Performing arts

The Tempest (UK 1908), based on Shakespeare’s play, directed by Percy Stow

Apologies for the intermittent service, folks – it’s been a bit busy, and the Bioscope has been rather set to one side, gathering dust. But we return with news of a new online catalogue from the British Film Institute, which is some interest to us. The catalogue is The Performing Arts on Film & Television, which is available as part of the BFI website or can be downloaded as a single PDF (7MB). It’s a selective catalogue around 3,500 film and video materials, dating from 1895 to the present, held by the archives and collections of the BFI, Arts Council England, LUX, and the Central St Martins British Artists Film & Video Study Collection. It has been commissioned by MI:LL (Moving Image: Legacy and Learning), an Arts Council England initiative “to support projects and develop strategies that promote engagement with the arts through the moving image”.

So, what does this well-meaning venture give us? It is divided up into seven areas: British Music Hall and Variety on Film 1895-1930, Theatre, Dance, Music, Performance Art and Artists’ Film & Video, From Politics to Poetry, and Cinema Acting Styles. As said, it’s a selective catalogue, so it provides information titles that are likely to be of strong interest of researchers. Some areas are covered in more detail than others (it’s hard to see what value there is in the tokenstic choices given under Political Oratory or Propaganda, which is rather stretching the idea of ‘performing arts’ in any case). But one of the sections that aims for comprehensiveness is British Music Hall and Variety on Film 1895-1930, and that’s our territory, which is good.

The section has been researched by the BFI National Archive’s curator of silent films, Bryony Dixon. It aims to identify most relevant films for the 1895-1930 period held by the BFI that document music hall, which it divides into Records of performances and actualities, Original works made for cinema featuring music hall artistes, and Films based on music hall sketches and plays. So many of these films record the only performance by some of the legendary performers of the past, or document aspects of stage practice which can be read about in many places but never seen again – except through film.

Fred Evans (Pimple) in an unidentified British comedy known as Fat Man on a Bicycle

So, for example we have E. Williams and his Merry Men (1899), a precious record of a seaside minstrel act; Lil Hawthorne singing Kitty Mahone in a 1900 synchronised sound film (1900); an extraordinary record of Hengler’s ‘plunging horses’ in a hippodrome act, c.1902, in a film known only as [Collapsing Bridge]; several Cinematophone, Chronophone and Vivaphone films of singers 1907-1909 which were originally synchronised with sound discs; music hall comedians such as Fred Evans (Pimple), Sam T. Poluski, George Robey and Lupino Lane in original comedies made for the cinema, rare film of the exterior of a music hall made in 1920, in the film Hoxton … Saturday July 3, Britannia Theatre; and numerous examples of DeForest Phonofilms – sound-on-film shorts made in the mid to late 1920s, chiefly of music hall and variety performers.

Other parts of the catalogue are more selective, and have relatively little on silent films. The Theatre section does point us to silent interpretations of classical theatre (an Italian Elektra by Euripedes from 1909, a 1911 Antigone by Sophocles), but the Shakespeare section is disappointingly selective and conventional. It mentions few silents, despite the BFI having the world’s largest collection of silent Shakespeare films. Look instead at the sub-section on 17th to 19th Century playwrights for such surprises as the Thanhouser company tackling Ibsen’s The Pillars of Society in 1911, or the 1915 American production of Ghosts with Henry B. Walthall. The Cinema Acting Styles section has a page on early and silent cinema, but it is peculiarly slender (just Orphans of the Storm, King of Kings, Piccadilly and a couple of documentaries – why bother?).

The catalogue is arranged thematically, so you will find silents dotted about all over the place, which is a good thing. It means researchers look for a theme, a performer or a writer might stumble across works which they could otherwise shun were they presented with a plain chronological listing. All of the archival films come from the BFI’s collections, and there is information on how to access the films from the multiplicity of options that BFI services provide.

I have meant for some while now to write a post on how to use the BFI’s main online database. I’ve refrained from doing so because of planned changes to that catalogue, which might render any advice too quickly out of date. But we’ll see. Meanwhile, targeted productions such as The Performing Arts on Film & Television are often a lot more useful for researchers for a useful selection rather than the bewildering vastness of a complete catalogue. Researchers seldom want everything; they want something that will be immediately useful to them. I hope this new catalogue – though it’s a bit of a curate’s egg, really – performs that function. It certainly makes for fascinating browsing.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 11

The Ballet Russes at the Fêtes de Narcisses, Montreux in 1928, from British Pathé

Can we make the Bioscope Newsreel a weekly occurrence, say every Friday? We’ll have a go.

