Friday, March 14, 2014

The why of a Zombie Ballet film

This Sunday, I will be shooting a short film that incorporates a five minute long dance we affectionately call "zombie ballet." It began five years ago as an experiment in one of my classes: it was close to Halloween and I wanted to "zombify" an adagio I had choreographed for my intermediate level ballet class. I found the very intense piece of music, Dance of the Knights, from Prokofiev's score for "Romeo & Juliet." Lo and behold, it was a magical match!

And it kind of grew from there. The following year I did it for a ballet intensive for young people and it just clicked: this could be a really cool, fun piece to perform and to watch. I had an opportunity to perform it - with costumes and makeup - for ArtNight Pasadena and it was a major crowd-pleaser. So we did it again the following year, but much longer -a full five minutes and with a dozen dancers on stage.  Again, big applause!  And then we did it again this past year, each time refining the movement and the steps. Each year, I used different dancers, but with the same result: passion and energy and commitment.

(You can see the evolution of the dance in these short clips under the title "Sweet Sorrow.")

I have since tried to get the piece into dance festivals, to no avail. No matter how many times I tried to convince directors of festivals that my "zombie ballet" would be a crowd-pleaser, that it was easy to relate to and family-friendly, no one bit (excuse the zombie pun!). A friend of mine suggested that the video I was submitting, which had been shot by members of the audience at performances, did not show off the piece to its best advantage. The videos did not capture the energy and theatricality of the piece and the excitement of the audience watching. She suggested I rent a studio, get a nice camera, light it well and shoot it without an audience.

I thought that was a great idea. Not only would it preserve my choreography but it would showcase my dancers who truly loved doing the piece. Each one of them had created her own character and costume and makeup, and each really enjoyed performing the dance. After all these performances, I had/have six wonderfully talented and passionate dancers who are super committed to the project and to each other. It is an exceptional group of young women. So it was just a matter of picking a date, booking the studio, and shooting it. Right? Right?

Except the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do more with it. I wanted to get the choreography, on film, yes, but why not build a story around it?

Here's the background part you might not know about: I'm not only a dancer and teacher, but also a filmmaker and novelist. My master's degree is in Film Production and I spent a dozen years in film and television in NYC and LA. So there's that. I also have published two novels for young adults with Penguin's Razorbill imprint. So there's that too.

Why not put them all together? So I did...I wrote a short script that makes the zombie ballet an integral part of the story, kind of my homage to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" but with a much smaller budget and no singing. The rest sort of fell into place serendipitously: my husband is a former grip/electric who now edits my ballet videos; I have a student who is also an actress and whose boyfriend is a cameraman; I have another student who is a professional photographer and superb editor (and who I somehow convinced to act in this too!); I'm renting the studio where we performed the piece several times and which is exactly what I wanted for the story (thanks, John P.!); and just about every dancer has some connection to film or movies or effects in some capacity.

What do all these people get from this? Nothing.

What do I get from this? Besides what I mentioned above? Nothing.

Why do it then? Well, why not? True, there is no logical reason to do this. But logic isn't the justification for everything. Sometimes you have to recognize that certain combinations of people and places and events may not ever happen again and you have to grab onto them when you can.

Happy (zombie) dancing~

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