Madeline Graham dancing in Antarctica with seals in the background (from the SFDFF film description Web page)
On the surface the premise for Dancing on Icebergs sounds a bit like one of those three-people-walk-into-a-bar jokes: A choreographer (Corey Baker), a dancer (Madeline Graham), and a cameraman (Jacob Bryant) decide to go to Antarctica to make a dance film. All three of them are New Zealanders, and Graham is a star of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. The result of this project is a film less than five minutes in duration, “Antarctica: The First Dance.” Dancing on Icebergs is the making-of film for that result, running 78 minutes, including the presentation of the the “Antarctica” film at the very end. The entire project leading up to that result ran for about two years.
I have to say that I found it a bit ironic to be watching this documentary only a few days after having attended a screening of Cunningham, Alla Kovgan’s “3D cinematic experience,” which reviews the creative life of dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham over the period from 1944 to 1972. It would be fair to say that Cunningham was bold enough to pursue experiments based on the premise that a dancer can do anything. It is easy for me to imagine him looking down from Heaven on Baker thinking, “I never thought that ‘anything’ could be pushed that far!”
Nevertheless, I feel it fair to stress that, while the last few minutes present the result of choreographer Baker’s efforts, Dancing on Icebergs is not, strictly speaking, a “dance film;” and, for that matter, one might even hesitate to call it a “making-of-a-dance film.” The relationship and interactions between Baker and Graham may provide the nuts-and-bolts of how the “Antarctica” short was made; but that part of the story amounts to a very small core of a very large apple.
Thus, while the attentive viewer may take great pleasure in watching “Antarctica” and watching excerpts of the rehearsals that preceded any of the filming, Dancing on Icebergs is more about the icebergs than about the dance. Antarctica has become a major object of study in climate science; and the visible (and irreversible) melting of icebergs figures heavily in that study. As a result there is no shortage of footage in which the viewer observes climate scientists explaining to Baker what is happening and why it is happening, followed by any number of discussion scenes over the course of which both Baker and Graham learn just what it means to live on the Antarctic continent for a sustained period of time.
In other words, taken as a whole, Dancing on Icebergs is a very didactic film, whose take-away lessons unfold as we observe how a pair of “greenhorns” adjust to Antarctic life well enough to appreciate getting there (itself a sidebar to the primary narrative), being there, and working there. (Nature film junkies should also be forewarned that there is very little “cute animal” footage in Dancing on Icebergs; but that trope is not entirely excluded from the narrative!) Will any of those lessons be learned in a productive way as a result of watching the film? I would not dare to speculate on the answer to that question. However, I would like to believe that both Baker and Graham came away from this project with a better-informed awareness of the reality of our current climate crisis, even if those viewing Dancing on Icebergs may not “get the message” quite as readily.
Dancing on Icebergs will be given its United States premiere screening at 7 p.m. on Friday, November 8. It will be held at the Brava Theater Center, located in the Mission at 2781 24th Street at the corner of York Street. Individual ticket prices will be $13 and $15. Both single tickets and festival passes may be purchased through hyperlinks on the event page for this film.