhaps most notably Judith Jamison, who took over the company after his death in 1989, and Robert Battle, the current artistic director.
The film is also a record of choreographer Rennie Harris choreographing the Ailey tribute ballet Lazarus on the company. With its themes of sorrow and transcendence, it’s similar to the focus of the Bill T. Jones film.
Can You Bring It? D-Man in the Waters is as much a story about Arnie Zane, Jones’s partner, who is still is a part of the company’s name — and, as we see here, its DNA. Zane, like Ailey, died of AIDS. I happened to be present in their studio for an interview with Jones the day Zane was diagnosed. Jones canceled.
The title D-Man in the Waters is also a tribute, to dancer Demian Acquavela, lively and flamboyantly his own person throughout his short life, his nickname a tribute to his popularity in the company. He, too, died of AIDS, while Jones was choreographing the piece. As his condition worsened, Jones expanded the work to four movements. Acquavela was too ill to dance, but Jones brought him to the Joyce Theater for the premiere, wrapping him in a blanket, sitting next to him just offstage and urging him on to do the signature, hammering, defiant hand gestures that are a hallmark of the combination of rage, helplessness, even humor, and hope. At the curtain call, Jones carried him onstage, wrapped in that blanket.
Today, Jones is still choreographing, still among the most honored dance makers. He’s created more than 150 works, and the most resonant, the most successful, the most performed among them is D-Man. Set to Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, it’s a story of a community of dancers responding to tragedy, grappling with it, transcending it.
The film’s throughline is the staging of D-Man at Marymount Loyola College Los Angeles’s dance department. The students, led by Rosalynde Le Blanc, a former company member who stages Jones’s works around the world, work to learn the steps as well as to understand, in the year 2016, the world in which D-Man was created.
It’s a challenging work for a professional company, let alone a student group with dancers of varied abilities. The “Can You Bring It” is the challenge that faces any group of artists, but also speaks loudly to the particularity of these times — this pandemic, this shutdown of art.
As they were learning the dance, in 2016, the students, prompted by LeBlanc, talked about the influence of social media, that it has led them to a sense of isolation, indifference, hopelessness. To them, AIDS is ancient history, unknown and still less than openly spoken of by their elders.
As months pass, the dancers are able to do every leap, every lift, every move. But something is missing. Le Blanc speaks to them desperately, angrily, almost in tears. Don’t think that this dance is just about the steps, she says. When you’re onstage, think of the person standing behind you. Feel that person. Look at that dancer across from you not just with your eyes, but with your entire face.
Understand, she says, echoing something Bill T. Jones said in an interview, that you are all part of one community, sharing this tragedy and moving through it. Put that resilience, that strength, that will, into this work, this challenge.
It’s a message both extraordinary films share most compellingly.