Wednesday, December 17, 2008

ONE LAST DANCE: A review & reflection

Watching “One Last Dance” is tough now that we know Patrick Swayze is locked in combat with pancreatic cancer, one of the most lethal and painful of the kind. Yet he continues to act and refuses sympathy. This movie goes back to 2001 but was released in 2004, which is pretty recent. Most people know Swayze more from “Dirty Dancing” which was a movie with dancing in it. “One Last Dance” is a dancing with a movie in it. His wife wrote, directed and produced.

When I was working on my thesis in seminary, my advisor kept after me and after me to create a better definition of “virtual,” a concept crucial to my understanding of what happens in worship, in dance, in theatre, in music -- any art form. I’m trying to use the word to indicate a kind of alternative reality, but not a sci-fi sort of skewed reality -- rather something realer than real, maybe Platonic but not so sterile as geometry, a distillation, a big T “Truth.” In this movie the virtual moves in and out of the “real” on the screen and for some of us will evoke our own lives.

The first dance movie I saw that I realized was a DANCE movie and not just a musical was “The Red Shoes” (1948). I was nine and didn’t really understand when things were symbolic or virtual or stream-of-consciousness. It was just one great big happening full of forces and tides. I was especially haunted by the opera singing that echoed through the mind of the composer because I couldn’t really explain it. But maybe I understood it better then than I do now.

“One Last Dance” has hand-holds in it for those who need more than just the dance. The original old man who dies is a martinet, a cruel master in the tradition of the Russian auteurs who brought ballet to its peak, leaving twisted lives in its wake. And yet these dancers are (as the commenters remark) “old fashioned” in their ideas about dedication and a sort of religious devotion that made everything else impossible. But the second old man, who watches with the child at the end, speaks of “heart” and says technique and extravagant gestures mean nothing unless the true “heart” of the dance has been found. (Both actors are actually dance coaches.)

Then there is the lovely scene of the violinist (Daniel Heifitz) playing Orph in a shower of welding sparks at a construction scene. Instead of an audience gathering, a young woman (Elena Heifitz) walks up and sings the voice part, beautifully. Not realistic? Twice in my life this has happened. Once I was leading worship at a mental hospital and a woman stood up to ask if she could sing. Her song was in Hebrew. The second time was here in Browning about this time of year when I was again leading worship and a woman asked if she could sing. She had brought the sheet music -- it was Mozart and our organist, who was very highly trained but ran a little photo shop here, knew it and could play it. Even so is even the most rarefied of arts threaded through our world.

In this movie dream slides into reality becomes dance is blended into a conversation which becomes another dance which is then a dream sequence and ends slumped in despair which again rises to a new attempt at dance. No one pulls off a sweatshirt without it being a danced gesture. Yet it’s not self-conscious. A person whirls to leave, someone catches the swinging door, the wind blows hair, an embrace becomes a lift. The floor fills with fog or maybe dead leaves.

This is not sissy stuff like “The Red Shoes” which is Monte Carlo and white ballet tutus. The dance sequences are sometimes Brazilian, hot and wiggling. But then there is the most moving dance for me: it appears to be young adults in the Thirties finding their way among themselves while a girl with long red hair almost leaves, but doesn’t. It is brilliant that in the main story there are two strong male dancers with one female of pale grace. (The second man is George de la Pina, who has danced the role of Nijinski in the movie by that name. The patterning and moves are surprising but not competitive.

"Dance is a perfect metaphor for life," Niemi has been quoted as saying, "On the physical side, you're born, you peak, and then your body starts to deteriorate - but our spirits don't. This story is about the courage to find and then live that spirit." There you have it. The great thing about writing is that until your brain starts to clabber, you can do it right up to the end.

There’s been a constant stream of synchronicity -- that is, little coincidences that can have meaning -- for months now. One of them is that Barrus was a dancer when he met his first wife and after seeing this movie it’s easy to understand what their issues might have been. Their daughter was Kree. In the movie the little girl’s name is Bree. Make of it what you will.

When the researchers put you in an fMRI and ask you to imagine doing with your muscles, the machinery will show that it’s actually happening on a faint scale in your brain. In this movie several times people are shown sitting watching dance and unconsciously moving their arms in the same gesture, even the little girl. I found myself doing the same thing in my chair. Of course, the whole point of a movie is for us to feel that it all happened to us. When I was an undergrad, I took a philosophy of religion class from Paul Schilpp, a very powerful and important humanist who had left the Methodist ministry and a bad marriage. He was one of the few profs I had to invited students into his home. At a party there I ungratefully got into an argument with him over art. “Art,” he said, “Is an expression of relationship between Man and the Universe.” This was before the feminist revolution. Where I differed was that I insisted that art had to be a COMMUNICATION of a relationship between a person and the universe. I might soften up on that one a little bit. Sometimes just the expression of Art PUTS a person into relationship with the universe. And that’s where it meets religion.

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