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Dueling for the dance

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

Filmmaker Mirra Bank came away from her extended encounter with Maurice Sendak with a critical lesson about the creative process: “Any art worth making does not come out of politeness,” said Bank. “It comes out of this ferocious, uncompromising commitment to the passion that drives a work. You can’t make a great work and be polite.”Bank’s education came over the course of filming “Last Dance,” a verit documentary about the collaboration between Sendak’s Night Kitchen theater company, and Pilobolus Dance Theater, between 1999 and 2001. “Last Dance,” which had its premiere last year at the New York Jewish Film Festival at Lincoln Center, will be screened by Aspen Filmfest on Wednesday, Aug. 13, at the Aspen District Theatre, in partnership with the Aspen Dance Festival. The screening will be followed by a question-and-answer session with Bank; Vic Losick, a co-producer and director of photography for the film; and members of Pilobolus, who will be in town performing in the Aspen Dance Festival.Social niceties are completely put aside as Sendak and the Pilobolus company collide as they atempt to create a dance whose only parameters are that it be Holocaust-related. As “Last Dance” begins, a collision seems unavoidable; about all the two camps have in common is a Connecticut address. Sendak, the author, illustrator, set designer – and, perhaps above all, storyteller, best known for the children’s classic “Where the Wild Things Are” – is accustomed to concrete, illustrative modes of expression. Pilobolus, over the course of its 30 years, has become known for a more abstract way of communicating. Sendak makes clear early on – in a powerful recitation that is one of the high points of “Last Dance” – that his work will always and forever be influenced by his experience as an American Jew who nonetheless “survived” the Holocaust. Pilobolus’ work, on the other hand, is frequently humorous and playful. The idea Sendak brings to the table is a dance based on “Brundibar” – an opera the Nazis made Jewish children perform in the Terezin concentration camp to demonstrate for the outside world the healthy environment they had created. Though the Pilobolus artistic directors are open to the idea, it is clear that there is an immense artistic gap to be bridged. It doesn’t help that Sendak is forcefully autocratic, or that Pilobolus artistic director Jonathan Wolken is given to sullen fits in response to Sendak’s style. It also doesn’t help that the work with Sendak marks the most intensive collaboration Pilobolus has endeavored to attempt. There seems to be so little common ground that one suspects the film will end with no dance ever being created.”From day one, it was a very charged experience,” said Bank, a New Yorker with her hands in documentary and narrative filmmaking, as well as theater direction. “Everyone was fueled by the possibilities, and the possibility for disaster.”The palpable tension was a double-edged sword for Bank. Bank, who had worked previously with Pilobolus on the performance video “Monkey & the Bone Demon,” was rooting for a successful piece of choreography. But the filmmaker in Bank understood that spontaneous cursing, hissy fits, head-butting and artistic frustration make for good drama.”On the one hand, as a filmmaker you love trouble. The clear passion, ferocious wills and imaginations of these people – it’s very rich on film,” she said. “On the other hand, I was doing what I could to prevent the piece from falling apart. I didn’t think I was the deciding factor in whether the dance got done. But it was not at all unusual for the people working on the dance to ask us, well, what do you think? It became almost a three-way working process. We were a way for ideas and conflict and energy to run through a third leg of the triangle.”Though the outcome seems very much in doubt even well into the film, Sendak and the Pilobolus directors and dancers plow through their differences to create a dance. When everyone actually comes to a mutually satisfying decision on a title for the dance – “A Selection,” a reference to how Nazi victims were chosen either to be killed or to be allowed to live another day – it is a comically triumphant moment. Apart from the clash of artistic sensibilities, “Last Dance” succeeds on how stripped of pretense all participants appear. No one seems to hold back on anger, even finger-pointing. And Bank captures it all dispassionately, allowing the film to portray the roller-coaster ride of an artistic collaboration. “My purpose was neither to savage or betray or idealize what happened,” said Bank, who was even given the rare opportunity to film the performance of “A Selection” at New York’s Joyce Theater. For all the confrontations and bare emotions, “Last Dance” wouldn’t work without a compelling personality like Sendak. As dapper, intense and articulate as he is tenacious, Sendak comes off like a movie star. And there is the incredible talent: A turning point in the film comes when Sendak reveals his sketches for “A Selection” to the Pilobolus dancers. The genius of the drawings lightens the mood, and gives the participants reason to believe that a worthy work will be created.”He’s pure gold as a film character,” said Bank of Sendak. “But what comes across as a surprise is how unmediated and uncensored he is as a creative person. The moment I met him, I felt like I’d known him all my life.”But while “Last Dance” reveals Sendak, and traces an artistic relationship from shaky beginnings to a rewarding conclusion, the film is finally about the creative process. The constant question posed is, what level of trust and determination are required, what level of frustration must be endured for the sake of art. Like “Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time,” another recent documentary screened by Aspen Filmfest, “Last Dance” goes to the depths to examine the issues.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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