Saturday, November 14, 2009

screening! and air date!

Can it possibly be more than two weeks since Nureyev had its screening at the Royal cinema on Toronto's College Street? Life is a bit crazed right now, but I finally have a few minutes to report on the day, one we've all been waiting for!

On Wednesday, October 28, the many people who contributed to the making of Nureyev, joined their families and friends to view with excitement the first public projection of the final product. I made a short introduction and then Moze and producer Peter Gentile came forward to make their thank yous and get the ball rolling. One of the most important things they told us was that the film has an air date! Nureyev will air on December 1st at 9:00 pm on Bravo!

It had been a couple of months since I had seen a first cut of the film, in the editing suite alongside Moze and Jeff Bessner and some other guests. I was deeply moved then by the film, by how powerfully the nuances of emotion were revealed through choreography and performance and the flow of the camerawork. Jeff's nimble eye for story elements and Moze's sense of the governing vision are a great match always - and it's a pleasure to watch and listen to them tug and tease a sequence into shape.

Since the screening I saw, the most noticeable shift was in the use of the music. The first cut used guide tracks - the same tracks the performers used in the actual making of the film. Since then, composers Phil Strong and Laurel MacDonald (pictured here) had reworked the themes and recomposed the music to fit the final cut of the film. This is an extraordinary task and a very hard one. Some work is still being done to fine tune the scoring before air date but the difference was notable: Nureyev now had a clean line musically. In a tale told through dance over many scenes and sequences, that clean line is essential.

After the screening, several people talked to me from a place of being deeply moved. The thematic values of the film had unquestionably pushed through: capturing the soul of an artist as it navigates the chaos of life choices, always pushing the boundary of expression and the means to achieve it. I continue to be only more deeply amazed by the work of Nico, who seems to understand and navigate this journey with just the right amount of feeling. The choreography of Matjash Mrozewski also weaves narrative and emotion seamlessly together from gesture that indicates story telling to the painful embraces of lovers who somehow know their time is limited.

My own mother and her friends gathered near Moze's mother and her friends, all bubbling with enthusiasm. It made me wonder for a moment what Nureyev's own mother might have felt all those long years of his performing in exile. It made me realize how much a project like this conjures the imagination of many other stories hidden and untold, lying in the shadows of history. When Nico's Nureyev gazes up at a picture of the actual Nureyev in the film's last shot, one artist pays homage to another, the endurance of art is invoked, and somehow the sacrifices of those other silent voices seem all worthwhile.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Moze updates us!

A message from Moze:

Almost three months after we finished shooting, I'm happy to say the film is nearing completion! It was a long haul, in many ways, with a number of challenges that seemed daunting, to say the least. But the great thing about working with brilliant collaborators is that you eventually find a way from the maze into a recognizable clearing.

One of the first challenges was the editing of the dance sequences themselves. Almost one-half of all the dance scenes had to be shortened for either dramatic purposes or program length limitations. It was a difficult task as we were faced with maintaining the integrity and fluidity of the choreography so that each of the shortened dance sequences would appear seamless in the end. It's entirely due to Jeff Bessner, our talented editor, who tirelessly worked with me in getting it all right when the prospect of fishing in the Sahara seemed like a better bet.

However, once we solved those picture issues, there appeared a new and larger headache: the music itself which accompanied each of those sequences. At first, we tried to edit the music itself to conform to the edited dance scenes but that proved not entirely satisfactory as the tempos and even key registers changed from one part of the music to the next. The only solution was to re-score those sequences which was not as easy as we'd hoped. After all, how do you re-score a cut up piece of music that starts with one tempo, proceeds to a different musical register entirely and then changes tempo again!? It's to the genius of the composers, Philip Strong and Laurel MacDonald, who managed the impossible by creating music that ended up fitting each edited performance sequence like a glove. Don't ask me how they derive their extraordinary inspiration: I'm guessing it's something they eat every day. [Note: the photo of them here is from their appearance at the Gemini Awards in 2003, accepting an award for their work on Moze's movie "Year of the Lion".]

