Saturday, January 24, 2015

Five Takes on Five Dances

Recently my friend Raul and I watched Five Dances, a 2013 film written and directed by Alan Brown.

Featuring dancers Ryan Steele, Reed Luplau, Catherine Miller, Kimiye Corwin, and Luke Murphy, Five Dancers tells the story of Chip, a young, impressionable and somewhat troubled dancer from Kansas, and his first foray into the contemporary dance world of New York City.

Following is the description of Five Dances from the film's official website.

The classic tale of finding success and romance in the big city is given a contemporary, and unconventional, spin in Alan Brown's new film, Five Dances. Collaborating with internationally renowned choreographer Jonah Bokaer, writer-director Brown has taken five gifted New York dancers, and fashioned a story about Chip (Ryan Steele in his first film role), an extraordinarily talented 18 year-old recently arrived from Kansas who joins a small downtown modern dance company. In his first weeks of rehearsal, Chip is initiated into the rites of passage of a New York dancer's life, where discipline and endless hard work, camaraderie and competitiveness, the fear of not being good enough, and the joy of getting it just right, inform every minute of every day.

Shooting in and around a Soho dance studio, Brown and his longtime cinematographer Derek McKane capture the exhilaration and emotional turmoil of a small dance company, and all of Chip's poignant firsts—the forging of friendships, being chosen for the important solo, his first ever love affair—with the intimacy and immediacy of a documentary. The result, Five Dances, is Brown’s most dynamic film.

So here's my take on Five Dances: Overall, I definitely appreciated and enjoyed it – especially its beautifully filmed dance sequences.

My sole disappointment with the film is its poorly written dialogue, a shortcoming that no doubt accounts for the wooden acting of the cast, with the exception of Catherine Miller (right). She really stands out in the acting department as her performance is the most nuanced. Because of this, her character, Katie, is the one that I think viewers would relate to most; she certainly comes across as the most grounded, aware and proactive of the five characters.

At one point I thought I'd like to watch the film again with the sound turned off. That way I could skip the clunky dialogue and just focus on the sublime dancing. But then I realized I'd miss the film's beautiful score composed by Nicholas Wright.

But enough of what I think of the film. Following are four takes on Five Dances written by professional film reviewers.

The hard work and copious sweat that go into rehearsing a new dance piece is captured with visceral effect in Alan Brown's sensitive drama set mostly within the confines of a Soho dance studio. Centering on a newly arrived 18-year-old Kansas innocent who discovers love, friendship and an awareness of his physical gifts, Five Dances should well impress dance aficionados even if its skimpy narrative proves less than inspired. . . . The film is more notable for the impressively filmed and edited dance sequences which also effectively convey the interpersonal dynamics within the group.

The title refers to a series of dance sequences (choreographed by Jonah Bokaer) being rehearsed in the small studio by five dancers, including Chip (Ryan Steele), whose withdrawn, taciturn demeanor hints at an inner turmoil that is occasionally revealed in anguished phone conversations with his mother who begs him to come home.

Having arrived in the big city via a scholarship, Chip is so broke that he secretly spends his nights sleeping at the studio. That is, until a female fellow dancer (Catherine Miller) takes pity on him and invites him to spend a few days in her apartment.

Chip’s sexuality is hinted at by his not coming on to his lissome roommate. When a male dancer, Theo (Reed Luplau), not so subtly reveals his romantic interest, Chip reacts with overt hostility. But eventually his barriers are broken down and the two embark on a torrid affair.

That’s about it in terms of the film’s storyline, except for such minor subplots as a married female dancer’s affair with the dance company’s captain coming to light in an ugly exchange. The film is more notable for the impressively filmed and edited dance sequences which also effectively convey the interpersonal dynamics within the group.

Despite such attempts to provide depth to Chip as having him occasionally demonstrate his comical gift for ventriloquism, the character largely remains a cipher. The feeling is only accentuated by Steele’s repressive performance which is not nearly as impressive as his athletic dancing. But then again, that’s appropriate for this film in which the characters express themselves far more vividly with their bodies than words.

Frank Scheck
The Hollywood Reporter
October 7, 2013

An extraordinary dancer, Ryan Steele, dominates Five Dances, the camera pivoting on his every sinewy stretch and turn. Almost all of writer-director Alan Brown's latest feature transpires in a Soho studio where a small troupe is rehearsing five pieces choreographed by Jonah Bokaer. But rather than adapting the pieces to conform to his paper-thin narrative, Brown explores the tensions and contortions of dancers expressing fresh emotion through a pre-existing art form. The result avoids docu-style randomness while furthering only the most rudimentary story and character points, allowing the dance to speak largely, and magnificently, for itself.

