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LSFF Director Philip Ilson writes about dance scenes in non-musical films.

The Bird’s Eye View Film Festival recently opened with IN BLOOM (Nana Ekvtimishvili / Simon Groß, Georgia 2013 [pictured] and which arrives in cinemas through Artificial Eye on 2nd May; the story concerns two smalltown sisters as they deal with family and relationship issues. At the centre of the film there is a traditional wedding party sequence, and the younger sister Eka (played by Lika Babluani) takes the floor for a dance. Fair enough, it’s a wedding. But this extended sequence focusses on Eka with no edit and no cutaways, and is a totally captivating piece of cinema as we follow her every subtle move and facial expression to the gypsy-style trance-like music; there’s a sultry erotica that we can’t turn our gaze from. It’s a stand out scene. It also started a discussion with Bird’s Eye View programmer Elhum Shakerifar about other dance scenes in non-musical films.

The Party Dance

There’s two ways that dance sequences can manifest themselves in movies. The above model is the more traditional as such scenes would be part of the story; a party, a wedding, a club. These wouldn’t normally be choreographed as such as they’d be performed for ‘real’ within the confines of the characters and story, so would need to look as natural as possible. Two further good examples would be the roller-skating dance in HEAVEN’S GATE (Michael Cimino, US 1980) which also uses traditional music from the era of the film:

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And the ballroom scene in LAURENCE ANYWAYS (Xavier Dolan, Canada 2012) to the new romantic strains of Fade To Grey by Visage:

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The Romantic Dance

There’s also the romantic dance to signify love blossoming. Three spring to mind. Tough guy cop Harrison Ford woos Amish babe Kelly McGillis to the strains of Wonderful World by Sam Cook as they go into a clumsy dance when the car radio comes on unexpectedly while he’s working on fixing the engine in WITNESS (Peter Weir, US 1985):

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Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider take to the dancefloor in a drunken state in a scene that gives LAST TANGO IN PARIS (Bernardo Bertolucci, France 1972) its title as Gato Barbieri’s theme music swells on the soundtrack:

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For something a little alternative, the lovers on the road Sailor and Lula (Played by Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern) go crazy in the desert to the speed metal of Powermad in WILD AT HEART (David Lynch, US 1990):

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The Sexy Dance

It could be argued that the sexy dance (usually by a woman) is integral to the plot, but such scenes usually appear in gangster films when the aforementioned mob hit the pole-dancing and strip clubs; there are too many films to mention here. But a few sexy dances do spring to mind. Juliette Lewis gyrates to The Way I Walk by Robert Gordon playing from a diner jukebox and is joined by a couple of redneck cops before she turns violent and all hell breaks loose in NATURAL BORN KILLERS (Oliver Stone, US 1994):

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And Bruce Willis comes across Jessica Alba all grown up as she go-go dances western-style with leather chaps and lasso on a bar stage in SIN CITY (Robert Rodriguez, US 2005): 

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APOCALYPSE NOW (Francis Ford Coppola, US 1979) is full of spectacular set pieces; none more so than the arrival of the Playboy ‘bunnies’ by helicopter into the Vietnamese jungle in front of thousands of G.I.’s. As the strains of Suzie Q, as covered by rock n’ roll revivalists Flash Cadillac strikes up, so the girls jump from the helicopter to the crazy delight of the sex-starved soldiers who go mental! It’s the surrealist juxtaposition that Coppola creates here, as he does in many scenes throughout the film; things get weirder and weirder as Martin Sheen’s Capitan Willard and his boat of merry men get further up river into the Cambodian jungle..

In MEAN STREETS (Martin Scorsese, US 1973) Harvey Keitel’s Charlie moves through a bar to the sound of Tell Me by The Rolling Stones and takes a front row seat to watch the two go-go dancers on the tiny stage; his obvious enjoyment of their bodies is echoed in the camerawork focussing on body parts, which we see through Charlie’s eyes. The scene doesn’t feel exploitative but we get to understand Charlie and his relation to women, which is basically that they are sex objects to be admired rather than the respect that he has between his fellow smalltime mobsters:

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Travolta, Tarantino & Walken

Before my final list, I wanted to mention two Hollywood icons who have both made unexpected forays into choreographic history. Quentin Tarantino will forever be known for the dance between Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega (Uma Thurman and John Travolta) as You Can Never Tell by Chuck Berry plays on the jukebox in Jack Rabbit Slims in PULP FICTION (Quentin Tarantino, US 1994); it’s been parodied a hundred times:

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It also reminds us that Travolta is a great dancer, and it could be argued that SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (John Badham, US 1977) features some great dance scenes from what is ostensibly a non-musical film; it’s a gritty drama set against the backdrop of New York’s disco scene, but I think it’s enough to give it a nod here, particularly Travolta’s solo slot to You Should Be Dancing by The Bee Gees: 

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And Tarantino also gave us spectacular choreographed fight sequences in KILL BILL VOL. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, US 2003), but I think the balletic world of kung fu and martial arts is best left for another article.

