“Etoiles: Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet” and “A Wink and a Smile: the Art of Burlesque” arrived from Netflix at the same time. I planned it that way and it was a smart move. Brilliant, actually! One of my preoccupations is with the human body: sex, dance, acting, art, physiology, and even the human mind, which I consider a manifestation of the body. All these things mesh and elaborate and play against and with the community of cells that make up organs, skin, muscles and bone. In fact, I even include disease, parasites and injury in this major category. And clothes, make-up, tattooing, and photography. I draw a line between bodies and shelters, but it is a dotted line.
Let's go from the macro category back to the level of dance. Since my love of dance goes so far back in Portland, which was big enough for the major dance companies to visit, I can recall (sort of since I was in the rafters with binoculars) seeing Maria Tallchief dance “Firebird.” She was sturdy, fast, athletic, precise -- in ways I would now compare to competitive pow-wow dancing. Margot Fonteyn (with Michael Somes, earlier than Nureyev) danced in the romantic English mode, all grace and trailing fingertips. Once I sat close to the stage, too young to know better, and was bug-eyed at the clopping of toe shoes and the sprays of sweat. Even spots of blood leaking through the pink satin slippers. Still, it was magical enough for me to take dance lessons (totally ineffective since the romance didn’t include practice) and to save the toe shoes I probably wore three times. They were not so I could stand en pointe, they were talismanic.
“Etoiles” shows off a company of dancers unlike any I’ve seen in person or in the many movies. Far from the Degas “circus ponies” of the paintings, these were nearly as attenuated and elongated as the “future entities” in the movie “A.I.” and, indeed, those movie makers filmed this kind of dancer as the basis for their invented reality. Small heads, long necks, bodies of great flexibility, and arms that are little more than muscle over bone, they are capable of poignance and humor in the smallest of movements. Scenes were presented from both of the most classic of the “white ballets” -- “Swan Lake” and “Les Sylphides.” The modern works were danced in leotards, essentially colored nudes, and yet depended upon pattern and timing, strength and nuance, to express the choreography rather than the dancer. Maybe more humor and playfulness than the “whites.” I had not seen these before.
This “dance movie” used careful composition and camera distance to frame beautiful vignettes. In the past some have concentrated on the “stage size” view for the sake of the choreography -- and there is some of that -- or they have gone to portraits or an attempt to see what the dancer sees by dollying. This one had a care for the frame-by-frame image. In fact, among the moving color episodes are black stills of the same frame, emphasizing the aesthetics.
“With a Wink and a Smile” is not technically a dance movie, I suppose, and it goes in the opposite direction of ballet: that is, rather than emphasizing the universality of swans or bodies trained since childhood in a corps de ballet, the burlesque school of Miss Indigo Blue accepts ten women of all ages, sizes, shapes, and types in order to find what makes them unique. Classes try to establish what “persona” suits them and expresses them best, and then to use the moves, costumes, makeup, music, lighting and so on in a way that explores a little “narrative” that involves taking things off. The results were startling and sometimes, well, “ravishing.” In a nice way. The theatre is small, the audience is warmly appreciative with whistles and calling out, but makes no contact.
I hardly know which presentations to tell you about because each was so marvelous in its own extravagant way. A woman painted herself onstage: pouring, smearing, dotting, outlining in brilliant color and black, so that she ended up being a painting as well as the painter. (They said Picasso and that’s not wrong, but mostly just suggestive.) This school comes out of a feminist context and is VERY head-trippy with several U Dub students and a strong Asian influence. This political element, which includes histories of both Asian geisha and male-for-female tradition, American/European stripper acts, and gay cross-dressing cultures (which appear to exist almost everywhere), is part of what gives the women courage to dare so much exposure. (“Strip tease” is distinguished from full strip by the necessity of conforming to state laws for alcohol emporiums that require pasties and g-strings.)
But the real exposure was NOT the bodies of the women: rather it was their personalities, their life-issues, their psychological worlds. One was a virgin (she admits through beautiful tears), one was married and resorted to her husband’s support to “work her through,” and one was a cherished adult child who considered herself an opera star but felt she was not really free onstage. She was the only drop-out, the only one whose body was edited from the images (which included many extreme closeups of great beauty), and though she claimed she left because she feared embarrassing her family, it is clear to the observer that she does not wish to leave childhood. I do not say this in a critical way. One woman, heavily tattooed, prided herself on being a bit weird and another was self-consciously “kooky.”
The teacher was an excellent explainer, analyst, and trail breaker. The burlesque community includes men like Waxy Moon, whose “bride” never breaks her virginal and innocent grace as with the gestures of a modest girl “she” takes off her layers of billowing white until the body stands burly and hairy with what looked to me like flat condoms for pasties. The entre-act threaded through the film was a girl playing with a round red spot projected onto a scrim. She rolled it down her arms, bounced it on her head, kicked it, did naughty things with it, never for a second broke the illusion of reality except that a ball of light can do things a real ball never could.
In fact, that’s the bottom line: culture projects unreal things onto the actual flesh of people, but the people in this "burlesque" setting have the ability to explore those projections.
Ballet dancers do not. But wait -- what does it mean to imitate a swan?