What happens when a children’s author and a dance troupe team up for a show about the Holocaust?
Dir. Mirra Bank, 2002, 84 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
I’m not sure I would believe that Maurice Sendak put on a show with Pilobolus if it weren’t for this film demonstrating otherwise. On one hand, you have a children’s book author and illustrator who’s famed for his cantankerousness. On the other, you have a dance troupe specializing in merging human bodies together in bizarre contortions to create shapes. And yet it works.
In 1999, Sendak, director/author Arthur Yorinks, and Pilobolus pooled their creative powers in order to produce a show with the Holocaust as its central theme. The resultant performance was called “A Selection.” Last Dance catalogues the months-long process of sussing out this work. The movie is a fascinating look at art as a collaborative experience.
You can’t just toss two good ingredients into a bowl and expect them to automatically mix. Sometimes, it takes a finessed hand to coax them together. And sometimes, they might just clatter against one another until something great accidentally falls out. The creation of “A Selection” seems to be mostly the latter process. Sendak is a man of concrete words, while the members of Pilobolus, such as founder Robby Barnett, deal with abstraction and symbolism. Neither party can ever seem to agree on how to approach an idea. Barnett even wavers about whether they should make it about the Holocaust, which is anathema to Sendak, who wants to seriously explore the event that looms large over himself and his family.
I must admit that I hopped gleefully into this doc hoping to see more of Sendak’s famous irritability. The prospect of him devastating sensitive dancers with his withering wit was delightful. But he’s actually all serious business here, and I guess it’s a small mark of immaturity that this disappointed me a tad. But it also means that there’s no weird tonal wonkiness between the way the movie plays and the fact that everyone is working on a play about the Holocaust, so it’s for the best.
The play itself, by the way, is riveting. A good chunk of the movie is devoted to it. We have to see the fruits of Sendak and Pilobolus’s labor in order to fully appreciate what they’ve gone through. We see them devise their reasoning for every movement that happens on stage, and then we see those decisions in action. “A Selection” looks strange, unnerving, and overwhelmingly melancholy. Regardless of how well the overall product turned out (I read that the show got a divided reaction), in the context of the doc, it’s a triumph.
Last Dance is a lovely little film about collaborative creation. It’s a testament to the great things that can happen at the intersection of two seemingly incompatible mindsets. In case you wanted to make yourself a little bit more sad about Sendak’s recent death, you can do no better than this film.