Christopher Walken became a YouTube hit last year when someone mashed together all his films where he does the moves:

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Known as a tough guy actor, it was revealed a number of years ago that he had also trained as a dancer when he made music video history in Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice promo (directed by Spike Jonze) where he showed his slick cool moves:

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The Top 11

What I enjoy is the unexpected dance, the dance which comes from nowhere, that in many cases has no reason for existing within the story, but is inserted perhaps on a whim of the filmmaker. I have listed these in my 11 favourites below, along with my favourite club moments, comedy and sexy dances, and romantic scenes where a dance brings young lovers together. I will also own up to not having seen the first two listed, but were suggested to me when I mentioned I was planning this blog, and are strong enough from watching the clips in question to include here.

11. THE FUTURE (Miranda July, US 2011)

Performer: Miranda July

Music: Master of None (Beach House)

I know of Miranda July’s work and am a big fan of her debut feature ME YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW (2005). THE FUTURE was her second feature that wasn’t met with as much acclaim, but this scene was flagged up to me by DocHouse programmer Jenny Horwell and I watched it on-line. Not actually knowing the film’s plot makes it all the more intriguing as July herself does a very strange but captivating solo dance to the dreamy strains of Beach House with a shirt! She stretches it over her head and between her legs, creating weird shapes that defy the human body underneath; it’s a clever piece of movement and draws parallels to July’s own earlier work in video and performance.

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10. BEAU TRAVAIL (Clare Denis, France 1999)

Performer: Denis Levant

Music: Rhythm of the Night (Corona)

And this is the second film on the list I haven’t seen, but I do know of its classic status and story involving the macho world of the Foreign Legion. The scene in question is the final one, and was flagged up to me by Sophia Kaufman from Little White Lies when I was discussing the idea for this blog with her. Just before and over the film’s final credits, physical actor Denis Levant entertains us with some flash moves to cheesy house anthem Rhythm of the Night by Euro-techno outfit Corona. He starts cool and laid back but descends into a manic farce as he moves faster and more crazily. A great scene that shows the physical ability of Levant taking us from laid-back cool to slapstick fooling that also came to the fore in HOLY MOTORS (Leos Carax, France 2012).

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BEAU TRAVAIL (1999). Claire Denis from Loutinen on Vimeo.

9. FISH TANK (Andrea Arnold, UK 2009)

Performer: Katie Jarvis

Music: Juice (Eric B & Rakim)

Andrea Arnold has made a number of short films and features focussing on working class teenage girls in the UKs problem council estates, smalltowns and suburbs. FISH TANK plays to all her strengths as a storyteller and filmmaker, as we follow wannabe street dancer Mia (played by newcomer Katie Jarvis) and her difficult life with a single mum and a younger sister as they struggle to make ends meet, not least with her mum’s new moneyed boyfriend. But all Mia wants to do is dance, and there’s an important scene where she takes her boombox into an empty flat on her estate to practise her street moves to the tough hip hop of Eric B & Rakim. She sees the dancing as a possible way out and her dedication and enthusiasm knows no bounds. But the irony is, and what makes it powerful, is that she’s not actually very good; she’s fine, and maybe with practise she’ll improve, but her dancing here is lacklustre and weak. With further irony, there’s an earlier scene where she comes across a gaggle of younger teenage girls on the estate who are mimicking the overtly sexual moves of MTV videos and she laughs at them shouting how shit they are. We don’t doubt her dedication to the cause, but it’s the normalcy of her own averageness that is powerful in her solo scene, particularly after she’s chastised others for being rubbish.

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8. BLUE VALENTINE (Derek Cianfrance, US 2010)

Performers: Michelle Williams / Ryan Gosling

Music: You Always Hurt the One You Love as performed by Ryan Gosling

Ah, the romantic dance, which here takes tweeness to a new level. In any other romantic drama, this would be cringe city, but because Cianfrance’s drama has a somewhat darker side, it totally works in the context of the story of this relationship. The film flashes back and forward throughout, from the beautiful beginning of a relationship to its tragic final throes. This scene takes place when the young lovers are getting to know each other, and they’re out and about one night in town goofing around. Gosling has a ukulele and Williams suggests he plays a song, but he will only do so if she dances. So, they stop in a closed shop doorway and Gosling performs his goofy rendition of a 1944 close harmony number by the Mills Brothers complete with comedy vocal, while Williams hops around in a sweet and pretty way. This could be gag-like twee (notice I’ve used the word ‘goofy’ twice so far), but it actually feels real and is simply one of the few happy scenes in the whole film; Gosling is the perfect man who makes her laugh, and you can feel her being sucked into his aura of simple decent bloke, which is why the problems start up later. It’s a strong moment in a powerful film.

