One of Frederick Wiseman’s virtues is that he films dance pieces in their entirety. The documentary filmmaker of Ballet and La Danse shoots dancers from far back, showing them performing their numbers with a full view of the stage. He does this to make a larger point about how dance institutions function. Whether planning Swan Lake or playing it, a dancer’s (and an artist’s) life is work. But Ruedi Gerber’s Breath Made Visible treats dance as beauty. In the same way that listening to a clip of a song is less satisfying than grooving to the whole number, so too is a snippet of a dance number less edifying than watching the entire piece. The success of the clip show lies in getting you to sample a lot of different flavors in a short amount of time; the tyranny of the clip show is that, though you get the gist of some movement in a number, you lose the sense of how the movements work together into a unified whole.
Anna Halprin is the dancer being clipped. The 86-year-old founder of the San Francisco Dancer’s Workshop has made a shtick out of transforming everyday movements into dance. In Parades and Changes, dancers disrobe for lovemaking, their clothes-dropping slowed down, each movement highlighted to the tune of “Downtown”; in Seniors Rocking, she leads a group of elderly women up out of their chairs. Halprin herself moves a little like Michael Jackson in The Wiz; it’s not dancing so much as stylized walking, often in circles, with her arms broken sharply into upper and lower halves. Both the joy and the agony of the work we see in the film come from observing pieces of the body. In Intensive Care, perhaps her most powerful dance, she starts off under a sheet, then rises out of it, eyes wide and mouth open, to mimic her husband’s hospital treatment.
Halprin herself is a cancer survivor, which has informed her work. At one point she says, “Before I had cancer, I lived my life for my art. After I got cancer, I lived my art for my life.” A more trite statement may not be uttered on screen all year. A danger in discussing nonverbal art is that the work proves more interesting than anything that you could possibly say about it, which is what happens with Halprin. The film seems to make a fundamental miscalculation by splitting time between Halprin’s numbers and her reflections on them; learning that dance touches a deep place in your soul doesn’t get us very far.
The backstage narrative of Halprin fighting illness is useful, but a straight full-length recording of one of Halprin’s performances might be preferable to this biographical loving fluff (the film includes a fade from her dancing to a bird flying). One example of a successful performance film is Stop Making Sense, a Talking Heads concert doc that barrels forward with such focus and energy that it makes you want to jump up and down alongside David Byrne; an unsuccessful example is Shine a Light, a Rolling Stones concert doc that keeps trotting out archival footage to show how great it is that the band’s still together. Breath Made Visible’s approach often feels closer to the latter.
Breath’s greatest utility could be as a hyperlink to its subject’s work. The movie includes many clips from a Halprin dance film called Returning Home in which Halprin dresses up variously as a straw man in a field, a wrapped-in-plastic creature rolling under waves, and a pure-blue Amazonian that would make James Cameron blush. In its entirety the number may be amazing, or flat and pretentious—but you would need to see it to find out.