Ballet Russes on film
Jane Pritchard, co-curator of the Victorian & Albert Museum’s recent exhibition ‘Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929′ writes of the amazing discovery of the first known film of the Ballet Russes lurking in the British Pathé archive. Read more.

50 years of film studies
The Guardian film blog celebrates fifty years of film studies as an academic discipline. The pioneer lecturer was Thorold Dickinson (himself a filmaker of renown); the location was University College London; the pupils included Gavin Millar, Charles Barr, Raymond Durgnat and Lutz Becker. Read more.

Modern elephant taxidermy
Rich Remsberg unearths an extraordinary 1927 film from the American Museum of Natural History that shows you how to stuff an elephant. The taxidermist in question is the multi-talented Carl Akeley, also famed as a motion picture cameraman and inventor – the Akeley camera, with its gyroscopic head, was much used by wildlife filmmakers and newsreels. Read more.

Music for silents
An interesting interview with Ken Winokur of renowned silent film accompanists the Alloy Orchestra raises the issue of venues which insist on showing silent films silently, because André Bazin pronounced that any music accompaniment was mere nostalgia. Go to the Cinémathèque Française to watch your silents to the accompaniment of coughs and the occasional rumbling stomach, and I think most will vote for ‘nostalgia’. Read more.

Farewell to the Silent Movie Blog
For the past couple of years Christopher Snowden’s Silent Movie Blog has provided witty, well-researched and strikingly illustrated accounts of American silent film history. Sadly it is being closed down, and it is not clear whether the archive will remain online (all posts before July 2010 have been removed already). Read more.

And finally
The Bioscope is four years old today. Here’s the link to post number one – a single pithy sentence.

‘Til next time!

The ballet and the film

Lydia Lopokova dancing alongside herself in ‘Dancing Grace’ from Eve’s Film Review no. 592, issued 6 October 1932 (but probably originally released 1922)

Thanks to an item on The Guardian film blog I have been led to this extraordinary film on the British Pathe website. Entitled ‘Dancing Grace‘, the film shows a ballerina – unidentified on the film, but now known to be Lydia Lopokova – dancing before the camera against a black background. What makes the film so remarkable is the use of slow motion and double exposure techniques to show Lopokova effectively dancing with herself. It is an uncanny foreshadowing of Norman McLaren’s classic dance film Pas de Deux (1968), with its multiple exposures of dancers creating images of extraordinary grace and beauty, only four decades earlier.

In its technique and imagination I can’t think of any film from the silent era that matches it, brief as it is. Who filmed it? The film was just one item among five in an issue of the cinemagazine Eve’s Film Review, which Pathé produced chiefly for women audiences. Much of Eve’s Film Review was shot by newsreel stalwart Ken Gordon, though nothing else in his long career points to artistry such as this.

Norman McLaren’s Pas de Deux, from The National Film Board of Canada

And why was it filmed? The Guardian tells the engrossing story of how Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes were in London at the end of 1921 and performing at the Alhambra in Leicester Square, where Lopokova appeared in Tchaikovsky’s ballet, ‘The Sleeping Princess’, based on the Sleeping Beauty story. The conductor of the piece, Eugene Goossens, was also conducting at the Royal Opera House, which had been hired out by American film impresario Walter Wanger for the British premiere of The Three Musketeers, starring Douglas Fairbanks. Diaghilev was intrigued by how well Goossens matched music to film, and proposed a film of ‘The Sleeping Princess’ to Wanger, ideally to be filmed in colour, the same as another film Wanger had put on at the Opera House, J. Stuart Blackton’s The Glorious Adventure, filmed in Prizmacolor and starring Lady Diana Manners. According to an article in Dance Research by Lynn Garafola, the painters Augustus John and S.H. Sime were to be involved with the sets. Given Diaghilev’s well-documented distaste for popular culture and his refusal to allow the Ballet Russes to be filmed, it would have been a remarkable change of heart – and, one would like to hope, a film of some considerable beauty.

One-second frame sequences from ‘Dancing Grace’ with Lydia Lopokova

Sadly the colour film of the Ballet Russes was not to be. ‘The Sleeping Princess’ was not a success at the Alhambra and the theatre’s owner Oswald Stoll replaced it with a Norma Talmadge film, while the debt-ridden Diaghilev and his company slunk away to Paris. The Guardian piece then relates how later in 1922 Wanger hired Lopokova and Léonide Massine to dance Stravinsky’s Ragtime as part of a programme at Covent Garden which included Wesley Ruggles’ film Love, starring Louise Glaum.