Meanwhile, Alan Geldart, our wonderful sound designer, was busy creating a soundscape against which the Nureyev story unfolds. As the pictorial elements in the film have been pared down to their most rudimentary form (i.e. a large, single rear-projected screen), I had initially thought we would need a very complex and layered sound design to provide references to time and place. Well, the opposite ended up being true! The sound of factories churning in the background, as well as the clatter of horses and carriages and the drone of the Soviet military and political apparatus all slowly got peeled away to leave the most basic of sound elements: A bell, a whistle or, in many cases, just the music itself. It's to Alan's credit and his artistry that he was able to use a single sound source in each instance to create a major aural brushstroke.

All of these elements came together last week as we completed the colour correction final sound mixing. I realize I'm taking the risk of sounding a bit effusive, but the colour correction bore out a whole new film for me. Working with colourist Arlene Grant, along with our ace cinematographer, Dylan Macleod, we were able to create many dramatic effects by simply intensifying the primary colours in each of the scenes. And finally, the sound mix provided the icing on the cake by blending the dialogue, music and sound effects into a complete and balanced soundtrack entity.

I was musing with all my post-production collaborators at one point at how "invisible" all these elements are in watching a film, and yet how vital they all are in the way a film is shaped and experienced. But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding; and I can only hope we've created something that audiences will enjoy while celebrating the life of Rudolph Nureyev, who was certainly no stranger himself when it came to facing challenges.

Monday, August 17, 2009


From time to time, I will do features on contributing artists to Nureyev. That series begins today with Greta Hodgkinson.

I have always marvelled at Greta's gifts as a dancer, but her work with Moze has helped me to appreciate what a fine actress she is as well. Her performance in Moze's previous film, Roxana, required her to be emotionally present with her face as much as her body in a way that is often challenging for an actor coming from a stage environment. Usually, years of having to 'project', causes the acting to be bigger than it should be for camera. But Greta never seemed to have that problem.

On the phone recently, she explained. "One of the reasons why I jumped at Roxanna was that it was nice to have the dance because it gave me something to fall back on, but at the same time I was challenged like I haven’t been challenged." In a film that had a nearly three week shoot, and in which Greta appeared in almost every scene, she forged a strong relationship to Moze as a director, and to the art of filmmaking as well. "Moze was there all the time to almost guide me through the film - my first really big film in terms of playing a character like that. Working with other actors and speaking and feeling comfortable - everything was so new - it was amazing to have him there and even just inbetween shots, his one word feedback, a little bit here and there, helped me do it."

In making Nureyev, she observed as Moze focussed that same attentive guidance on Nico, and meanwhile felt his trust in her capacity to work more on her own. "If it wasn’t right or he needed to tell me something, he would," she said, but otherwise she was free to experiment and discover things for herself.

Greta's history of working with other artists on this project includes her husband, Etienne Lavigne, who plays Erik Bruhn in the film, and choreographer Matjash Mrozewski, whom she has known for years through their mutual association with the National Ballet Company of Canada. Greta first worked with Mat on his piece Delicate Battle. Like him, she coaches members of the company and occasionally teaches, work she enjoys and hopes to do more of during a rest hiatus she has planned in the near future. Working with choreographers is something she enjoys, but has no aspirations to herself. "I’ve always worked really well with choreographers and enjoyed being on the side of making someone else’s ideas come to fruititon," she said. "I enjoy coaching too and would like to do more, but creating dance is something I've never been inclined to."

Watching Greta in rehearsal, I was constantly amazed by the speed with which she picked up choreography, and offered it back in its fullest form. It is a great joy to watch her work this way as she makes it look so effortless. Performing with dancers who have different training backgrounds doesn't seem to stand in her way. I remember being moved by her pas de deux work with Sheila McCarthy on Roxana. McCarthy's dance experience comes mostly from musical theatre. That flexibility was evident again as Greta worked with Nico Archambault. Prior to Nureyev, Nico had never had formal ballet training. Greta has a natural talent for drawing performers to her level without ever making it look 'superior'. Perhaps she learned this in her childhood training in Rhode Island and New York city, or in her formation as a dancer at the National Ballet School, or in her critically acclaimed and prize-winning work as a soloist for the National Ballet. Being able to work in ensemble is a necessity for any dancer.

