Dancing for their lives

Documentary shares the benefits of dance on young people all over the world.

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“Moving Stories,” a feature-length documentary film, was screened last weekend as part of this year’s Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival. An exceptional film about an exceptional arts program, the film tells the story of Jonathan Hollander’s New York City Battery Dance’s international program, Dancing to Connect. A production of Wilderness Films, “Moving Stories” premiered in February 2018 at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art.

Directed by Sundance awardwinner Rob Fruchtman and produced by Cornelia Ravenal, Mikael Södersten, and Wendy Sax, the film follows six of Battery’s teaching artists, working with at-risk teens in India, Jordan, Romania, and South Korea. While Ravenal and Södersten, a married couple who attended the screening along with Hollander, were involved in all aspects of the film, they describe themselves simply as filmmakers. The distinguished pedigree and experience of Hollander and the Wilderness team shines through Dancing to Connect’s admirable goals and the artistic accomplishment of the film itself. The screening received a long standing ovation, followed by an inquisitive discussion with Hollander, Ravenal, and Södersten, surrounded, even after the talk-back, by enthusiastic members of the public offering their congratulations.

Hollander, founder of NYC’s longest-running dance festival, Battery Dance Festival, has created a vibrant organization that also includes the dance company for which he choreographs, featuring world-class performers, and a stunningly successful, thoughtful, and effective domestic and international arts-in-education program, Dancing to Connect. “My company, Battery Dance, has been teaching in NYC public schools for over 30 years,” Hollander said. “Frankly, given the contrast in languages, cultural traditions, economic diversity, and district-wide curriculum expectations, there’s nothing more challenging. The NYC schools have served as our learning laboratory.”

While the international programs have many specific challenges, NYC public schools, as a learning laboratory for teaching artists, have many challenges to navigate that are relevant to curriculum design for at-risk students anywhere. Consider the fact that there are over 150 languages spoken by NYC public school students, with nearly half of this population speaking a language other than English at home. These facts are part of the reason dance is a terrific medium to provide an experience that helps students bring their imagination out into the open, relying as it does on the visual and not the verbal. Arts-in-education programs, because they are almost never ongoing, regardless of the genre, understandably tend not to focus on technique but rather on creativity, reflection, self-confidence, and team-building. Dancing to Connect, as seen in “Stories,” has developed a process which well serves these goals.

“Moving Stories” has a deceptively simple style, which is responsible for much of its success. Making the film, however, was anything but simple, and the screenplay, cinematography, direction, and editing are notable. The entire process took four years from the time it was conceived by Ravenal and Södersten to the MOMA premier. The idea came to the filmmakers, each having met Hollander and Battery’s vice president, Emad Salem, at a dinner party. Upon hearing about the Dancing to Connect workshops in separate conversations, the filmmakers came up with the same idea simultaneously, saying, “This needs to be a documentary, and we need to make it.”

The film is entirely a project of the filmmakers’ production company, Wilderness Films, including funding, and was not conceived as a promo for Battery. In fact, Hollander agreed to have no say in the final edit, and saw the film only upon completion, happily much to his satisfaction.

The production team filmed the separate Battery traveling teams of five dancers, one technical director, and one project manager, following them to India, filming girls from an orphanage, many who have experienced gender-based bias; to South Korea, filming coed teens living in an orphanage that is home to defectors from North Korea and China, combined with local South Korean teens; and to Romania, in an area where many students are marginalized even in their own neighborhood.

Also included is the story of a young male dancer from Baghdad whom Battery mentored over Skype. The dancer was fearful of dancing in public for sadly obvious reasons. They eventually meet and film in Jordan, as a meeting in Iraq was out of the question at the time. Wilderness manages to avoid sentimental manipulation while weaving these stories into a compelling narrative, flipping between locations, and allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions.

The film shares the complexity of the lives of the teens, all of whom have much to grapple with. The talented teaching artists each have their own style, helping students invent the choreography they perform at the end of one week. We see the teens’ transformation, not without extremely difficult educational challenges, handled with gentle skill by each teacher. The teens morph before our eyes from predictably sullen teens to people who are excited to have created something they own, through a process they may not have imagined possible. We see the pride in their collaborative accomplishments, the problems they’ve solved, and their appreciation of the rewards of discipline, commitment, and effort. The positive shared experience, the opening of new possibilities, and the obvious mutual affection teachers and students have for each other, is the takeaway.

One can deduce from the film the positive effect the Dancing to Connect program provides for the individual students it serves. The numbers, as compared with any other like-minded programs — 200,000 students served in Battery’s arts-in-education programs ,with over 500 Dancing to Connect international workshops held in 60 countries — are impressive. Equally interesting are the program’s big-picture cultural diplomacy implications, which include a new program that develops local instructors who can continue the work after the initial residency. “Moving Stories” and Dancing to Connect illustrate how choreography can be used to transform lives, even in a short period of time.