Saturday, October 8, 2011


Went to a fabulous Saturday morning screening at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival. The film was First Position, a documentary by Bess Kargman about six young ballet dancers ranging in ages from 9-17 preparing for the finals of the Youth America Grand Prix, an elite competition that awards prizes in various age categories, but also, for the older dancers, scholarships at some of the finest schools around the world, and/or contracts at professional companies.

The lead-up to the finals and, before them, each dancer's individual regional semi-final, is--in the best tradition of similar performance documentaries--edge-of-the-seat gripping. However, what sets Kargman's film apart is not just her obvious empathy for each of the young personalities at the heart of this work, but her commitment to documenting the tremendous sacrifices they and their families are prepared to make in order to achieve their goals. And, mercifully in that respect, this is a rare example where all of the storylines have a happy ending.

Not so for the residents of the famous artist studios above Carnegie Hall, who are the subject of Josef "Birdman" Astor's Lost Bohemia, and whose unsuccessful battle to stave off eviction by corporate managers of the performance space below in search of extra office space ends up being a searing indictment of New York's larger willful neglect of its cultural past: in this case, both Andrew Carnegie's original vision for the building he endowed, and the collective artistic legacy of all the famous residents who have lived and worked and studied in its spaces.

One of those residents was Bill Cunningham, the New York Times photographer who was the subject of last year's wonderful documentary Bill Cunningham's New York. Seeing Astor's film this past Monday at VIFF was a perfect bookend to the earlier film, because it fleshes out the Carnegie relocation drama in greater depth, as well as letting some of the personalities we meet in the Cunningham film (including the incomparable Duchess) take centre stage in their own right.

Together with Pina this past Wednesday, that brings the grand total of attended screenings at this 30th anniversary edition of VIFF to three--a far cry from my original ambitions to buy a matinee pass this year and see as much as possible. I do hope to get to Alan Bennett and the Habit of Art tomorrow, a behind-the-scenes look at the staging of Bennett's play about a fictional encounter between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, which I saw at the National Theatre in London in May 2010, and which I briefly blogged about here.

But I might not get to blog about the film, as we're off early next week for another trip to London (and Frankfurt and Paris and NYC). Lots of performance and culture are on the agenda (as well as a couple of research archives), and I will have my new iPad with me. However, given all the connectivity issues I've had to deal with in the past when traveling in Europe (where it's hard to find free WiFi), and the general pressure of finding time in the day to blog, I may take a bit of a hiatus from posting, saving a global summary of the performance highlights for when I return to Vancouver in mid-November.

Fair warning to the two or three people who might actually follow this blog with any regularity.


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