All of this is illuminating illustration of how film could be mixed up with the other arts, and the growing interest that film had for British high society. Half of the young upper class of London appeared in crowd scenes for The Glorious Adventure, while Lopokova and her economist husband John Maynard Keynes – first attracted to her when he saw ‘The Sleeping Princess’ – were very much a part of the Bloomsbury set (alongside Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant et al.), well-born, intellectual experimenters in the arts and in ways of living, a number of whom were attracted to the cinema (Virginia Woolf wrote a notable essay ‘The Cinema’, while Keynes was a member of the Film Society, which brought Soviet film classics to Britain for the first time).

There is some confusion over the date of the film. One version of it is held by the BFI National Archive, under the title Eve’s Film Review: Dancing Graces: Studies of Madame Lopokova, dating it as 1922. It is this version which currently features in an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929. However the British Pathe version bears the Eve’s Film Review issue number 592, which the BUFVC’s News on Screen database says dates it as 6 October 1932. Presumably the film was first made in 1922 and then re-used by Pathé ten years later. There is some overlap between the two, but mostly the 1932 version is a continuation of 1922 – but no longer mentions Lopokova’s name. Meanwhile, she enjoyed a further foray into film, when she appeared alongside George Balanchine and Anton Dolin in a ballet sequence for the early British sound film, Dark Red Roses (1929). Clearly Lopokova (and Keynes) had a lasting interest in film, and the worlds of ballet and film were not seen as being completely apart.

This is demonstrated in a famous essay by Anthony Asquith, ‘Ballet and the Film’, published in Caryl Brahms’ Footnotes to the Ballet (1936). Asquith directed two sound films with prominent ballet sequences, Dance Pretty Lady (1932) and The Young Lovers (1954), but his essay mostly concerns the silent film and its relationship with dance. He notes the basic similarity between the two in their most basic form, but argues that

the mime in the earliest films corresponded in function if not in style to that of the more decadent classical ballets.

For Asquith, just as advances in ballet moved the dance from mere display to expression of mood or a character’s state of mind, so the film developed from crude histrionics to greater subtely of expression through the innovation of the close-up and the discovery by D.W. Griffith of a style of mime ‘that bore to life something of the relation that verse or poetical prose bears to ordinary speech’. He follows this interiorisation of style through to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, a film entirely of the mind since it all takes place inside the head of a madman. At the same time he traces a trend towards greater naturalism in ballets, so that the two art forms, coming from different directions, more or less meet at a point in the 1920s when a ballet film could most profitably be imagined. However, Asquith has his doubts about the silent ballet film:

[F]ilm and ballet have another common element – rhythm. And from the rhythmic point of view the ballet is far more like the sound film than the silent. In a silent film there are two kinds of movement: the movement of people or objects within the limits of a shot, i.e. in a given strip of film photographed without a break, and the movement expressed by the realisation of one shot to another, just as in music there is the rhythmical relation of notes to each other within the limits of a phrase and there is the rhythmical relation of phrase to phrase.

Asquith therefore compares the rhythm of silent film to the rhythm of music, arguing that in each case just the one sense is affected, through the eyes or through the ears respectively. But he then argues that the rhythm of ballet is not one or the other, but ‘the relation of each to each’.

All of which is a somewhat theoretical way of arguing that he wanted his ballet films to have a soundtrack. But ‘Dancing Grace’, even though it runs for no more than a minute and a half, points to a kind of ballet film that the silent film could have made its own. It gets inside the mind of the ballet, revealing its inner workings and not just its outward show.

An earlier Bioscope post has traced something of the history of dance and silent film. Intriguingly it includes another Douglas Fairbanks connection, as one of the three extant silent films of Anna Pavlova is a short fragment showing her dancing ‘Columbine’ on the set of Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929 runs at the V&A until 9 January 2011 and features the Lopokova ‘Dancing Grace’ film. There is an exhibition blog post which talks about the two versions of the film.

Finally, the BUFVC’s News on Screen database lists another film from 1922, now lost, from the Around the Town cinemagazine, with the description ‘Lopokova in an improptu dance “Inspired by the Sun” on ultra-rapid camera’. Around the Town was made by Gaumont, not Pathé, so did Lopokova make two slow motion ballet films (i.e. requiring an ultra-rapid camera) in 1922? Intriguing.

