The Thrill of Watching a Film That Isn’t Online Anywhere
"They are a reminder of the countless histories that don’t exist there — and the work demanded to sustain them.
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When I was growing up in California, my mother would often describe a film that it was impossible for me to see: the great Carmen de Lavallade dancing to Odetta, dressed all in white like a priestess. She’d seen the footage a long time ago — 1974? — at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts by Lincoln Center in Manhattan, where she was researching the history of modern dance in America. De Lavallade was one of the first Black dancers to enjoy a long career in the theaters of high culture. But it wasn’t her reputation that secured her place in my mother’s memory; it was the spiritual elegance of her gestures. “She was attempting to embrace everything,” my mother told me. Even though we couldn’t watch the film together, she could share it in words — how de Lavallade seemed to gather, in her arms, everything lovely and lost. He’s got the whole world in his hands, Odetta sang, and de Lavallade’s dance made us both believe it — that we wouldn’t be dropped. Her grace was powerful enough to pierce me across the distance and the decades, to make me feel what I had never seen.
It was partly this vision of de Lavallade that tempted me, in April, to attend a screening of rare dance films curated by Solange Knowles and her studio, Saint Heron, for a performance series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Knowles called the series the Eldorado Ballroom, after a legendary music venue in Houston, her hometown. The memory of that other space consecrated her own roving tabernacle of Black performance. There was no program listed online, but given de Lavallade’s pride of place among 20th-century dancers, I suspected I might find her there — if not as my mother described her, then perhaps from some other angle that would help explain her lasting hold on our imaginations. In the dark theater, I was anxious and alert: If she was there, would I recognize her?
Most dancers age off camera, leaving us with the iconic image of the body at its athletic apex.
The silver screen went black. The title card announced: “A Thin Frost.” Suddenly, there she was — much older than I’d expected to find her, but unmistakable nonetheless, her high cheekbones and supple neck. De Lavallade and two men were facing one another in metal chairs. They stuttered through cryptic gestures and sidelong glances to a soundtrack of unmusical human noises, as if searching for something to say without recourse to the familiar phrases of port-de-bras and arabesque. I looked for signs of the grace my mother had described, but this was not a hymn, and the dancers did not seem willing or able to repair the world. Instead, the world was smashed and scattered, and they were sifting through the pieces.
This was the first work performed by Paradigm, a company of dancers over 50 that de Lavallade founded in 1998 alongside her pioneering peers Dudley Williams and Gus Solomons Jr. — both gone now, Solomons just a few weeks ago. They were, as this paper reported, free to be “as idiosyncratic as they wish,” having matured beyond “sheer youthfulness.” Most dancers age off camera, leaving us with the iconic image of the body at its athletic apex, but de Lavallade had refused to stay still. And why should she have? Dance is about movement, not stasis — dramatizing how one moment transforms to become another. I could feel my frozen image of de Lavallade in her so-called prime melt on contact with this film, time’s “thin frost” warming to release the smell of living earth. Somehow my own body loosened in response, so that I became a reflection of the dancers onscreen, each of us seated on either side of a magic mirror.
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As de Lavallade faded out and the remaining films unspooled, I remained vividly aware of the dancers as real people whose lives go on beyond the final cut. I kept grasping for them as the dissonant scenes swirled past: flashes of silver dunes blown through someone’s saxophone; a slender silhouette writhing inside an amniotic sac of silk. When I went home, I pored over the brochure I’d picked up by the door, eager to pin those shifting shapes to names, dates, material details that would stay in place. Four of the films were available on streaming platforms — Vimeo, YouTube, the Criterion Channel — and I watched them on repeat. But I couldn’t find the footage of de Lavallade anywhere: She had disappeared, again, into the archive.
We often let ourselves believe that everything, now, is available to us — that nothing is lost and every experience can be accessed and repeated with the right subscription. But this blinds us to all the material that has not been translated to the new media, that no one is clamoring to see in part because we don’t even know it exists. With dance in particular, film is the only medium capable of “capturing” the form, but dance films that aren’t narrative musicals rarely receive wide circulation or preservation. This is doubly true for dance films created by Black artists who aspire to something more than commercial success. The problem, however, is becoming more universal: Many of us know the feeling of trying to summon an old season of a favorite TV show and coming up empty-handed, as companies unceremoniously disappear beloved works of art and avoid paying royalties to the people who produced the “content.” I fear for a future in which our primary experience of visual culture is a fire hose of viral video clips — GIFs, reels, TikToks — endlessly replicable but utterly forgettable.
With the Eldorado Ballroom series, Knowles modeled another form of circulation, directing our attention to the moments that survive not because they’re easy to share, but in spite of great difficulty, because they mattered to someone that much. As I followed de Lavallade’s shadow down a rabbit hole of research, I thought of something Knowles said in a recent interview with Vulture: “That’s our mission, to just create that kind of studying around artists” like her. Some films might escape my grasp, but I’ve been rewarded by discovering, slowly, a dense network of relations among the dancers I’d seen onscreen: They had studied under one another, danced the same roles, passed through the same institutions, crossing conventional boundaries between genres and eras. The lines extend in all directions — how de Lavallade saw her friend Alvin Ailey on their high school gymnastics team and dragged him to her dance class with Lester Horton, who directed the first racially integrated company in the country; how Josephine Baker brought the young de Lavallade to Paris for her European debut. Especially before film, this is how movement was propagated from generation to generation: by hand. I wasn’t dancing — I was digging around online — but I felt as if I’d been handed something I had to sustain, and I liked feeling that my efforts reciprocated the physical intensity I’d seen reproduced in the movie theater.
Since I watched “A Thin Frost,” I’ve worried and wondered over how I might hold on to an experience I may never relive. I’ve tried to describe the film by phone to my mother, returning, without repeating, the gift she gave me in childhood. I’ve tried to fill in the world around the film by seeking out interviews de Lavallade recorded later in life. At 83, she told a reporter at The Boston Globe that the structure for her one-woman show, “As I Remember It,” would have to be “Beckett-like.” As with a dancing body, the past has a bewildering vitality, “it jumps around” and makes us sweat through endless rehearsals. No technology can substitute for the human labor — effortful, embodied, attentive — to really make something last. No new god is coming to the rescue. It’s up to us to take the whole world in our hands, and pass it on."
Opening illustration: Source photographs by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images; Reg Innell/Toronto Star, via Getty Images.