Sofia Coppola’s Challenge: To Convey the Feeling of Live Dance
Although she likes ballet, Sofia Coppola does not see herself as a lover. However, when she received an email from the New York Ballet asking if she would be shooting a film for the company’s virtual spring gala on May 5th, she didn’t hesitate. “I was so excited,” she said in a video interview last week. “It was so cool to get a message from the city ballet.”
Coppola, whose dream first feature film “The Virgin Suicides” (2000) established her as a filmmaker who was able to arouse the viewer’s interest through images and atmosphere as well as narration or action, has received awards and prizes for her films, including a screenplay Oscar for “Lost in Translation” (2003) and the award for best director for “The Beguiled” (2017) at the Cannes Film Festival.
“We were a little nervous to reach them,” said Justin Peck, resident choreographer and artistic advisor to City Ballet, in a video interview with Coppola. He had spoken to the company’s artistic directors, Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan, about “putting something essential with a real vision” together, and they agreed that they wanted to be involved with a filmmaker. Coppola, he added, was number 1 on his list. “She was so responsive and excited to speak about it and warmth that it just became a wonderful process.”
The 24-minute film (available on the City Ballet website and YouTube channel May 6-20) includes “Solo,” a new work by Peck for lead dancer Anthony Huxley, which appears in Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings plays, as well as excerpts from Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering” and Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant”, “Liebeslieder Walzer” and “Divertimento No. 15”.
Coppola connects these pieces through a poetic journey through the company’s home, the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center, from black and white shots of the dancers in the rehearsal room, behind the scenes and in the huge empty foyer to color segments in the auditorium and on the stage itself. “Shooting in the theater,” said Coppola, “I had the feeling that the spirits of dance were there.”
In the interview, she and Peck discussed how they worked together, what challenges there were in filming dance and what they took away from the experience. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Sofia, how did you come to this film?
I’ve enjoyed going to ballet over the years, but I’ve never filmed anything with a dance component. And my recording style is pretty stationary. To do something where there was so much movement I had to think about using the camera differently. What was very helpful was getting Justin’s films shot on his cell phone from his rehearsals with Anthony. It was interesting to see his sense of movement.
What are the challenges in dancing?
The challenge for me was to make it feel like I was watching live dance. Much dance is filmed in a very flat, normal way. But getting up close, which is exciting during the rehearsal, cannot always be transferred to film. I had to move the camera a lot more than I’m used to and try to make it feel like I was seeing a live performance from different angles.
There were also technical things. In editing, we’d say, “Oh, that’s beautiful,” and Wendy or Jon or Justin would say, “Hmmm, he’s a little off” or, “The feet are not in the picture!” I usually don’t think of showing someone head to toe in a picture, but this is where you want to show the choreography in full.
Did you watch film musicals growing up?
Yes, we saw a lot of musicals. I don’t know if that influenced me, but the final section of the film, the finale of Divertimento # 15, had that old Hollywood glamor for me that I wanted to convey.
How much homework did you have to do to understand each dance piece?
I didn’t really want to prepare too much because I wanted to approach dance in a new way. But Jon, Wendy, and Justin all spoke to me about the history of each piece – when it was done and what the choreographers might have been thinking. I also learned a lot about Robbins from Jean-Pierre Fröhlich and what certain gestures in Solo Dances meant. I wanted to try to give each piece a different visual personality and we got that together I think.
The two of you will be credited for “Concept” on the film. How did you work on it together?
Coppola In our initial conversations, Justin explained that the dancers had not been to the theater for a year, so the theater came back to life and the feeling that the dancers were returning to their homeland became the central idea. I like films that are more abstract and poetic, and for me each piece had its own essence and feel, so we talked about it too.
Peck Part of the intention was to expose some of the inner workings of theater that an audience would not normally see. We wanted to create a slow burn, from the inner workings to a fully executed stage performance. It symbolizes the process for a dancer: start in the studio, go to the stage, and then perform in the light.
One of the things I really loved when I saw the rough cut of the film was that it felt like all of these cutouts were happening at the same time in their little underworlds in the theater. This is a very authentic idea of how the craft is honed through rehearsals and comes together on stage.
Did you also talk about the idea of switching from black and white to color?
Coppola No, that’s how I imagined it from the beginning. But then I wanted the ending to be a celebration and a return to life, and hoped I could switch to color without it getting too cheesy. I love the contrast between rehearsals and backstage, then tutus and lights; It’s like a fantasy about what ballet is when you are a little kid. The pale blue and yellow of the “Divertimento” costumes are also so pretty, as if spring colors were brought to life.
Peck It’s also another very authentic representation of what it feels like to work in the theater. The backstage rooms are poorly lit, the hallways are damp and the walls are peeling. Then there is the magic that happens when you go on stage and the warmth of the lights is upon you.
Sofia, you staged “La Traviata” for the Opera of Rome Were there any similarities for you?
I think this experience just helped me say yes and not be too scared because I had already done something that I didn’t know how to do. Perhaps the similarity was that both experiences focused on art and beauty. It’s a nice break from films that are so expensive to make that it’s often just about business. In the theater there are all these craftsmen who really do it for the love of their art. There is a purity there that gives me so much in my mind.
What did you take away from the experience?
Coppola I feel like I have new friendships in the dance world! And it’s so stimulating to work together in a new medium.
Peck It’s the same with us. Sofia showed us that she can dance with her camera.