Pordenone diary 2008 – day seven

Alexander Shiryaev (1867-1941) is not a name that you will find in any film history. He was a member of the Russian Imperial Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, a protégé of the great choreographer Marius Petipa, a character dancer of great skill (he was too small for the classic leading roles), and a gifted ballet teacher.

It was his teaching that seems to have led Shiryaev to film. Fascinated with human movement and the notation of ballet, Shiryaev began producing sequential drawings of dance steps that documented the minutiae of such movements, work that was inherently cinematic in construction. Shiryaev must have seen the connection, because in 1904 he applied to the theatre management to let him purchase a motion picture camera and film to record the dancers of the ballet. He was turned down – no films were allowed to be made of the dancers of the Imperial Ballet. Undaunted, Shiryaev purchased a camera anyway – a 17.5mm Biokam acquired in London, to be followed by an Ernemann Kino, also employing 17.5mm film. At some point he also had used of a 35mm camera.

Shiryaev took to filming as one who instinctively knew what the medium could do. He understood the camera as he understood dance. Between 1906 and 1909, Shiryaev produced an astonishing body of work – live records of dances, home movies, comedies, trick films, animations and puppet films. None of these was seen in public. They might have disappeared from history entirely, had they not first been narrowly saved from destruction in the 1960s by a friend of Shiryaev’s, Daniil Saveliev, and then discovered again in 1995 by filmmaker Victor Bocharov, who has been their custodian ever since. Bocharov produced a documentary on the collection in 2003, Zapazdavshaya Premiera (Belated Premiere), but the screenings at Pordenone were the true public premiere for the majority of these films, many of which came fresh from the specialist labs of PresTech in London.

The Shiryaev films were shown over a number of days, the programmes including A Belated Premiere and films related to his world, such as Anna Pavlova dancing. But the main programme came on Friday 10 October, and divided up his ouevre into four categories.

Dance films
These were films of Shiryaev and his dancer wife Natalia Matveeva dancing on a sunlit stage at their Ukraine home. As the only films of the Russian ballet greats at this time, they have plain historical value, but they are also a visual delight. The two dance singly or together in a selection of folk-based dances, performed with sparkling zest, and each ending delightfully with the dancer leaving the stage then returning for a bow. The most dazzling are those on 35mm, particularly Shiryaev’s party piece, ‘Fool’s Dance’ from Petipa’s Mlada.

Trick films
Shiryaev was evidently a film-goer himself, and decided to emulate some of the trick films common in the mid-1900s. All were again filmed at his summer home, in the open air. One film where a giant spider came down and settled on a sleeping man was clearly inspired by Georges Méliès’ Une nuit terrible. Another, given the title [Chairs], anticipated Norman McLaren’s Neighbours by some fifty years, with its stop-animation of humans seated on chairs and swapping positions.

Earlier in the week we had seen numerous fleeting home movies of Shiryaev and family (they are some of the earliest surviving home movies anywhere) and various staged comedies made by the family. The marvellous thing to behold was how the boundaries between home movies, comedies and then trick films blurred, all created in the same spirit of joyous performance. The family’s whole lives seemed to be some form of dance.

Paper films
For me, Shiryaev’s paper ‘films’ were his greatest achievement. Before he had a camera (or so it is assumed), he produced animations on paper (45mm wide) which have now been reconstituted on film. One such film with delicate line showed birds in flight, the observant results of which the festival catalogue rightly pointed out connected his quest for reconstituted movement with that of the chronophotographers Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey. But finest I think was [Cakewalk], a trio of dancers in exquisite, gently swaying unison. Only a minute or so long, but I have never seen a finer piece of animation.

Shiryaev’s puppet animation P’ero-Khudozhniki (Artist Pierrots), from http://www.watershed.co.uk

Puppet films
For David Robinson, the festival’s director and a most enthusiastic advocate of Shiryaev’s work, the stop-frame puppet films he made were his greatest achievement. They were certainly the most astonishing. Years ahead of animation elsewhere in the world (and two or three years ahead of Starewitch), these films used puppet figures in a theatre set to recreate, in meticulous detail, actual ballet dancers. Some of the effects – such a water or paint being thrown, or balls being tossed in the air – were astonishingly accomplished, and simply the co-ordination of several puppets all dancing at the same time would have required prodigious patience and skill. One of the films indeed revealed the animator’s hands to the edge of the frame, moving manically into a mysterious blur.

