Although she loves ballet, Sofia Coppola does not consider herself an aficionado. Still, when she received an email from the New York City Ballet asking if she would be directing a movie for the company’s virtual spring gala on May 5, she didn’t hesitate. “I was so thrilled,” she said in a video interview last week. “It was so cool to get a grade from the City Ballet.”
Coppola, whose dreamlike first feature film, “The Virgin Suicides” (2000), established her as a filmmaker capable of arousing the viewer’s interest as much through imagery and atmosphere as through narrative or action, has won accolades and awards for his films, including an Oscar script for “Lost in Translation” (2003) and Best Director for “The Beguiled” (2017) at the Cannes Film Festival.
“We were a little nervous contacting her,” said Justin Peck, resident choreographer and City Ballet artistic advisor, in the video interview with Coppola. He had spoken to the company’s artistic directors, Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan, “putting together something substantial, with a real vision,” he said, and they agreed they wanted to engage with it. a filmmaker. Coppola, he added, was No.1 on his list. “She was so responsive and excited about it, and warm to talk about it that it turned into a wonderful process.”
The 24-minute film (available on City Ballet’s website and YouTube channel, May 6-20) features “Solo,” a new work by Peck for lead dancer Anthony Huxley, on Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings , and excerpts from Jerome “Dances at a Gathering” by Robbins and “Duo Concertant” by Balanchine, “Liebeslieder Walzer” and “Divertimento n ° 15”.
Coppola connects these pieces by means of a poetic journey through the company’s home, the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, passing black-and-white images of the dancers in the rehearsal studio, behind the scenes and in the ‘huge empty foyer with color segments in the auditorium and on the stage itself. “Shooting at the theater,” Coppola said, “I felt the spirits of the dance were there.
In the interview, she and Peck discussed how they worked together, the challenges of filming the dance, and what they each took away from the experience. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Sofia, how did you approach the making of this film?
I’ve enjoyed going to ballet over the years, but I’ve never filmed anything with a dance component. And my shooting style is pretty stationary, so to do something where there was so much movement, I had to think about using the camera differently. What was really helpful was having Justin’s movies, shot on his phone, of his rehearsals with Anthony. It was interesting to see his sense of movement.
What are the challenges of filming the dance?
The challenge for me was to convey the feeling of seeing the dance live. A lot of the dancing is filmed in a very flat and standard way. But getting closer, which is fascinating in rehearsal, does not always translate into a film either. I had to move the camera around a lot more than I’m used to and try to make it feel like I’m experiencing a live performance from different points of view.
There were also technical things. In the edit, we would say “Oh, that’s beautiful”, and Wendy or Jon or Justin would say: “Hmmm, his turn is a little off” or “The feet are not in the game!” Normally I don’t think of showing someone head to toe in a frame, but here you want to show the choreography completely.
Did you watch musicals growing up?
Yeah, we’ve watched a lot of musicals. I don’t know if that influenced me here, but the last section of the film, the finale of “Divertimento # 15,” had that kind of old Hollywood glamor that I wanted to convey to me.
How much homework did you feel you had to do to understand each dance piece?
In fact, I didn’t want to prepare too much, because I wanted to approach dance in a new way. But Jon, Wendy, and Justin all told me about the story behind each piece – when they were made and what the choreographers might have thought. I also learned a lot about Robbins from Jean-Pierre Frohlich, and what certain gestures meant in the solo “Danses”. I wanted to try and give each piece a different visual personality, and we found that together I think.
You are both credited on the “concept” film. How did you work on this together?
Coppola In our first conversations, Justin explained that the dancers had been away from the theater for a year, so bringing the theater back to life, and the dancers’ feeling of coming home, became the central idea. I like films that are more abstract and poetic, and for me each piece had its own essence and its own feeling, so we talked about that too.
Peck Part of the intention was to expose some of the inner workings of the theater that an audience member wouldn’t normally see. We wanted to create a slow engraving, from its inner workings to a fully executed stage performance. It symbolizes the process for a dancer: starting in the studio, moving onto the stage, then performing under the lights.
One of the things I really liked when I saw the first cut of the movie was that I felt like all of these clips were happening simultaneously, in their little sub-worlds of the theater. It’s a very authentic idea, the way the craft is perfected through rehearsals and comes together on stage.
Did you also bring up the idea of going from black and white to color?
Coppola No, I just imagined it like that from the start. But then I wanted the ending to be a party and a comeback, and I hoped I could switch to color without it being too cheesy. I love the contrast between the rehearsals and the backstage, then the tutus and the lights; it’s like a fantasy of what ballet is when you’re a little child. The pale blues and yellows of the “Divertimento” costumes are also so pretty, like the spring colors coming to life.
Peck It is also another very authentic representation of what it feels like to work in the theater. The backstage is poorly lit, the hallways are damp and the walls are peeling. Then there is the magic that happens when you step out on a stage and the heat of the lights is on you.
Sofia, you staged “La Traviata” for the Rome Opera in 2016. Were there any similarities of approach for you here?
I think this experience just helped me say yes to this and not be too scared because I had already done something that I did not know how to do. Perhaps the similarity was that both experiences focused on art and beauty. It’s a nice break with films, which are so expensive to make that it often becomes a business issue. In the theater, there are all these artisans who really do it for the love of their art. There is a purity there that gives me so much in my mind.
What did you take away from the experience?
Coppola I feel like I have new friendships in the dance world! And it’s so stimulating to collaborate on a new medium.
Peck We feel the same. Sofia showed us that she could dance with her camera.