While on set, I listened to her give an E-Talk Daily interview in which she talked fluently about the differences between the world of western ballet and the Russian ballet technique of the Kirov, which was the training of Rudolph Nureyev. I decided to ask her about it, in the context of playing Margot Fonteyn, the great British ballerina. Greta explained that both the Russian technique and the Royal Academy of Dance styles create a strong technical dancer. "The Russian style is very refined, especially upper body, the port-au-bras. There is a huge focus on shoulder turn and the shape of the entire body. Women and men are equally strong and are both able to jump."

She also explained how combining techniques only enriches the dancer. "What’s happened now," she said, "since Rudy defected and the wall came down, dancers have started moving much more freely back and forth between styles of training - English, Russian and French - finding the best things of each. In the French training you find at the Paris Opera ballet, they choose only specific bodies. In North America, that's not the case. There are dancers who have trained and changed their bodies - if they had been seen at a younger age, they would have been discarded [by the French]. It's a very different way of picking and choosing." Nureyev's own enthusiasm for finding new styles was a source of great interest to Greta in preparing for the movie. "It’s incredible that he was so hungry about the art form and learning, in order to be the best dancer."

Greta looks forward to more film work in the future and more challenging roles. "I think I would really like to do something completely out of my world," she said. Let's hope she gets that opportunity. There is much this fine artist has yet to explore!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Production notes from Moze

Recently, Moze shared with me some thoughts on the development of his film. I have posted them here alongside some images taken by Nureyev Continuity supervisor, Ramona Diaconscu.

Moze writes:One of the things I'm asked most often is why a film about Nureyev? It's a good question but I was often stumped for an answer as I had never rationalized or verbalized why I was drawn to the subject. When I pursue an idea for a film it's quite often an entirely instinctual endeavour and I don't discover the reasons until much later - like when people ask me! But in thinking now about the whole realm of what I know, read, watched, heard and discovered about Nureyev, there was one common idea: He was an individual who simply refused to do what he was told. His desire to express himself as an artist was so strong that he sacrificed a big part of his life, namely his country, family and heritage, to realize those ambitions. As one of my characters in the film says: "He was a stranger from the day he was born to the day he left. Only an outsider leaves a place that was never theirs to begin with." And it was this sense of a man fighting for his own truth that eventually shaped a script for this film.

However, I also knew that I did not want to make a film about Nureyev dancing. There are countless wonderful documentaries already available that reveal Nureyev in all his performance glory with details of his life revealed through documentary, archival and home movie footage. What I wanted to do instead was to create a film where the mythology that he created, including his own psychology as well as the iconography of his life, is revealed almost entirely through dance. For a subject whose life was deeply embedded within dance, there has never been a film where the nuances of his life have been explored in choreography especially created for film. This film is the first-ever response to that challenge, creating a film that is created primarily through dance and dramatized personal memory.

These dramatized personal memories are an integral part of the film and form links to the ongoing story revealed through the choreography. Rather than imagine "experts" or characters who had deep personal connections to the main subject, I opted instead for fictitious figures who may've had the most fleeting of exchanges with Nureyev, like ships that pass in the night. These characters are a KGB officer, a flight attendant, an avid fan, a one-night stand, an arts critic and a former Russian classmate. Though these figures are entirely made up, they shed light on the realities of his time as well as the darker areas of his personal life seldom explored.