The puppet films required some concentration on the part of the audience, particularly the 12-minute-long [Harlequin’s Jest], which was in five acts with long titles (supplied by Bocharov) explaining the action. What helped enormously was the music. We know that Shiryaev meant his films to be so accompanied, including the animations, but not what that music was. John Sweeney, one of the festival’s core band of pianists, took on the task of matching music (some from Petipa ballets, some his own) to the films, with Günter Buchwald joining him on violin for [Harlequin’s Jest]. The brilliant results were rightly given loud acclaim by the audience – the musical highlight of the festival.

We will certainly be hearing more about Alexander Shiryaev. The documentary A Belated Premiere gets its British premiere at the Watershed in Bristol on 19 November (nearby Aardman Animation has been involved in supporting the restoration of Shiryaev’s work), and with the restoration of the films as yet incomplete (some we saw only on DVD), it’s a certainty that there will be more on show at Pordenone.

Friday was a day for superlatives. In the morning we had seen more of the Corrick collection of early films collected by a family of entertainers in 1900s Australia. Now, having written my thesis on Charles Urban (right), published a website about him, and taken my blog nom de plume from his company logo, it might be argued that I could be a little biased when it comes to praising his works, but – damn it all – Living London, made by the Charles Urban Trading Company, if it isn’t one of the greatest of all silent films, then it is undoubtedly the greatest film of 1904 [update: the film has now been identified as Urban’s The Streets of London (1906)]. The film is an eleven-minute section from an original forty-minute documentary (no other word will do) depicting London life. Moving approximately eastwards (from Westminster to the City, with a diversion along the Thames), the film shows the metropolis at its imperial zenith, vividly alive, with cameras picking out every detail, high and low (the trouble taken over camera positions was particularly noticeable) – traffic, roadworks, people dancing in the street, workers of every kind, buildings under construction, the river teeming with craft, even in one shot a row of men with sandwich boards advertising Urbanora film shows. The catalogue compared it to Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera or Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, but this was a work of a different kind, a sort of missing link between the single-shot actualities of the early cinema period and the constructed documentary. I can think of few other films that can so thrill with a plain exposition of ‘reality’.

The Corrick collection yielded other gems. Particularly noteworthy were Bashful Mr Brown (1907), a chase comedy made by the Corrick’s themselves; Babylas vient d’hériter diune panthère (1911), pure surrealism from Alfred Machin as an inquisitive leopard is introduced into a bourgeois household; and The Miner’s Daughter (1907), an exercise in beautifully judged pathos from Britain’s James Williamson, in which the title character parts from her father when she marries an artist, and after much grief they are finally brought together by his granddaughter. And it’s a rare early film that combines a mine explosion with scenes inside the Royal Academy.

After the highs of Shiryaev we relaxed in front of Ihr Dunkler Punkt (1929), a typically professional vehicle for Germany’s favourite Briton, Lilian Harvey, who played two identical people, one an ordinary young woman about town, the other a jewel thief, whose lives and lovers get mixed up. A light but cleverly made concoction, in which I most liked the comic turn by the normally sombre Warwick Ward, another Briton who plied his trade in German films.

Michael Nyman takes his bow

I was tiring just a little of films by this stage, and chosen not to follow D.W. Griffith into the sound era with Abraham Lincoln (1930). Instead I concluded my Pordenone with the evening screenings of A Propos de Nice (1930) and Kino Pravda no. 21 (1925). A large crowd of Pordenone locals queued up for this, and the theatre was filled up to its third tier. How come? Because Michael Nyman was playing the piano, and Italians, it seems, love his music. Nyman had been due to play at the festival last year, but had to withdraw owing to illness, so did the honourable thing by turning up this year. Despite his star status, Nyman found himself in the pit the same as all the other musicians during the festival, with the result that no one saw him until he emerged for his bow at the end. A Propos de Nice came first, and Nyman’s complexly repetitive music provided the ideal match for Vigo’s cumulative montage of telling images. It was certainly quite different to anything else we heard during the week, a lesson in how we should always be encouraging different musical interpretations of silent films. Particularly striking were sequences with a single bass note pounded with a rapidity that seemed to be testing the piano’s stamina to the limit.

The Kino Pravda, a celebrated example of the series, on the death of Lenin, was less successful. The film itself, with its hectoring, fractured style, combining newsfilm with slogans and animation, probably defies most forms of musical accompaniment, and Nyman’s score churned out circular themes that didn’t much connect with the film. The score lacked the inspiration of A Propos de Nice, and the film ended a few bars before he did, so that he was being applauded while still trying to finish playing. Opinion afterwards was mixed, with some of the musicologists among the Giornate regulars in shock.

