San Francisco based filmmaker Leslie Streit has been filming her third documentary feature “An American Ballet Story” since 2015. In 2022, seven years later, she is still hard at work to finish editing the feature. As she reached out to me, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to interview her for CHOPSO, who loves supporting independent filmmaking and telling stories about indie filmmakers.
Can you tell us in a nutshell what “An American Ballet Story?” is about?
LS: “An American Ballet Story” profiles one particular New York City company, the Harkness Ballet, who exemplified the changing artistic, civil rights, and social economic times in which it existed. It began with a feud and a bang, thrived and was applauded, collapsed, restarted and left a lasting legacy. The company itself and its philanthropic, progressive but controversial creator serve as our story’s main characters.
Here’s a brief synopsis that describes it best: 1964 – A time of major shifts in civil rights, women’s and gay rights. New York City was alive – you could feel it on the streets. The young Joffrey Ballet splits in two over a power struggle for artistic control and the HARKNESS BALLET bursts onto the New York City arts scene. Bold, brash and controversial, the Harkness revolutionizes the way dance is performed forever. And then it disappeared…
What happened to the Harkness Ballet? It produced 2 international touring companies, a youth ballet and its very own theater. Its training program sent more dancers into the world of professional dance than any other company school of its time. The company was invited to perform at the White House and was seen on national TV. It became an international sensation wherever it toured. The dancers, choreographers, composers and designers were pioneers. All of the pieces and much of the music was original. Founder REBEKAH HARKNESS, an oil heiress, put her money where her heart was. She gave opportunities to emerging American artists no matter their race, heritage or background. Her goal was to create a truly American dance company. And for 10 years she did.
How did you come to start making the documentary feature?
LS: For us the film began in 2010. ODC San Francisco (a contemporary dance center with a structured ballet program) asked our video company Cinematiks to film a 13 week workshop taught by Maria Vegh, the former co-director of the Harkness Ballet School. It turned into a large project which included the creation of an interactive study guide for Ballet on DVD. Maria talked non-stop about the Harkness Ballet and what it had accomplished in the world of dance. I looked it up – and there was almost no mention of it in any of my dance history books and yet they had danced at the White House and performed for Princess Grace. Who was this Harkness Ballet and why has it been left out and forgotten? Research led us back to the days of the Ballet Russe and key names began to emerge in the worlds of dance, politics, journalism, Broadway, music, visual art and design.
I grew up in New York City but didn’t dance or see dance performed until my late teens. At some point I became obsessed with Ballet and ballet dancers and studied not only the art form but everything I could learn about it. So for me the mystery was irresistible and a story began to emerge. What happened to this pioneering company and what influence did it leave on artists working today?
Can you talk about your background as a filmmaker and your previous two film projects?
LS: I studied both visual art and dance in college and expected to be a studio arts teacher. But right out of school I was offered jobs teaching and choreographing dance – first for children’s performance groups and then at several community colleges. I was very interested in what was called at the time multimedia and performance art combining theater, costume, lighting, effects, and music with interactive audiences and I tried to do it all.
By the early 1990s I had formed my own experimental theater group located in an industrial building in San Jose CA with my now co-producer Robin McCain, a Silicon Valley whiz kid. We began making and incorporating films as a layer in our live performances. By the mid ‘90s we had made a whole collection of interesting short films. It was the early digital age and there was a growing hunger for digital content. For the next few years I was able to place these films in venues including television stations all over the US and on the emerging World Wide Web all over the globe. That was the beginning.
We made two feature films before we began “An American Ballet Story”….”God Wears My Underwear” (2005) tied the Jewish Holocaust of the 1940s to the Tibetan genocide of the 1950s through the character of a reincarnated soul. It appeared at several international film festivals and won a Best Film award at an experimental film festival in Toronto. The second was “Elly and Henry” (2017 – aka the Inventor Who Escaped the Nazis). That film is distributed by Espresso Media International, was available on Amazon Prime and is about to be launched on several new platforms.
We’ve also recently returned to the short experimental format focusing on the effects of climate change that we see in our own neighboring Bay Estuary.
How are you connected to the dance world as a filmmaker? Has your perspective on ballet changed from the time you started shooting to now?
LS: Our company Cinematiks has been providing affordable video documentation to dance non-profits and performing groups in the Bay Area for the past 12 years. I’ve been a part of the dance community as a student and a teacher for many years and I know many dancers. I also have accumulated much experience documenting dance performance on video.
Our stories for our own projects come to us through personal relationships…friends offering their own life events or those of their family members. It doesn’t always pan out. We had been offered one great story for a documentary about an unsolved murder in the 1930s Midwest. We would love to have done it but there were people in that family who didn’t want to be filmed so it never happened.
Dance is a small world. People who dance in San Francisco or New York more than likely have danced or studied with people in companies across the country and abroad. I was thrilled to meet dance icons from a previous generation during the filming of “An American Ballet Story”. It was great to have a behind the scenes look into a large Ballet company and its history from start to finish. We’re pleased to be able to share that with an audience.
I can’t say that my perspective on the dance form changed only that I feel more connected to it now more than ever.
As “An American Ballet Story” has been seven years in the making can you talk about the status of the feature now? Where are you at?
LS: We started filming interviews in 2015. It was not an easy story to tell. First of all it is a hybrid – not a pure documentary and not quite a dance film/musical – but some combination of both.
Since there were several incarnations of the Harkness company during its 10 years, followed by an additional 10 years of the Harkness school, story continuity was tricky. We used commentary about the New York City arts scene and the social, political and economic changes during the 1960s and ‘70s to provide a background structure. Archival excerpts of the dance pieces and a percussion, jazz and classical music score move the story forward from scene to scene as they would in a more traditional musical.
