An American Ballet Story
Director and Writer: Leslie Streit
Time: 94 minutes
Review by Mike Szymanski
Even if you are a dance aficionado you may not have heard of Harkness Ballet. Even if you are — or were — a professional dancer (and I know more than just a few) you probably never heard of Rebekah Harkness, who founded that ballet company.
But you have heard of the people she worked with, the people she employed, and the dancers she coached.
That’s the point of this in-depth documentary “An American Ballet Story.” Although the overall point of the film is a bit out of focus like many of the archival dance clips, and although the piece seems to allow some of the interviewees to ramble on into seeming infinity, this is a documentary about a woman who loved the arts, did some groundbreaking things in the arts, and was ultimately dashed and hampered by her own ego and feeling of importance to the arts. Told in an uncompromising, stark and fair style, the story of the Harkness Ballet is both a tribute to a visionary and a tragedy of what might have been.
Rebekah Harkness is credited with saving young choreographer Robert Joffrey from the brink of bankruptcy in 1964. It was a time of women’s rights and gay rights in New York City, and she had the money to create American art.
After insisting that her own music be used in Joffrey’s dances, and that the name of the company be named after her, they split and she formed the Harkness Ballet. As one of the dozens of experts explain: it is impossible today for one person to support or start a ballet company alone anymore.
Yet, Harkness did it — with family money mostly from oil investments — and she created a mark in the arts world, even though few remember her name.
The documentary starts off with audio of Harkness on a radio show in 1965 with shots of Manhattan in the day. Eventually, we see what the interviewer and the interviewee look like in photos, and the story begins.
“Why do I do it?” Harkness says, quoting the man who climbed mountains. “Because it’s there.”
And that’s how she saved Joffrey’s now-famous ballet company that was destitute and almost folded. That’s how she worked with superstar Alvin Ailey and choreographer Jack Cole. She fancied herself a significant artist, and although she had the money to surround herself with those significant artist, she never became one herself.
Sone whimsical scenes show her friend, da-da artist Salvador Dali, as he threw paint on her dancers during a performance. One of the dancers describes the unusual experience and regrets not getting her leotards signed since she was “painted by Dali.” Although it’s not clear, there is some thought that Harkness’s cremated ashes are in a winged urn that he gave to the dancer, as one friend describes how the ashes wouldn’t quite fit inside it.
Although Rebekah Harkness yearned to become a household name that she never achieved, she surrounded herself with significant events, such as when modern dancer Stuart Hodes decided to cross over into ballet and created a signature piece “The Abyss” thanks to the backing of Harkness.
She wanted to support American dancers and choreographers, and often got caught up in her own ego. One person who put her in her place constantly was New York Times dance critic Clive Barnes who wrote about her during much of her New York career from 1967 to 1977. He called her work “vulgar” and the dancers “clutching and gasping” and lambasted the musical scores, especially the one she composed herself.
In six years she had six directors and it created chaos for the company dancers. Notables such as Ben Stevenson and Marjorie Tallchief Skibine and others talk about the comings and goings of Harkness in the art world.
Harkness claimed she didn’t like modern dance as much as classical ballet and that dancers spent too much time “rolling on the floor” and one dancer even talked about getting splinters with all that rolling around.
They talk in the documentary about world tours, to Monte Carlo and the White House, on TV, and then returning to turn an old theater into a workable performance space.
But, the philanthropist eventually ran out of steam and money. Her company folded in 1975 and even though the dance theater remained around for a while, it disappeared too, soon after she died in 1982.
In the end credits, two well-known performers Jim Borstelmann and Charles Valentino joke about her and their time with Harkness. Valentino recalls how she got him into the original production of “The Wiz” on Broadway as the Scarecrow.
Some of the actual clips of dancing are terribly blurred, and of course they are rare and perhaps the only ones available, but thankfully a lot of the dance numbers are shown in full. The most amazing number is the final scene of the documentary which Harkness described as something she created based on Rodin’s sculpture of The Kiss. She said it reflected his forbidden love for Camille Claudel, another sculptor, and they were both married.
The ballet is subtle and stunning, and various versions are shown superimposed on top of each other, including a blurry rehearsal. Yet, it shows the true talents of Harkness, and what more she could have contributed to the art world if she weren’t stymied by her own self-importance.
This documentary already won honors at several film festivals including Docs Without Borders, Best Director at the World’s Best Filmmaker and Best Dance film at the Kiez Berlin and Mannheim Arts film festivals.
Director and writer Leslie Streit started the project in 2010 after filming a workshop taught by former co-director of the Harkness Ballet School Maria Vegh. She kept talking about Harkness, but Streit couldn’t find much in dance history about this story. She found Harkness linked to the worlds of dance, politics, journalism, Broadway, music, visual art and design.
“I grew up in New York City but didn’t dance or see dance performed until my late teens,” the director says. “At some point, I became obsessed with Ballet and ballet dancers and studied not only the art form but everything I could learn about it. So for me, the mystery was irresistible and a story began to emerge. What happened to this pioneering company and what influence did it leave on artists working today?”
Some of the answers, are in this documentary.