And that was it for me. I left early on the Saturday, the last day of the festival, and so missed Griffith’s final film The Struggle (1931) (touchingly paired with a re-showing of his first, The Adventures of Dollie) and the grand finale of Jacques Feyder’s Les Nouveaux Messieurs (1929). This was a fine festival. Few outstanding classics, but so much to interest, stimulate, challenge and excite the imagination. There were welcome innovations, such as the electronic subtitles, and encouraging signs of closer relations between town and festival. The Giornate del Cinema Muto never rests on its laurels, recognising the broad and knowledgable audience that it attracts, and that in a real way Pordenone is silent film today. It sets the agenda; it builds up the canon; it consistently reminds us of how various the silent film was (and continues to be – there were some examples of modern silent shorts, though none that I saw were terribly distinguished). Warm thanks to all who make the festival such a success year after year. We’re so lucky that it’s there.

‘Til next year.

Pordenone diary 2008 – day one
Pordenone diary 2008 – day two
Pordenone diary 2008 – day three
Pordenone diary 2008 – day four
Pordenone diary 2008 – day five
Pordenone diary 2008 – day six

Adventures in silent pictures

Makin’ Whoopee, part of Susan Stroman’s Double Feature, from http://www.nytimes.com

We haven’t had enough ballet here on The Bioscope. So, just opened at the New York State Theater is Broadway choreographer Susan Stroman’s “Double Feature”, performed by the New York City Ballet. The two parts of the ballet, which was first commissioned in 2004, are “The Blue Necklace” and “Makin’ Whoopee”. Both are inspired by silent movies, blending melodrama with slapstick comedy.

Silent film would seem to be a natural source of inspiration for ballet, and there are examples dotted around. Matthew Bourne’s dance company Adventures in Motion Pictures indicates some of its inspiration by its name, and Bourne has drawn on silent film for sets (Caligari helped inspired his “Cinderella”) as well as dance.

Amy Moore Morton, artistic director of the Appalachian Ballet Company, created and dances the lead in “With Chaplin”, which is none too surprisingly centred on Charlie Chaplin.

In the silent era itself ballet does not seem to have featured that often, but there are some notable exception. René Clair’s sublime Entr’acte (1924) was created as an interlude to feature between the acts of Francis Picabia’s ballet “Relâche”, performed by the Ballets Suédois with music by Erik Satie.

Also from the avant garde, Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique is ballet in cinema form, even if it doesn’t feature dance as such, except the dance of objects and machines (plus a Chaplin figure). It was was created by American composer American composer George Antheil and Léger, though music and film did not come together for many years. So, in that spirit, here’s a clip from the film with music by guitarist Gary Lucas (a Bioscope favourite). Sorry about the faux scratches at the start.

Gary Lucas playing to an extract from Ballet Mécanique

Returning to Chaplin, don’t forget the dance (ballet) of the rolls from The Gold Rush (1925). And indeed you could argue for any number of Chaplin films for their balletic qualities.

Moving to modern silent director, Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002) is a ballet version of the Dracula story with German Expressionist decor and choreography by ballet director Mark Godden.

A modern oddity is Le Sacre du Printemps (2005), a film by Oliver Hermann which bills itself as a “‘Silent Movie’ to Stravinsky’s ballet score”. Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philarmonic on the DVD release, and to judge from reviews it’s something of a challenging experience:

…a pair of albino men in tutus, a godlike black female figure baking tiny people like cookies in her kitchen, nuns, voodoo rituals, walls of neatly-mounted Polaroid snapshots being broken thru with an axe, or people endlessly lost in a giant green maze. Not to mention some very sexual scenes and a roomful of naked figures writhing around which disturbingly hovered between Dante’s Inferno and a Nazi death camp ‘shower’.

Hmm. Let us turn instead to Anna Pavlova, greatest of all ballerinas, who appears in three extant silent films, Lois Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), a feature film drama in which she acts rather than dances; Anna Pavlova (1924), which is a non-fiction film depicting her in various ballet sequences filmed in New York in 1924; plus there is a fragment of film of her dancing ‘Columbine’ on the set of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

Lastly, it’s worth noting that many of the silent film pianists of today help earn their daily bread by playing for ballet and dance classes. Carl Davis has written for ballet as well as his renowned silent film scores, and it would be interesting to know how silent film musicians view accompanying dance or accompanying the screen, and what the interelationships might be.

Any more examples? Just let me know.

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