Last Dance

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Last Dance

When Mirra Bank began making Last Dance in 1998, she likely hoped the documentary would capture the difficulties of an artistic collaboration. But she couldn't have guessed that her model—a joint venture between children's author Maurice Sendak and the abstract Connecticut dance troupe Pilobolus—would undergo difficulties so pertinent and alive with everyday human conflict. Early in Last Dance, the artistic principals sit down for an air-clearing meeting, to work on the trouble Sendak is having articulating his impressionistic fable, which is set in a Nazi concentration camp. Sendak says that he's open to any suggestions, though he presumes that everyone agrees that the dance piece will open with a group of people waiting for a train. Pilobolus artistic director Jonathan Wolken flashes a tight smile and says that he's not sure they should settle on anything so concrete. Sendak stares back at him in bewilderment, unsmiling. The disconnect between the two camps raises questions. Is this just a personality clash? Wolken shows some arrogance in Last Dance, wondering aloud what Pilobolus has to gain from working on Sendak's idea, and letting his opinion stand for the whole world's. ("This is not useful to us... this is useful to no one.") More than his amiable co-directors Robby Barnett and Michael Tracy, Wolken seems to have taken the idea of free expression to mean that all definite ideas should be tabled. Or could the problem be that Sendak misunderstands what abstract art is all about? Barnett confesses bemusement at Sendak's tendency to read the Pilobolus dancers' exploratory movements as having real-world meaning, as though they were miming a clock, or the angel of death. Sendak explains away his confusion by claiming to be "a storyteller," but it's clear that he came to Pilobolus because he had no story, just a rough concept which he assumed creative dancers could convert into significant gestures. Meanwhile, Pilobolus' directors (if not the dancers, who voice few opinions on the matter) consider human movement to be a story in itself, not required to conform to any outside narrative. Perhaps the choreographers fear direct meaning, because it leaves their work more open to accusations of pretension; Barnett appears concerned about just that on the eve of their first public performance. Last Dance concludes with excerpts from the finished product, but while the dance piece is impressive in its acrobatic motion and fancifully nightmarish Sendakian trappings, as a work of art it lacks the dimension of Bank's documentary. Last Dance displays, in all its discomfort and occasional fruitfulness, the trouble inherent in aesthetics by committee.