These ideas eventually had to be brought together under a production design which would accommodate the limitations of a tight budget. As such, the film is presented on a single sound stage consisting of a large dance floor laid out before a huge screen which projects an array of vivid colours and images in following the narrative of the Nureyev's life. The narrative itself is embodied entirely by the choreography, music and the characters portrayed by an enormously talented cast featuring Greta Hodgkinson, Etienne Lavigne, Tyler Robinson, Robert Glumbek, Allen Kaeja and Sarah Robichaud, amongst many others. However, as much as there is a "live" sense to the proceedings, I also wanted to bring in elements that are uniquely cinematic, namely, the elements of memory and thought, such as flashbacks, flashforwards and inner thinking. In effect, the film is a sort of hybrid between a live concert and a memory film, creating the immediacy of a theatrical experience but also allowing for expressive effects only possible through cinematography, editing and montage.

I am indebted to a truly remarkable cast and creative team in attempting to realize this project. We were all working under very tight circumstances given our resources; and yet, in many ways we've managed to make the footage look quite rich and dynamic. Big thanks must also go to Phil Strong and Laurel MacDonald for their extraordinarily beautiful score which inspired us all during rehearsals and shooting. What they have accomplished in their music is truly exceptional: Using themes inspired by classical music, they have transformed them into a wholly new and contemporary composition, marked by their own unique style, colouring and instrumentation. If a river is the lifeline of the land, then their music was the means by which our film was nourished.

And my deepest thanks to Nico Archambault for his courage in taking on this rather imposing challenge. I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for him. Initially, I thought I had hired an extraordinary dancer. Instead, I discovered a great artist with limitless potential.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

glitter and be gay!

"Glitter and be gay" is one of the songs from Candide, an operetta I have always loved. No title could be more fitting for Wednesday's shoot. Besides being an apt description of the day's shooting sequence, it struck a note close to home. Moze and I have a dear childhood friend whom we lost a few years ago. His birthday was Wednesday. It was a perfect day therefore, to be doing a wonderful glittering sequence in which Nureyev is seen figuratively encountering the great artists and celebrities of his time. John would have loved it! As Nico/Nureyev partnered and pirouetted the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Twiggy, Martha Graham, Andy Warhol and the ever-present Fonteyn, I could just see John grinning wherever he is. In this picture at right, Nureyev twirls Fonteyn, while Twiggy (Kristy Kennedy) , Warhol (Derek Sangster) and Jackie Kennedy (Lindsay Sutton) look on.

As one of the largest and most complex sequences, featuring a dozen ensemble members, the celebrities dance sequence breaks out into many small vignette phrases in which Nureyev is matched with one of the notables he knew during the time of his early fame. As steadicam operator, Jason (see Tuesday's post) had to weave in and among them, again, like the jimmyjib, looking for all the world like a dancer himself.

I was sorry to have missed the morning session that included some more of the trio work between Bruhn (Etienne Lavigne), Nureyev and Fonteyn. I have seen so little of Greta on this shoot, a sad result of my own scheduling challenges. It was a family day on set, however, as my own mother, and Moze's mother and other family friends sat in on the action. My mother later wrote me that the trio work in the morning had been "lovely - lovely dancing, lovely people". A sad casualty of my living an hour and a half away!

Luckily, the afternoon session I did attend proved to be equally absorbing. And speaking of Greta, I caught a bit of the interview she did onset with ETalk Daily, who had visited during rehearsal and were now back to see how the shoot was going. Greta is a wonderfully articulate spokesperson for this film - I wished I was writing down what she said! She captured the spirit of it perfectly.

During the time between set changes (to allow once again for the in-the-round experience) I had a chance to talk more closely with some of the technical people surrounding me. One of these was Ramona Diaconescu, who is doing Continuity for the film. Shyly, she confessed to me that she had never worked on a dance film before. However, now she is intrigued - and says she would probably go to see a dance concernt now whereas before she might not have. The continuity person keeps track of how each take went, which ones contained problems (something on camera that shouldn't be for instance), and which takes were in fact keepers. Like me, she was constantly running around taking pictures - though hers were at much closer range. I am hoping to get some of her shots to put up here and on the Facebook page.