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7. SIMPLE MEN (Hal Hartley, US 1992)

Performers: various including Elina Löwensohn / Martin Donovan / Karen Sillas / Robert Burke

Music: Kool Thing (Sonic Youth)

Hal Hartley was a staple of the 1990s US indie film scene, but seems largely forgotten 20 years on. His quirky films were wordy takes on 20-something relationships and struck a chord with ‘Generation X’. Never more so than this surreal moment in his 1992 offering SIMPLE MEN, even using slacker icons Sonic Youth, a band who had emerged from the 80s New York underground to come of age as prototype grungers and be forever known as the band who discovered Nirvana. The scene in question uses their grunge anthem Kool Thing from their debut major label release Goo!, a song that includes the slacker drawl of Kim Gordon and the guest rap of Chuck D from Public Enemy. A number of cast members dance to it, led by Elina Löwensohn as she is joined by the choreographed synchronised moves of the others. But as to why, I’m not too sure. It’s simply a great song and a nicely composed moment.

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6. LA LEGENDE DE KASPER HAUSER (Davide Manuli, Italy 2013)

Performers: Silvia Calderoni / Vincent Gallo

Music: Poison Lips (Vitalic)

Kasper Hauser is a legendary figure from German history; an adult stranger who turns up unexpectedly one day in a smalltown, with no education, no language and no understanding of modern ways, like an idiot savant. Werner Herzog famously adapted the story for his 1974 film. But jump forward to 2013 Italy for this surreal take on Hauser, as an androgynous alien appearing in a small coastal village. Vincent Gallo plays the town sheriff who takes Silvia Calderoni’s alien under his wing. In one scene Gallo decides to teach the stranger the art of DJing as a sound system is erected on a beach and French techno outfit Vitalic are spun on the decks. An unbroken four and a half minute shot is a joy to watch as an enthusiastic Gallo both explains the art of cross-fading and mixing while stomping the sand and punching the air, while the strange alien figure has his or her own distinctive dance moves to the throbbing techno beat.

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5. NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (Jared Hess, US 2004)

Performer: Jon Heder

Music: Canned Heat (Jamirorquai)

Ah, the comedy dance. Up to now I haven’t mentioned this staple that goes back to the silent slapstick era. That’s because for me, it’s an easy cop-out. And I’m sure there are many examples of jokey moves throughout cinema history. Neither are cinema, but Ricky Gervais’ David Brent dance in TVs THE OFFICE, or Steve Coogan doing air bass guitar to Level 42 in TVs ALAN PARTRIDGE, are but two funny examples that spring to mind. Perhaps Divine doing a grotesque dance of shame through the real streets of Baltimore in FEMALE TROUBLE (John Waters, US 1974) could also be mentioned. But I want to champion NAPOLEON DYNAMITE as it is a genuinely surprisingly hilarious piece of choreography. I won’t go into any major plot detail here, but will simply say that the scene in question is when school nerd Napoleon Dynamite (as played by Jon Heder) takes to the stage for the annual talent show; Napoleon is known throughout the school as the stupid dork, so why should things be any different when he walks out on stage in front of the whole school? As the space cowboy 90s funk of Jamirorquai kicks in, so he starts his gangly seemingly un-co-ordinated dance, but don’t be deceived as he wins over the crowd with some original shapes and joyous bustin’ moves. The dance has been parodied many times if you fancy a google.

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4. FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL! KILL! (Russ Meyer, US 1965)

Performers: Tura Satana / Haji / Lori Williams

Music: Run Pussy Cat (The Bostweeds)

Perhaps the best example of the sexy dance, setting the scene for the anarchy to come in Russ Meyer’s stylish black and white exploitation masterpiece, as we follow three go-go dancers played by Tura Satana, Haji and Lori Williams on a trail of death and destruction. The scene here is the opening credits, or rather following a serious monologue warning us of the dangers of womenhood (including the iconic words “the smell of female” which became an album title by The Cramps). After being told that this evil could also manifest itself in a dancer in a go-go club, so we cut to the frantic gyrating of our three heroines in spangly bikinis as The Bostweeds title song plays and the ladies are jeered on by an audience of disgustingly leery men: “Go, baby, go!”.

