Political climates, social factors and cultural influences are some of the key elements that affect dance and its development. Emotional and intellectual reactions towards changes in these political and social circumstances are often evidently seen in the medium of dance. (Company, Library, College, Division, Dept, Branch, Hanna, Arny, and Company) In the movie “White Nights”, the lives of two dancers from entirely different cultural backgrounds are intertwined resulting in an interesting marriage of tap dancing and ballet. These two distinctly unique forms of dance are central to the plot of the story as they help to push the action in the movie forward. Planted in an atmosphere of distrust and paranoia, Greenwood ironically found solace tap dancing his way into Broadway numbers that were truncated into small and less glamorous sets for an unexposed Soviet audience. On the other hand, the leading character Rodchenko, experienced a great freedom as he fled the totalitarian state; opening the door for exploration and exposure to a wider range of dance techniques, experimenting with different artistic directions. Eventually, their passion for dance and expression becomes the catalyst that transforms the relationship between the idealistic Russian ballet superstar, Nikolai Rodchenko and the disillusioned Harlem-born tap dancer, Raymond Greenwood.
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Set in the tense political climate of the Cold War between communist Soviet Union and capitalist United States of America, it was one of the primary perimeters for much of the tension between the two characters. With suspicion and fear, the two began their accidental friendship resulting a collaboration not only in executing a plan of escape but also in their respective dance forms. In a way, dance became one of the vehicles and motivation for these characters’ migration to another land. Due to the dissatisfaction or restrictions they have experienced due the political situation of their nation, they opted to leave for another land in search for an avenue to express themselves in dance.
Likened to the oppression of the legalistic church during the Dark Ages, the outlet for emotional expression through dance was never successfully suppressed by political or social forces. Similar to the countryside folks who danced underground and away from the eyes of the authorities during the Dark Ages, Nikolai also found an outlet for greater expression in dance in America and other parts of the world.
Parallel to the character of Nikolai, Raymond Greenwood’s dances could also be seen as a result of the political climate of which he was placed in. Due the Vietnam war, he became traumatised and disillusioned with the American government. He too, was pushed by the atrocities he experienced to leave those memories behind and start anew in the drastically different world of the Soviet Union.
In addition, International press relations and the image of the Soviet Union in the global community also seemed to be one of the key concerns which motivated the plot. Nikolai was held in the Soviet Union against his will in an attempt to convince the international ballet star to dance in Leningrad instead of the world at large. This is an example where the interests of the totalitarian state directly impedes an individual advancement in the world of dance (as in other art forms). This relates to the idea of how oppression has an effect on dance. As such, one cannot deny how the political situation of a nation has great impact on the emotional state and being of a dancer. This successfully creates a significant reaction which is displayed through the medium of dance.
Socially, the sentiments and emotions toward the Soviet Union and the racism situation in the United States have been important factors that shaped the dances seen in the film. In the case of Nikolai, the rebellion and frustration towards the iron fist of the Soviet Union’s reign was distinctly expressed in a sequence where he was dancing in front of his old flame. The movements and shapes involved in that dance were a clear expression of rebellion as it went against the basic ballet concept of pure and clean straight lines created by the body. The dance consisted of bend knees, asymmetrical forms and crooked shapes/lines, going against the elegant form and shape of classical ballet. Even the music (which was forbidden in the Soviet Union) feature the screaming tones of an frustrated Russian, displaying the emotions of an oppressed society. Just like in Hip-Hop dances and rap music of the African-American community, dance served as an outlet of release for all the emotional angst and sentiments of rebellion evident in the culture of a particular community due to the social issues and problems present. This scene not only displays a different side of Russian dance culture but also helps to bring the plot forward as it moves Helen Mirren’s character to risk her life to aid Nikolai arrange for a route of escape. In this sense, the scene was strategically used to move the viewer and the character which was crucial in moving the plot forward. Again, this fulfills Noverre’s concept of ensuring that dance solos are used in supporting to a central theme and plot.
The two different cultures and dance forms are introduced to the viewers are separate and distinct entities at the beginning of the show. In the opening scene of the movie displayed a dance piece that seemingly fitting the four elements of which Jean- Georges Noverre proposed that ballets ought to have in the famous Lettres sur la danse et les ballet:
1. Ballet should not only be technically brilliant, but should move audience emotionally through dramatic expressiveness.