It was also lovely to have some conversation with designer Astrid Janson. Astrid has just returned from walking the famous pilgrimage route El Camino in Spain. By coincidence, visiting the set that day was a friend of Moze who is also planning to make the same trip sometime in the near future. Before they chatted, Astrid told me some of her own incredible stories of having worked at the Paris Opera Ballet in the 90s, just after Nureyev (who had been its last Artistic Director) had died. The impact on the company was still being felt even then, and even then the stories about him were long and legendary. Astrid (assisted by Sarah Armstrong) has done some gorgeous work on this project, allowing for the evocation of worlds geographically as far apart as Paris and New York!

Every day on the call sheet, as I survey the list of people on set, "99" appears in every slot - the code for Matjash Mrozewski, Nureyev's indefatiguable choreographer. Mat has had to create dance that is both narrative and expressive, bursting with life and colour, and quietly intimate. He has a gift for bringing out the small gesture or flourish that represents a character well. In today's sequence, as the various glitterati swirled and twirled around Nureyev, each appeared to have his or her own signature move, whether it was the overhead whirling dervish Warhol (with a camera) or the deep modern moves of Martha Graham. In the middle of it all, Nureyev and Fonteyn shared a seemingly coy snap of fingers followed by an embrace and lift that was both playful and romantic at the same time. As a brief piece of business in a parade of characters, it catches the eye. Thanks to Matjash for such memorable work!

By Wednesday evening, the shoot involving the dancers will have come to an end and there remains only one more day of "interview" sequences which will help to anchor and frame the dance narrative aspect of the movie. I felt sad, knowing I would not be able to attend on Wednesday, looking around and already saying goodbye to them in my mind. As I was taking stock of the group, I noticed that Nico's beautiful fiance, Wynn had slid on to the set and taken a seat in the back to watch. I was reminded of a moment earlier in the day when, strolling to the craft room in the dark of the set, I passed a shadow that turned out to be Nico, taking a well-earned break, lying on a pile of dancers' mats. Completely unobserved. Far from the constant spotlight that Nureyev found himself in, being a young celebrity these days is perhaps more of a quiet thing. I hope so.

Monday, June 22, 2009

half way there! end of day 3

Day 3 is done and Nureyev is on schedule, gliding, or is that chaine-turning?, towards its Thursday finish. All is going great, says producer Peter Gentile when I ask him and that sense of confidence is present in almost everyone, despite being aware of the long road to go. I continue to be amazed by the fluidity with which Moze moves from one thing to another without any pause. He is equally comfortable consulting about the set design, conferring with the cinematographer or having a quick conversation (pictured here) with the audio man, Brian Hanish, who also bailed me out with batteries when my own rechargeables died. Thanks, Brian! Moments later, I was able to catch Moze with producer, Peter Gentile and Production Co-Ordinator, Mikey Lalonde before all three of them were pulled in opposite directions. It is hard to convey that sense of constant activity in a blog but trust me it is there!

Over lunch, Moze and the designers made an adjustment to the rear projection, by widening and taking out the framing blacks to allow colour bars in at the side. The adjustments for camera included changes in lighting. The resulting look not only expanded the vision and scope of the space, but allowed an opportunity for playing with colour fields of light within single dances. This is the kind of creativity that can happen on set when all are open to exploration. It is a tribute also to the flexibile versatility of Astrid Janson's set, assisted by Sarah Armstrong. As the panels rolled into place for the sequence later on in the park, it seemed to take no time at all to create a brand new place and space. These are critical talents to bring to a film set, where time is always a precious commodity.

A special pleasure for me today was finding a former student from Toronto Film School days: steadicam operator Jason Vieira. A graduate of nearly five years, it was exciting to see him in the critical position of shooting a challenging in-the-round sequence in which Nureyev and some of his young lovers intertwine and interconnect in a park. Jason's rig is almost as big as he is and two assistants follow him, careful not to be found on camera. And speaking of that, I nearly was, when I found myself in an area of the "round" during a rehearsal take. Luckily it was a rehearsal and not the real thing! Looking forward to seeing more of Jason's work tomorrow.

