Of all the creative arts, it might be fair to say that dance is the most universally practised; there are few of us who won’t, at some point or another, to one degree or another, move our bodies to music. And like most creative arts, dance has a twofold function: it can exist as a public performance, a carefully honed product of physical skill and aesthetic innovation, or it can exist as a private act of expression, a spontaneous bodily response to impulses that are about sensation rather than style. Ivan Gergolet’s film Dancing With Maria is about a studio that enables the latter form of dance to flourish, but, as cinema, it is the former, a captivating piece of art skilfully crafted from many private and public moments of movement.
A few days ago, in his review of In Her Shadows, Tom Grayson wrote about the narrative power of physical theatre, the ability of the body to convey meanings and tell stories with nothing but movements, gestures, postures. The bodies that move in Maria Fux’s studio are almost the inverse of this; they are dance without narrative, bodies that do not seek to convey anything but their own existence. There are many small stories woven through the documentary – family histories, personal journeys and shy teenage romance – but Gergolet does not attempt to construct any neat plot trajectories with beginnings and ends, and most of the film is spent dwelling on the act of dance itself.
There’s something compelling about watching dance that is not intended as performance at all, in a space where movement is for movement’s sake, not for the gaze of an audience. In an illuminating post-film conversation at the Glad Café, teachers from Independ-dance and Scottish Ballet discussed their practises and the different forms dance instruction can take. What perhaps makes dance so therapeutic for many, they suggested, is the sensation of being fully present in one’s body, the anxieties of past and future suspended in the spontaneity of a moment that exists only for itself. It is a sensation that can be lost in much professionally choreographed dance, where performers must always be consciously aware of their surroundings, timings and lighting, as well as each other’s bodies and the space they inhabit. Choreographed dance is a craft, creativity made into art by intensive labour; the dance that happens in Maria’s studio is not labour but play, unstructured and spontaneous.
That might sound like the sort of thing that works better as therapy than as art, but within the context of the film’s beautiful cinematography, it’s unfailingly captivating to watch. The sheer mass of bodies in the studio has a hypnotic effect; most of the time they seem oblivious to each other and the camera; their focus is turned inwards, but their aesthetic power is stronger than the sum of its parts. In shots of feet weaving between each other, hands twirling, reaching and bathed in eerie blue light, there is a sense of intimate anonymity, a sense reflected in Maria’s relation to her students: ‘I don’t ask them where are they from, what are they doing or not doing. Meeting them when they are moving, I realise who they are. I don’t have a relationship with them outside these encounters. When the class is over, I disappear.’ It’s a connection based not on identities but on the immediacy of bodily encounters, which can be more intimate and telling than any life story.
Throughout the film, interspersed with the flowing, organic shots of moving bodies are panoramas of Buenos Aires, with its lanes of traffic moving steadily in straight lines. There is a deliberate contrast between the vast cityscape in which human flesh is invisible, locked behind metal or stone, and the small intimate rooms where bodies exist side by side. In the final beautiful scene, the two finally intermingle: we get an aerial shot of a many-laned road where cars trundle by, until, gradually, there are no more cars and dancers begin to spill along the edges of the road, dancing along the painted white lines like tightropes, until, finally, a flood of bodies bursts into the lanes, dancing in a place they aren’t supposed to, refusing to remain confined to the city’s officially demarcated zones.
As one audience member put it, what Maria does is give people permission to dance, an inclusive, unconditional permission that leaves ideas about ability and skill and aesthetic conformity at the door. One of the dancers, a woman who walks on crutches, speaks of her childhood envy of a dancer friend: ‘They never let me dance because classical dance was impossible for me, and any other dance as well, because my movements are not acknowledged by dance.’ Later, there is a moving scene in which she dances in the centre of a circle of her classmates. Maria’s studio is a place that acknowledges the potential of all bodies to move in beautiful and powerful ways. And indeed, Maria herself bears witness to this principle: still dancing at 93, she is fascinated by the limits of the body, not as barriers but as challenges to find new ways of moving.
Written by Shona McCombes