Eastern Odyssey, a film by Quinn Wharton

20 Apr

This mostly interesting film received its visual premiere Monday night, April 16, at the Vogue Theatre, Sacramento Street near Presidio in San Francisco;  it covers the two performance appearance June 2011 in Tiit Helimets’ native Estonia with a company he assembled from San Francisco Ballet, Ballet San Jose and Milwaukee Ballet. The presentation was facilitated by Deborah du Bouwy, the force behind the dance documentary series, Words on Dance.

Obviously a work of dedication and affection, it suffers from some technical difficulties and the filmmaker’s “inside” view; he’s a member of San Francisco Ballet. It does emphasize Helimets narrating how his dream received its chance to be realized and commenting on his necessary shift in focus from  self- centered artist to leader responsible for the direction and execution of the ensemble’s brief tour.

One of the most obvious problems was the use of white print for explanatory passages; fine when the background was sufficiently dark, but maddening when light or pastel shades tended to wash out the text.  Another was the uneven nature of the musical score when the sound frequently overwhelmed the visuals, instead of underscoring the action.  This is something  a better sound mix can adjust.

Almost before we see Tiit Helimets interviewed about the genesis of the project we are confronted with backstage images which ultimately seem to have nothing to do with the tour. Wharton later mentioned he had been influenced by some catchy commercials.  We listen to Helimets’ describing the genesis of the film and are introduced to the dancers and the four supporting players. Besides Helimets, the San Francisco dancers were Frances Chung, Nicole Cioppini,  Daniel Deivison-Oliveira,  Sasha de Sola, James Sofranko, Sarah Van Patten; Ballet San Jose dancers Jeremy Kovitch and Alexsandra Meijer; from Milwaukee Ballet  Julianne Kepley and Joshua Reynolds.  Val Caniparoli was the choreographer; his ballet Ibsen Suite was part of the repertoire.  Katita Waldo was ballet mistress, Dan McGary company manager, Jane Green stage manager, Michael Leslie physical therapist.  The entire roster was clearly and nicely identified.

From what I glimpsed Balanchine’s Apollo, Tarantella, and Le Corsaire were on the repertory roster in addition to Ibsen Suite; what else was rehearsed or performed was not easily determined, nor did we enjoy strains of the appropriate music. The program sequence, presumably the same in both cities where the ensemble performed, was not clarified, footage shifting forward and back in kaleidoscopic fashion.

It might have been a salient addition to include more of Helimets as Apollo with his three Muses;  if the role switches actually occurred this needed  to be clear.

Pre-performance rituals, makeup, toe shoe lineup, hair arrangement , warm up, along with muscular mishaps helped to create the atmosphere of tension caused by the unexpected. Helimets’ cool under fire was nicely depicted, as well as his incredibly straight back and pointed feet.

The initial rehearsal venue, one of the major studios of Ballet San Jose, could have been identified.   The Amsterdam airport was prominent as the transfer point for the plane to Tallin, Estonia, part of the most engaging footage in the documentary.  Wharton lingered on this transition, catching qualities of the dancers admirably. Understandably, clinking of beer glasses played their role, and one or two clowning sequences of the ensemble on narrow cobblestone streets.

In the Q & A following the showing, presided over by Garen Scribner, Katita Waldo gave observations which could have been touched upon in the film. (She’s a woman for all seasons.) One was the quality of Tallin’s historic center as one of Europe’s  best preserved medieval cities.  The other involved the differing operation of a small ensemble from a large company relating to costume maintenance.

Tiit Helimets provided valuable information when he disclosed using San Francisco Ballet tour organization format as a model: information, tour guide, ticketing, etc. Inclusion of this information would be salient; in one or two instances we got  a glimpse but no explanation.

Wharton mentioned his problem with the cost of music rights with popular songs used in the documentary’s current form.  The music supplied by his friend seemed far more adequate than the distracting tunes several decibels too loud.

Whether or not Wharton decides to revise the current documentary, carved out of seventy hours of videotape, Eastern Odyssey is an admirable first effort. A lot  depends on where he wishes to take his footage. Seeking an outsider’s view and plotting out his editing with the aid or a story board, will advance   Wharton’s  admirable dance doumcentary debut considerably.

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