2. Ballet should have unified plots that were logical and understandable.
3. The story should contribute to the central theme. Dance solos, etc. that do not relate to the plot should be eliminated. Scenery, music, costumes and plot all should be unified and appropriate to the theme.
4. Pantomime should be simpler and more understandable
In accordance to this set of criteria, the opening scene aligns itself to these requirements. With a clear narrative expressed, the dramatic orchestra music and the elaborately realistic set where all present in support of the plot where the dance make sense. Despite the lack of speech or singing, the use of pantomime to tell the story on stage was evident in this opening scene. Although there is a generally clear and distinct storyline, the viewer of the movie was free to interpret the intricate details of the plot as it was not specifically articulated expression such as anguish, confusion and anxiety were expressed through the dancers using stereotypical and socially understood expressions. Without any prior knowledge of the historical context of the film, the viewer is still able to interpret and understand the general happenings in the ballet performance by reading the body language of Nikolai Rodchenkov. Just as Noverre recommended, it was simple and logical, making it quite plain for audiences to understand. As such, the Russian classical ballet roots were evidently displayed through the character of Nikolai..
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Similarly, we also witness a distinctly American style of dancing (from the character of Raymond Greenwood) which has influences from the African-American community. One of the basic steps of tap dancing is shuffling which originated from the tribal African dances where they often keep their feet close to the ground in a bid to stay closely connected to the Earthly deities they believed in. Also, the repetitive rhythmic moves that harmoniously syncopates with the music in tap dancing are believed to be descendants of a tribal African dance concept where the repetition actually represented the cycle and circle of life. (Libraries, and Knowles. 21-23) Deeply connected to his complicatedly tough environment of Harlem, we see the past and motivation of Raymond Greenwood in a drunken tap dancing scene. Particularly, there was a segment in the scene where Raymond spoke of his decision to join the military. This is aided with a marching-like rhythms expressed in his tap dancing, vividly painting the picture of his circumstances during that time to the viewer. Though rather melodramatic, the brief sequence could be seen as a piece in accordance to Noverre’s concept where dance steps should be telling of a story to give meaning to these movements.
As the plot progresses, it is observed that the characters were brought from Siberia to Leningrad. This is due to Raymond’s persuasion (under the threat of the Soviet secret police) and the eventual decision on Nikolai’s part to dance at the theatre in Leningrad. The two dancers then began to collaborate increasingly in their craft as their relationship and circumstances develop. The two dancers slowly progress to merge or collaborate as they begin to gain trust with each other, plotting a route of escape from the secret police of the Soviet Union. Anchoring on their remarkable talent in dance, viewers are presented with a modern dance piece towards the end of film. This is where the two dancers performed a synchronised sequence accompanied by up-to-date 80s music, featuring moves that married elements from tap dancing, ballet and a kicking movement that viewers would inevitably related to Asian martial arts. This collaboration not only created a climax in plot, it also depicted the chemistry that has develop between the two characters as they move in unison across the big screen.
Notably, the brilliant choreography of award-winning choreographer, Twyla Tharp with the remarkable execution by George Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov is evidence of how dance can become so versatile and fluidly applied in any circumstances. By Incorporating the different elements of modern ballet, with American tap dancing, choreographed according to a pop 80s piece of music, it resulted in an interesting and engaging dance sequence that effectively move the viewer emotionally and dramatically.
Overall, dance and it’s development can always be credited to the political, social and cultural elements at work. Many a times, dance is a reaction toward the changes in these spheres that trigger an emotional and intellectual response. Through the film “White Nights”, the role of dance and power of dance is demonstrated through the believable and talented actors. With the help of a clever screenplay and cinematography, the effect of watching a dance piece in theatres is successfully translated on to the big screen, allowing the beautiful world of modern ballet and tap dancing to become accessible to an even wider range of audience. Using the dance pieces to develop characters and propel the plot, one might consider “White Nights” the modern cinematic take on Noverre’s concept of a ballet anchored upon a central theme and plot.
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