Dance and cinema are no strangers to each other. Dancers on film, however, are normally either denied personhood, or allowed to develop themselves as characters mostly when they're not performing. Alan Brown allows for performer and human to merge in Five Dances, a delicate film about a choreographer and his modern dance troupe, all unable to keep their art separate from their intimacy needs. Set at a small rehearsal studio in New York City where the crackling of the floor and the snapping of the dancers-cum-lovers' joints echo each other beautifully, the film focuses on 18-year-old newcomer Chip (Ryan Steele) as he tries to navigate a world where the body does the talking—on and off the stage.
Chip has come from middle America to the big city on a Joffrey scholarship and is so broke he sleeps in the dance studio and only has breakfast if a peer offers to share. He has an enigmatic look in his eyes and never smiles, which proves to be a turn on for his fellow dancers, male and female alike. But like a scared little animal, he seems hostile to touch. Theo (Reed Luplau), his duet partner, manages to slowly break down Chip's impenetrability as their choreographed closeness melds into a sexual closeness and, then, to love.
Although Five Dances overplays Chip's narrative background with a trite backstory about an alcoholic mother in Kansas who keeps calling him to take the Greyhound home, dance hasn't been captured on film quite this way before. It's the moments when director Brown stops worrying about clarifying plot and character motivation and lets the performances bring those into being that makes this an authentic project. The camera dances along with the dancers, zooming in and out, at times getting so uncomfortably close to Chip's face that anything he could say would feel cringingly redundant. The dancers' faces aren't blank slates refusing to overshadow the general play among bodies, they are, in their subtle opaqueness, just as fundamental a part of the show. The film's insistence on developing a more traditional storyline along with the dance performances and the observation of the rehearsals is anti-climactic. There's enough drama, and certainly an entrancing rhythm, in simply listening to the dancers' feet landing on the wooden floor, in the way their bodies seem to be making up for a history of muffled words, all of which lose their sharpness once they're actually spoken in dialogue.