The Dance Enthusiast Asks Dance Film Director, Greg Vander Veer
Behind The Scenes of "Miss Hill- Making Dance Matter" Produced by the Martha Hill Dance Fund
Prologue: One cold January night in 2009, I was at an East Village Bar celebrating with fashion designer Lars Andersson. Next to me was a guy who seemed personable and certainly talkative. “What do you do?” I asked him. He answered, “Oh, I am making a film about an 89-year-old dancer.” Within a fraction of a second I went through my mental database - my brain’s Rolodex - and said: “Like Marge Champion?”
He almost dropped his beer and exclaimed: “Exactly like Marge Champion!” A couple of weeks later, he showed me his poetic short film Keep Dancing, about Champion and Donald Saddler. It was then that I knew I had found the director for the documentary about Martha Hill.
As a board member of the Martha Hill Dance Fund, I brought a copy of the movie to our board meeting. Everyone was pleased. (Incidentally, “Keep Dancing” was part of the 2010 Dance on Camera Film Festival.) Since then, Greg Vander Veer has immersed himself in the life story of Martha Hill, and although I take credit for introducing him to her legacy, it was her story that made him fall in love with the dance world. Recently, he has even become President of the Dance Films Association.
THE DANCE ENTHUSIAST asked me to introduce the man whose film about America’s foremost dance educator will be a staple in every dance library around the globe and which will be screened at many important film festivals this year. I am thrilled to be part of it and want to thank Greg, my fellow board members, the current board president, Vernon Scott, and especially the late Irwin Denis and the late Hortense Zera for dreaming up the possibility of this documentary.
After its January 31st premiere as the opening night film of the 2014 DANCE ON CAMERA FESTIVAL at Lincoln Center, Miss Hill – Making Dance Matter (director, Greg Vander Veer) garnered many enthusiastic reviews. It is an intimate portrait of Martha Hill, the dance educator, who successfully introduced dance as a legitimate art form in America’s educational system by separating it from physical education. The film is a vivid historic document showing a wealth of archival footage illuminated by interviews with generations of dance dignitaries who studied with Hill either at Bennington, New York University, the American Dance Festival, the Dance Division of The Juilliard School.
Sarasota Film Festival ( April 5+6); Steamboat Springs, Colorado (April 7th); BBC Art Screen -Glasgow- (April 11); Berkshire International Film Festival (May 29-June1st); Dance Camera West -Los Angeles- (June 7th)
Since Greg will tell you that his home state is the best whether you want to hear it or not, I knew what my first question had to be to get him to talk. Luckily it is the same state in which Martha Hill founded the Bennington School of Dance...
Henning Rübsam for The Dance Enthusiast: Greg, Where are you from?
Greg Vander Veer: I was born in the green mountains of Vermont, in a tiny town nestled on the Canadian border. An old, graceful mountain range cuts through the center of our state, from top to bottom, creating to the east and the west, two beautiful valleys, full of rolling hills, charming towns and an agricultural community that has prospered for over 400 years.
And we don't wear cheese on our heads; we eat it with crackers or perhaps in a Turkey & Vermont Cheddar Cheese Sandwich with cranberry chutney.
TDE: What was the most exciting part in the process of making the film?
GVV: I always find the actual filming the most exciting. I was able to meet and interview around 40 amazing dance personalities. We also filmed some of the best dance companies in the world and filmed Martha Hill's hometown of Palestine, Ohio. No one there had heard of Martha Hill but they were thrilled that she was born in their tiny town.
TDE: It seemed that you certainly cared and felt passionate about the film's subject, Martha Hill. What created that connection to her - a woman you never met - within you?
GVV: It was a very strange feeling for me to spend so much my time telling the story of a woman I never met and who I didn't even know about before starting the film. I began to feel a real responsibility for her legacy. I wanted to tell her story properly and in a way that would make other people- like me who knew nothing about her- find her story interesting and inspirational. She spent a lifetime building a community and helping generation after generation of artists achieve their true potential. I think that is a fairly unique story in the art world and one that needed to be told.
TDE: Are there topics in the film you wish had been expanded upon? Do you feel you had to omit anything?
GVV: Yes, we omitted a lot. She lived 94 years and was active every-single day of it. Our film is only 80 minutes long, so unfortunately a lot of her story has been left out. Overall though, I think it tells enough of her life story to understand the huge contribution she made to the dance world.
TDE: Where do you see the film going? What are confirmed future screenings?
GVV: I hope it has a nice life screening around the country in festivals, theaters and universities. Then hopefully a spot on television and VOD. We also hope that it has a broad educational distribution and becomes required viewing for dance departments around the world. As of now we've been accepted into a handful of film festivals including Sarasota Film Festival, Dance Camera West, Berkshire International Film Festival, BBC ArtScreen, Vancouver International Film Festival and hopefully more to come.
TDE: Who are your collaborators? How much direction do you give them?
GVV:In this film my main creative collaborators were the editor, Elisa Da Prato and the cinematographer, Peter Buntaine. I have worked with both Peter and Elisa before and we have very comfortable working relationship. With Peter, I definitely give direction on what shots I would like and how I would like them to look, but he brings his own aesthetic style and eye to every shoot. So I think we ended up with a nice balance of what I pictured in my mind and the potential that he saw with each image. Also, most shoots we had two cameras and I was operating one of them, so I could get the shots I knew I wanted while also allowing Peter the freedom to find other great moments.
Elisa edited my first film, Keep Dancing, so we had established a style in that movie that we were both interested in continuing and expanding upon in Miss Hill. I would outline the story and scene verbally for her and then she would edit the scene as I looked on, sometimes thrilled, sometimes exasperated. And then we would have intense discussions and keep making the necessary changes until the scene worked. Elisa brings a lot of ideas and creativity to the editing room, so by no means is she just editing the film exactly how I tell her. It ends up being an intensely collaborative process where the final result is a nice balance between our two different aesthetic styles and vision.
TDE: Do you have a philosophy how dance should be filmed/shown? I am thinking of Fred Astaire who always insisted that the full body be in the frame....
GVV: I don't have a set philosophy but I certainly have a style that I seem to gravitate towards. Although I may not be as dogmatic as Fred Astaire, I do believe in wide, steady shots that allow the viewer to see the body move within the intended space. But I also think that close-ups used properly can allow the viewer to see dance in a different way than they would in live performance. Dance on film should not be simply trying to recreate the experience of a live performance but should use the power and intimacy of film to explore new ways of looking at and experiencing dance.
TDE: Do you see yourself working again in the dance field? What are your other/future projects?
GVV: I have developed a great interest in dance films and hope to continue working in the field throughout my career. I also plan on making documentaries that are not related to dance, like a project I am working on now called Church Forest, which is about the church forests of Ethiopia.
TDE: Thank you for this insightful interview, Greg. I promise to visit Vermont real soon.
Link to trailer: http://www.marthahilldance.org/index.php/documentary
Henning Rübsam, Contributing Editor to THE DANCE ENTHUSIAST is also the artistic director and choreographer of SENSEDANCE and has been on faculty at The Juilliard School since 2006.