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3. BOOGIE NIGHTS (Paul Thomas Anderson, US 1999)

Performers: Mark Wahlberg / John C. Reilly / Heather Graham and others

Music: Machine Gun (The Commodores)

The club scene! But not your typical club scene of a disparate collection of random amateur dancers throwing shapes on the dancefloor, which is how most nightclub moments are portrayed in films. Instead, what we get here is a tightly choreographed set piece as members of the cast of Anderson’s sprawling 70s and 80s set epic bust some cool disco moves. The film is set among the 70s porn industry, where the directors, producers and performers were like a family to each other, and in this scene we see a number of them living it up in a Hollywood discotheque. It’s all here: The garish clothes, the crazy hairstyles and the glam of the flashing disco lights as our protagonists hit the floor to the funky sound of The Commodores’ Machine Gun (famously sampled by The Beastie Boys on their 1989 hit Hey Ladies!). But director Anderson choreographs the scene, with the film’s stars creating a well-thought out funky sequence involving synchronised movements and handclapping, while looking like they’re having the time of their lives. Of course, the film got somewhat darker in the second act, but the joyousness of this scene is one to savour.

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2. THE POSTERS CAME FROM THE WALLS (Jeremy Deller / Nicholas Abrahams, UK 2008)

Performers: Depeche Mode fans

Music: Enjoy the Silence (Depeche Mode)

Dancing in documentaries is not something that regularly happens unless it a documentary about dance (of which there are many). Here filmmaker Nicholas Abrahams and Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller turn the cameras on the obsessive world of international Depeche Mode fans. Depeche Mode have garnered super fans across the globe who see the band as outcasts and a necessary alternative, particularly in countries that have experienced recent problems in Eastern Europe or central and South America. The band did a big tour of the Eastern Bloc in the late 80s and became a symbol for youthful rebellion which led to the fall of Communism in 1990, so much so that many of those who lived through those times of change celebrate the birthday of singer Dave Gahan, on a day now known as Dave Day. The song over the finale of the film is the 1989 hit Enjoy the Slence, and the film’s masterstroke is to get all the fans interviewed across the world throughout the film to do the Dave dance that Gahan does to this song when performing live, which is waving your two arms in succession above your head. With the song playing and all these international Dave dancers edited together, an incredibly powerful montage occurs and the love of the fans comes across to transcend the problems these people have faced.

1.  **BUFFALO 66 (Vincent Gallo, US 1998)**

Performer: Christina Ricci

Music: Moonchild (King Crimson)

This is a unique piece of beautiful cinema that ostensibly shouldn’t work but is a joyful celebration of sound, image and choreography. Briefly, the plot concerns Gallo’s difficult and confused Billy Brown, newly released from jail and who has kidnapped the tap-dancing Christina Ricci from her dance class in order to present her to his parents as his wife. Ricci, despite being forcibly grabbed, soon decides she wants to stick around this unpredictable man, and at one point they visit the bowling alley where he once had considerable kudos as a bowling champion. Brown gets self-absorbed in his return to form as the champ, and it’s here that things get surreally interesting. While Gallo’s Brown waits for the balls to come back after another successful strike, so the lights dim, Ricci wanders to the side to be spotlit for a subtle but strangely erotic tap-dance to prog rock! King Crimson’s soft strains of Moonchild strikes up with its light cymbal taps and ethereal lyrics as Ricci gently taps out to the slow rhythm. Surprisingly for progressive rock music, the song itself only lasts for a total of one and a half minutes, so we get the full version before the lights come back up and we’re returned to reality and Gallo’s ranting about his genius in the bowling alley; he makes no allusion to what just happened so we assume it’s a fantasy moment in Ricci’s head (although I feel it’s not important). Moonchild itself comes from the prog behemoth’s first album from 1969 called In The Court of the Crimson King (although it’s not attributed to King Crimson as such); the band were something of a supergroup as members had been around in various other late 60s London psychedelic groups, and they famously supported the Rolling Stones at their free Hyde Park gig following the death of Brian Jones. Their debut album was a mix of epic Mellotron-led pomp and more subtle nods to English folk and was a bit of a one-off; although the name King Crimson existed throughout the 70s and 80s, this was pretty much the nom de plume of guitarist Robert Fripp who went on to release many albums of prog, free jazz and prototype post-rock under the name King Crimson for decades to come, with a rolling selection of musicians. But Moonchild is unique as a sweet and subtle piece of simple English whimsy, used to brilliant effect in this scene set in a typical smalltown America bowling alley where you’re more likely to hear ZZ Top blasting from the speakers. 

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Many of the above examples are quite recent in the scheme of cinematic history. Dancing in non-musical movies to create memorable scenes definitely seems like a 1990s and 2000s phenomenon. Maybe before that, genres were very cut and dried; musicals were where you could experience great choreography and dancing spectaculars, so it would seem strange to move such moments into dramatic film. But with barriers broken down, I’m looking to see what the next few years brings in terms of iconic dance scenes that come at you unexpectedly.

Thanks to Elhum Shakerifar (Birds Eye View), Jenny Horwell (DocHouse) and Sophie Monks Kaufman (Little White Lies).