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[ENG] Film Review

曼菲 Man Fei

Director: 陳懷恩 Chen Hyin-gen

Released: 2017

A costume designer holds up a faded dress “It used to be dark. She wore this dress so many times. The color has faded a bit like memory. But our memory of Man Fei will not change. It won’t fade”. Man Fei is about the people Man Fei left behind, the students she taught, the people she collaborated with. It is a story told through photos and moving images and held together by that fragile, elusive thing called memory. More than an actual person, Man Fei is a theme, the musical line that joins all these disparate, gifted people together; the absent metaphor that enables a community.

There is value in this approach. One of the film’s most poignant moments revolves around the restaging of one of Man Fei’s works. There is the technical discussion; how to maintain the essence of a piece of work while ensuring its continued relevance. Then there is the human dimension. The stager, Yu Tsai Chin, you sense, is here both to stage a work and to discharge a personal debt. She didn’t get to say goodbye in person because at that moment Pina Bausch made her an offer — stay, and dance the red girl in The Rite of Spring. She danced it because “that is what Man Fei would have liked to see”.

Sometimes though, because the film is so invested in their stories it feels like a mosaic of impressions stitched together by love and not by method. One way or another, a documentary has to establish its subjects’ prerogative, the ethos of its protagonist. Why should we know who Man Fei is? What is her relevance, her importance? Somewhere we arrive at these answers inductively, indirectly, but does the documentary hold us for too long? And when it collapses timeframes — it moves in and out of different periods in her life and her different personas as teacher, choreographer, dancer, and patient (the last receives a sustained, honest discussion) — you wonder if the filmmaker's intimacy with her subject has turned its gaze excessively inwards.

The film seems obsessed with flight; with that moment when the soul takes flight. There is a shot of a butterfly, a bird, a dancer reaching into space, a dancer rising onto demi-pointe; thresholds between the mortal and the divine. It is clear in the all too few clips of Man Fei’s dancing that she was on the side of the divine. But perhaps, ultimately, that is not the point of this particular documentary. Towards the end of this two hour long film one interviewee muses “Dance is the most difficult thing of everything in the arts because if the person is gone then it is gone.” If this documentary proves anything, it is that it does live on. It lives on in the people who remain. And it lives on in memory.


Relève (Reset)

Directors: Thierry Demaizière, Alban Teurlai

Released: 2015

Relève (Reset), which ostensibly is the story of a work, very quickly becomes a quasi-biographical film. Depending on your perspective it can feel either indulgent or fascinating. The film is immensely sympathetic to the Paris Opera Ballet’s then director, Benjamin Millepied. If you are searching for answers to Millepied’s exit you won’t find it here. You might instead find yourself wondering why he wanted the job in the first place. But watch it for the way beauty creeps in around the edges. The film captures something of this institution’s churchian sense of time. Here, dancers are parishioners to dance, a devotion this film makes clear.


Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse

Directors: Anne Belle, Deborah Dickson

Released: 1996

Dance masquerades as love. Or is it the other way round? Elusive Muse is an award winning documentary about Suzanne Farrell who over a storied career was muse and dancer to the choreographer George Balanchine. Some (not Farrell though) believed they were lovers too. And so we have this film, which, at its heart, is about the various formal disguises of love — dancer and choreographer, man and woman, the dancer and the dance. Farrell as a subject gives us just enough to penetrate her quiet reserve and with that, the film manages to suggest both the awesome and the personal. The generous clips of Farrell’s devilish dancing, though, weigh it towards the monumental.


Dancer: Sergei Polunin

Director: Steven Cantor

Released: 2016

Re-watching Dancer a film about Sergei Polunin, ballet’s L’Enfant terrible, during the Winter Olympics frames things in a slightly new light. I found myself wondering at the parallels between an elite athlete and an elite dancer. Both sport and dance make extraordinary demands, both strain for a transcendental goal. But a dancer cannot win a medal and call it career; simply because there is no medal. Dance is a vocation, a way of life and maybe Polunin struggles with that. Maybe he sees it as a way to a better life and not a life in itself. And maybe that is just a different kind of love.


Joy Wang X.Y.

reviews dance for SeeingDance. She has also written for Bachtrack, CriticalDance, and dabbles in script-writing for television. Based in Singapore, she tries to catch performances around the Asian-Pacific and beyond.


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