Much as they did with Shakespeare’s text in their similarly gay-themed Private Romeo, Brown and longtime cinematographer Derek McKane trace complex configurations of confusion and desire in a densely resistant art medium. Steele is cast as Chip, a kid fresh from Kansas whose dancing talent is as immediately obvious as his naivete. Broke, he secretly sleeps in the studio until invited by fellow dancer Katie (Catherine Miller) to crash at her place. Tearfully threatening phone calls from his gin-soaked mother, whom he must constantly placate lest she follow him to New York, represent bridges yet unburned.

To a great extent, Chip’s baby-chick quality encourages the other dancers’ protectiveness and mitigates the jealousy they might otherwise have felt toward his superior talent, which quickly earns him an important solo. When Theo (Reed Luplau), another dancer in the two-woman/three-man troupe, makes a sexual overture, Chip instinctively shies away, angry and defensive, only to come back, apologize and melt in his arms. Unsurprisingly, the sex scenes are shot with the grace and complexity of a choreographed dance, the movements of the intertwined bodies confined to a much smaller space, the leaps, lifts and twists internalized.

The five dances of the title are surprisingly short. Oddly, Brown makes little distinction between parts and wholes, and the broken-down individual moves prove just as compelling as their final configuration in the choreography, sometimes even more so. The sensual movement of bodies through space creates a visual language whose infinite variations seduce and fascinate over the course of the film’s numerous rehearsals. The clean, open spaces of the loft-cum-dance studio lend the entire film a clarity echoed in all aspects of the staging and production, from the costumes to the amiable camaraderie of the troupe.

Ronnie Scheib
November 12, 2013

Five people rehearsing in an otherwise vacant dance studio: That pitch may not appeal to everyone, but fans of the movement arts and ensemble acting will appreciate the possibilities.

Yet few of those possibilities are explored with any depth in Five Dances, a promising though static new film that never leaves its taciturn shadows for a single emotionally gripping moment.

Ryan Steele plays a newcomer joining the cast of a dance work choreographed by Anthony (Luke Murphy) in the fiction, Jonah Bokaer in reality. The dances are arresting, moving from a cold angularity to more fluid partnering; they are captured by an unobtrusive camera and are easily the film’s strength.

Mr. Steele has a truthful restraint as the quiet new guy, Chip, but his story is never dynamic, and his fellow players are either too tangential or too nakedly used as props. (Moments of the film approach soft-core pornography.) The few narrative turns feel contrived, and the cast is never allowed to jell like a company.

Five Dances, written and directed by Alan Brown, does provide unusually luxurious quiet, punctuated by squeaks and thuds of feet on the floor in the dancers’ stop-and-start rehearsals. There’s an interesting vibe there, but it’s not enough to save what seems like a failed experiment.

David DeWitt
New York Times
October 3, 2013

Five Dances might be the least talky movie I've seen in months — but it's plenty expressive. What it says, it says silently, or at least non-verbally, in the music-and-movement language of Jonah Bokaer's haunting choreography, which speaks of solitary strivings and the brief, passionate connections that punctuate them.

In fact, the quiet appeal of Alan Brown's sensually photographed film (Derek McKane is the cinematographer) is in the way it extends that vocabulary into its non-dance scenes; it's a gentle, if slight, narrative full of fraught looks and knowing silences — which, frankly, might grow tiresome in another context — that communicate mood and character as clearly and lyrically as a fine dance piece.

. . . This isn't a breakthrough film for anyone, I don't think. What it is: a lovingly shot valentine to work and body and art, and a generous, ultimately happy little story of a lost boy finding a community and a kindred soul.

Trey Graham
October 4, 2013

Related Off-site Link:
Making Love: An Interview with Gay Filmmaker Alan Brown – Gary M. Kramer (Gay City News, October 2, 2013).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Dancer and the Dance
The Art of Dancing as the Supreme Symbol of the Spiritual Life
The Premise of All Forms of Dance
The Soul of a Dancer
The Church and Dance
The Naked Truth . . . in Dance and in Life
Carlos Acosta Recalls the "Clarion Call" of His Vocation in Dance
Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage
Gay Men and Modern Dance

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