Susan Morris | Reviews

Tribeca 2023: Dancing + Music

At the 2023 Tribeca Festival, a group of films focused on dancing, specifically ballet, and on music.  

Then Comes the Body shows self-taught ballet lover Daniel Ajala, who opened the self-funded Leap of Dance Academy in his home outside Lagos, Nigeria with chickens walking around the studio, because he had to.  Lessons are free so there could be no excuse for the students who walk to class, sometimes for hours.  Nigeria is a place and a culture where ballet is foreign: “There is no ballet here in Nigeria. There is no one to look up to. There are no theaters. There are no productions.There are no ballet schools at all. The only thing you have is yourself and the internet,” says Ajala.  When a video of a boy student dancing in the rain barefoot on concrete was posted it went viral. Now, some of the student dancers are getting scholarships to study abroad in the U.S., Britain and Belgium, and donations are coming to the academy.

Tribeca 2023: Dancing + Music
Still from What’s Next?

42-year old Julien Meyzindi says ‘“I’ve been dancing a body for 30 years” having joined the Paris Opera Ballet at age 12 and now must depart. In What’s Next? he dances through the Palais Garnier (1861-1875), the Napoleonic III-style home of the company.  He and his partners play with the building itself, both exterior and interior.  In one scene where his body betrays him, he is lies on the staircase looking up at skylight and we see ornate frescoes on the walls, staircases, carved and painted ceilings, candelabra and marquetry floors.  We are delighted by a round light-filled room with statuary, the “backyard” with a wooden-slatted floor, archways leading to the building and an amphitheater.

Misty Copeland, the first African-American principal dancer at American Ballet Theater is behind Flower, an impressionistic version of her life story. Taking place in Oakland (she grew up in Southern California), the film opens with an astonishing Black male dancer (Babatunji Johnson) on a platform at the water’s edge. A young woman at home with her mother, who seems to have dementia, leaves to walk through her West Oakland neighborhood passing a homeless encampment to arrive at a ground floor dance studio. Through the windows, the girl students inside see the male dancer perform on the sidewalk, entrancing the ballerinas. On another day, he reappears with a colleague to perform again for the girls, this time with an umbrella as a prop. The kids emerge from the studio and dance on the street under the BART elevated tracks. The young woman deals with an eviction notice, and dances with her diminished mother, who used to be a dancer, and they flash back to an earlier time when they were also dancing.  She then partners the male dancer on the street, and they are transported on stage, in costume dancing.

Films about music start with Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music, his chronicle of American history from 1776-2016 with one hour dedicated to each decade with a corresponding costume change designed by Machine Dazzle. A single live performance on October 8-9, 2016 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn captured the marathon with a 24-piece orchestra (one player leaves the stage after each hour) showcasing “counter cultural history, off-the-wall interpretations of America's most recognizable tunes, ping pong warfare, giant inflatable penises making love and war to David Bowie's ‘Heroes,’ shameless gay melodrama, and of course, MacArthur Fellowship (genius) winner Taylor Mac” singing and hosting. Next best thing to having been there.

Also embodying our national history is Anthem, the attempt to create a new national anthem that is more reflective of our diverse population than The Star Spangled Banner (1814) and certainly not set to an English folk tune.  Composer and pianist Kris Bowers and producer Dahi travel across the U.S. to Detroit, Clarksdale, Nashville, New Orleans, Tulsa and San Francisco for musical and cultural inspiration, yielding their offering for a new national anthem.

Uncharted is “She is the Music” songwriting camp spearheaded by Alicia Keys.  It is as much about marketing as about music. Some of the performers are quite talented while others are blindly ambitions. The attempt is to give opportunity to young Black and Brown women to produce a hit song.  Ayoni from Barbados, DaVionne from Atlanta and Chicago-born Jean Deaux are the main protagonists.  

Also trying to make it is Michael (Elijah Reid), who is just breaking into the jazz scene in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with a group that has been offered to tour in Melody of Love. But his mother in Brussels, wants him to come back to Europe and he is torn, not wanting to return to a white-focused society. He reluctantly obeys, feeling he cannot refuse his mother, but struggles with the displacement, knowing it will curb his musicianship and his dream.  

Tribeca 2023: Dancing + Music
Still from Milli Vanilli

The story of disgraced duo Milli Vanilli who lip synced their songs but looked the part of rock superstars is revealed to be as much about their producer, Frank Farian, who orchestrated the scheme (which he also did before and since with other artists), with no consequences. Even Clive Davis and Arista Records, who signed the act, claimed not to have known although it is demonstrated that this is hard to believe. It is a tale of the commodification of artists and their art.  

Tribeca 2023: Dancing + Music
Still from Gloria Gaynor

Another behind-the-scenes look at the music business is Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive, whose disco anthem of the same name tells her story of the machinations of the music business, the abuse and mismanagement she suffered, and her road back.  

Waitress, the Musical — Live on Broadway! is a Broadway performance written by and starring Sara Bareilles. A small town waitress/pie-maker dreams of escaping her small-town life as she finds herself pregnant.  

Lizzo’s energetic music video Special showcases empowerment, body positivity, and her own brand of individuality.

Tribeca 2023: Dancing + Music
Still from Maestra

Maestra follows five women from France, Germany, U.S., Greece and Poland competing in the only all-women competition for orchestra conductors. It was co-founded in 2019 by French conductor Claire Gibault and is held in Paris biannually. A notoriously sexist profession, the women not only do battle with music, but also sexism, discrimination and gender expectations.

Films Mentioned
Then Comes the Body, Director Jacob Krupnick
What’s Next?, Director Cécile Rogue
Flower, Director Lauren Finerman
Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music, Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Anthem, Director Peter Nicks
Uncharted, Director Beth Aala
Melody of Love, Director Edmundo Bejarano
Milli Vanilli, Director Luke Korem
Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive, Director Betsy Schechter
Waitress, the Musical - Live on Broadway!, Director Brett Sullivan
Special, Director Christian Breslauer
Maestra, Director Maggie Contreras

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

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