Prima ballerina Anna Pavlova once told an interviewer that someday she wanted to present a ballet without music because she thought viewers could call forth their own inner melodies. Independent filmmaker Adam Stone puts Pavlova’s theory to the test in Janet: A Silent Ballet Film.
Written, directed and produced by Adam Stone, and choreographed by Atlanta Ballet company member Tara Lee, Janet is be featured on MOVING IMAGES FORWARD, the online film festival channel of the 2014 International Black Women’s Film Festival. The event, with a viewing fee of $5.99 for the month, will run through December 14, with the festival channel streaming worldwide for subscribers until December 28.
Last month, its premiere at the 13th annual Urban Mediamakers Film Festival in Norcross was shown in complete silence — a questionable choice that led to a delightful discovery.
The 20-minute short film honors the legacy of Janet Collins, the first African American ballet dancer to become a full-time member of a major American ballet company. Collins broke the color barrier in American ballet when she joined the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in 1951.
Janet also interprets and brings to life four paintings by Edgar Degas, offering multiple perspectives on the painter’s 19th-century ballet world. These viewpoints shift between Degas’ Paris Opera Ballet paintings and the present day, allowing the viewer to consider what aspects of the classical dance form remain generative, and what strictures may be halting its progress.
The basis for showing Janet without sound reflects Stone’s notion that “members of non-dominant cultures have historically been silenced” in the ballet world. It’s an interesting rationale, but the silence makes for tedious viewing. It seems to flatten the dancing image, to a stifling effect. Rather than comment on a historic trend, the film seems to silence itself.
Stone aimed to align the film with painting and photography, both of which are prominent in the film. In these visual art worlds, a successful work conveys meaning without sound and through image alone. To this end, Stone succeeded. Combined with Lee’s choreography, Jason Greene’s cinematography picks up Degas’ tight, off-center perspectives. Human figures appear warm and radiant against dark backgrounds. Various frames — windows, doorways and prosceniums — become portals into imagined pasts.
The film also offers a window on Lee’s multidimensional talents and brings into focus the gifts of Kiara Felder, a first-year dancer with Atlanta Ballet.
Viewing the film online, it’s possible to add music; several piano pieces by Chopin and Liszt, for instance, blended beautifully, sometimes magically, with Lee’s choreography. Her work is imaginative and historically grounded, while fresh, spontaneous and varied; with music, it holds up to one revelatory viewing after another. Key gestures, such as an arm reaching upward, then slowly drawn down, and the criss-crossing of arms, seem to call and respond to one another across the film’s span.
Degas’ Self-Portrait Saluting transforms into a living Degas, Will Heisner in gentleman’s period dress, moving about on a grassy hillside with Felder in the foreground. Her free-flowing runs, leaps and falls are in dramatic contrast to Heisner’s stylized gestures, setting up tension between freedom and discipline.
Felder and Nayomi Van Brunt, a former Atlanta Ballet company member, sneak into a dark theater where a scene based on Degas’ The Dance Lesson unfolds. A female dancer in white satin and tulle practices at the barre before a seated man, presumably her accompanist and ballet master. Abi Tan-Gamino (a former member of Atlanta Ballet) and Heath Gill (a current member of the troupe) bring a gentle dramatic power to the scene — his corrections to her technique grow aggressive; Tan-Gamino becomes the captive swan.
Felder and Van Brunt are later transported into Two Dancers on a Stage. They mock the previous scene, whirling and interweaving in a playful duet that rides on its own lilting momentum.
Blue Dancers introduces a group of five young women who exclude Felder with cold stares. This speaks, perhaps, to the social isolation Collins may have felt in her time while suggesting such cruelty still exists. Even more troubling, Heisner looks on with detached approval as the four girls bully Felder.
DeSande R appears as a link between painting scenarios, an objective but compassionate observer. Unseen, she leaves a photo of Collins for Felder to find. It is as if Collins, softly clad in romantic costume, arms gently crossed in front of the body, gives Felder her deepest inspiration.
Felder is a lovely leading dancer with a soft, sensitive demeanor; a taut muscular strength in the legs; and a broad, sweeping openness in her arms and upper body. In her final, triumphant solo, these qualities evoke Anna Pavlova, the early 20th-century Russian ballerina.
Though unintended, a silent viewing of Janet confirmed that a moving image becomes more vivid, palpable and emotionally expressive when set to music. Online viewing gives fans the freedom make their own playlist, and change it often, to reveal nuances of Janet still waiting to be brought into view.