That dawn park scene among Nureyev and his lovers is set against a gorgeous image created by director of photography, Dylan MacLeod. Taken originally for a separate project, Dylan showed the picture to Moze as a suggested similar look to what Moze might be looking for. Moze loved the image so much he asked to take it on. The intimate round space provides a perfect playground to explore the sensual side of Nureyev's life: it is just small enough for the web-like intricacies of relationships to be evident, and just large enough for the sense of freedom that is evoked for Nureyev in these encounters. Mat Mrozewski's beautiful choreography rounds out one of the most stunning sequences I've seen so far. In this picture at right, ensemble member Etienne Lavigne rehearses some of the dance with Nico.

And speaking of Nico, the pictures on this blog don't do justice to his presence and charisma in the title role. Today, I was impressed by his acting within the dancing, embodying some of Nureyev's well-known flourishes, and also conveying deep emotion in the complexly-nuanced park scene. Here, he stands between takes with Moze. As someone else who seems easygoing and relaxed with almost anyone, he and Moze are well-matched!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

shooting begins!

At long last, Nureyev is in front of the cameras, and as of this writing, the company is at the end of day 2 of 6 days. Five of the days are occurring now and will finish on Wednesday. A sixth day will be shot at a later time, when all of the "documentary" interview footage will be shot in a church sanctuary.

It is always very exciting for me the first day I am on set of one of Moze's movies. It is very thrilling to see his hard work come to life, through all the incredible hard work of others. And it always seems like a very natural place for him to be. My few hours there fell at the end of the day with the shooting of a sequence from the early life of Nureyev, being guided by his teacher, Pushkin. This was a new sequence for me: I had not seen it in rehearsal so it was interesting to see it evolve before me. It is one of the more narrative sequences, in which young Rudik's talent is observed and developed lovingly by his mentor, while his parents looks on with differing responses.

Pursuant to Moze's vision for this work, the set is a simple dance space with a rear view projection acting as the only backdrop. (This picture is shot from behind the projection screen and dance space. You can see the projector at right of the frame.) These projections are sometimes images that evoke place: in the sequence I observed for instance, the unmistakeable, gorgeous, gold domes of the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg serve as a backdrop for a narrative profile of the young dancer's life while training with the Kirov ballet.

I keep seeing people who crewed on Roxana, Moze's last film. In this regard it was a pleasure to meet up again with Mary and Madeleine who are doing make-up and hair, respectively, on Nureyev. While I was there, focus was on Nico's hair - and how to best represent the famed Russian dancer's 'do'. In the picture above, Moze, Madeleine and others confer. At right, Madeleine goes back to work on it.

Although the budget has been trim on this project, costs have been sunk into a few key pieces of equipment that will end up making all the difference to the quality of expression in the film. One is the enormous hanging balloon light (and I will have to find out the real name of it!) that is suspended from the ceiling over the set. Its diffusion creates a very lyrical and expressive space that is both warm and theatrical while also uniquely cinematic in its capacity to bring out faces especially on camera. Another significant contributor is the jimmyjib crane that dips and swivels around the action almost like a dancer itself. In the picture at top, the rear projection is visible on the monitor of the jimmyjib crane operator. In person, it resembled a small aircraft of some kind! Quite impressive. In the picture here, Moze chats with producer, Peter Gentile during a moment between takes.

During a break, I too got a chance to chat briefly with Peter, who was pleased with how things were going. At that particular moment, the company was running ahead of schedule, an almost unheard of thing, especially for a first day. After conversing with Assistant Director Derek Rappaport and Dylan Macleod, who is the D.O.P, a decision was made to try to pick up some of the smaller pieces from the enormous list of shots put on today (Sunday)'s schedule. As I left for the day, Moze was seated in front of the two monitors, waiting to work on close-ups of Tyler and others. The day was nearly done and it had been a good one. More tomorrow!