Right now the film comes in at 94 minutes including the credits. We’ve started applying to international film festivals especially those that focus on history and arts history. We’re also building a press kit and we’re open to talking to potential distributors.
Anyone that would like to be on our email update list can send me their contact information at email@example.com or join the Facebook page for “An American Ballet Story”. we’ll be announcing screenings and other events soon.
How would you compare filmmaking to dancing as a discipline in arts?
LS: Anything that appears on a film screen is a form of choreography. The process of creating light and dark areas, lines and shapes, and positive/negative space surrounding moving images is the same. You want to direct the viewer’s eye to what you think is important for them to see. Both art forms can be accompanied by a soundtrack which might be music, dialog, natural or mechanical sounds or by total silence. The context can be a narrative story or a completely abstract work.
In recent years “dance film” has become a recognized genre which describes a collaboration between the choreographer and the camera. There are specialized dance film festivals all over the world now. People who shoot dance films want to add to the dynamic of the film with camera movement and even their own body movements inside the dance space using special equipment and multiple cameras to capture every possible angle and view. Editing techniques are also evolving to accommodate this genre.
A “dance film” is different from performance documentation or a documentary film about dance history from the point of view of audience expectations. In fact those forms might attract very different audiences.
The potential of “dance film” to change the face of dance through the collaboration of two art forms and its potential for reaching new audiences is great.
In making and researching “An American Ballet Story” how has the popular culture outlook on ballet evolved from Ballet Russe to now?
There were several chapters of the Ballet Russe which altogether lasted from 1909 to the final closing of the last company in 1968. They all were very influential in the development of dance as a modern art form and their tours of Europe, North and South America brought classical and modern dance to audiences in large cities and small towns. Those tours might have been the only opportunity that people in some areas would have had to see a company of well trained dancers performing excellent classical choreography in their lifetimes. They not only brought Ballet to non dance audiences in cities and remote areas but influenced visual art, music, set design, movies and even mainstream fashions of the time.
By the late 20th century dance had exploded into popular culture through mass media…Broadway musicals, television, movies and then music videos, reality TV and global talent shows like America has Talent and So You Think You Can Dance both of which have millions of viewers. These shows have their own versions in many countries around the world.
People began experimenting with the art form itself. Modern and jazz dance choreographers started crossing over to work with ballet companies and vice versa. Now is a time of fusion and genre bending like never before. Hip hop came in off the street and onto Broadway stages and music videos. Ballet, jazz, contemporary, tap and street dance all can be seen on Internet platforms that specialize in the performing arts. There are dance schools everywhere (including for adults) opened by former dancers who have become the next generation’s teachers and choreographers. There are websites that teach every kind of dance form to those that want to learn online and now due to the Pandemic we can take our biweekly classes on Zoom.
Maybe most important has been the rise of diversity in all forms of dance. Many companies now have Equity and Inclusion advisors. There were very few African American, Asian and LatinX dancers in major Ballet companies until the early 2000s – actually the Harkness Ballet was one of the first companies way back in 1965 to include anyone with talent regardless of race, ethnicity or background. There are more women choreographers and directors. We are seeing a great effort to make that our standard operating procedure. And it will move dance forward in many ways.
What do you think about other forms of dance? How did Jazz and Hip Hop evolve ballet or have other forms of dance pushed ballet back?
LS: Let’s go back again to the 1960s and ‘70’s which was really a great era for dance. As I mentioned modern and jazz choreographers had been doing a lot of crossing over back then so they could work with Ballet companies. There was so much experimentation going on and music was crossing over from non-Western cultures too.
As one dancer told me in an interview…’what contemporary dance is today began at Harkness. Robert Joffrey was doing stuff, Alvin Ailey was doing stuff but she (Rebekah Harkness) put it all together.’ As Rebekah Harkness said herself…’when the modern choreographer uses our (ballet) dancers for their technique the result is very dramatic.’
Ballet is a very formal way of using the body that requires years of study. But it is easy to see the influence of Ballet on modern and jazz dance forms. I just read a post the other day from a well known jazz dance teacher who was told by his mentor that to succeed he needed to study Ballet. And he did. Ballet is said to be the essential training for almost any style of dance to attain athleticism like turning and jumping and to develop strength and flexibility.
Hip Hop developed in the street and you can potentially master the moves in a few months. It’s very popular and it also crosses over into movies, onto Broadway stages, dance for camera and even influences new works in Ballet and Jazz dance companies done by Ballet trained dancers.
The roots of Jazz, Hip Hop and Tap come from the music and rituals of African American and Afro- Caribbean cultures. Ballet traditionally relied on classical music and completely different rhythms.
Modern dance also had its own musical traditions including experimental music from composers like John Cage, New Age and electronic music.
Going back to the Harkness Ballet again… Mrs. Harkness brought in a great variety of choreographers to work with her company including Stuart Hodes who had been a Graham dancer and Jack Cole who was a Hollywood choreographer and had been trained in East Indian dance. The company was required to learn Flamenco from Jose Greco and others and some of the dancers even studied acrobatics.
Today we see this fusion of styles (like equity) helping Ballet and all dance forms to become more mainstream, popular and evolved.
When can we see “An American Ballet Story”? And if you have to tell a startup documentary filmmaker one piece of advice what would that be?
LS: We hope we’ll have the answer to that question soon. In the meantime if I was to give a new documentary filmmaker a piece of advice it would be not to follow popular trends but to pick a subject that is a new personal discovery or one that you are already passionate about. And have fun!