In Conversation With: Kate Geis and Robert Aberlin

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Kate Geis is an Emmy®-award-winning filmmaker. In 1998, she produced, shot, and edited her directorial debut Riversense, about the whitewater kayaking culture in the U.S. While producing programming for Channel Thirteen her boss introduced her to Robert Aberlin, a friend who had recently left the banking world to return to his high school alma mater to become their director of finance. Geis and Aberlin collaborated on a documentary special called Lessons of September: One School Remembers 9/11, about the healing process the students, faculty, and families of alumni who died in the towers were experiencing. Her latest film as director, editor, and producer, the documentary Paul Taylor: Creative Domain, follows the renowned American choreographer of the title as he develops a new ballet production. After a series of festival screenings, Creative Domain was released to praise in select U.S. theaters on Sept. 11, 2015. Its run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center continues to Sept. 24.

Robert Aberlin is a film producer and educator. A board member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Aberlin has been involved in the choreographer’s acclaimed productions for more than two decades. As a filmmaker, his documentaries – including Broken Brotherhood and Lessons of September – have screened around the world and on WNET, the New York City PBS station. Paul Taylor: Creative Domain, on which Robert Aberlin is the executive producer, continues to tour the international festival circuit. Up-to-date information about screenings in your city is available here.

On the occasion of their film’s theatrical release, Kate Geis and Robert Aberlin wrote to Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about Paul Taylor’s renowned creative process, asking three-year-olds for favors, and the status of dance in the cinema. This interview has been edited and compressed from e-mail for publication.

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Sean Malin: Feature-length documentary and independent film-makers often say that making a “personal” movie requires humbly asking for favors, appealing to friends, and having sturdy relationships with professional partners. It’s not just a process of getting-the-money and-going these days. Did you find that, in making this film and getting it seen, you were required to ask many favors of friends and family?

Robert Aberlin: Our families were involved: my son Noah has been a PA on shoots. Deciding what the name of the film would be was one of our bigger challenges and my wife, who is the Editor-in-Chief of The Scientist, came up with Paul Taylor: Creative Domain. It was an homage to Paul’s autobiography Private Domain.

We asked friends and family who knew something about dance to watch the film as a rough cut, but we didn’t want anyone at Paul Taylor Dance Company seeing the film until it was finished.

Kate Geis: For me it was babysitting, my daughter was three when we started filming, so I really had to lean on my husband and my mother when we were in production. My daughter is eight now, and it’s pretty amazing to think about how little she was when we started.

SM: On a project like this, in which Kate takes on directorial and editorial duties, while Robert has a leading role in the goings-on of the Paul Taylor Dance Company itself, the responsibilities implied by the titles “Producer” (Kate) and “Executive Producer” (Robert) are somewhat obscured. How do those titles describe each of your roles on the final film?

KG: Robert had the herculean task of getting Paul to say “yes” to the project. Robert has known him for more than twenty years and has built trust with Paul.

RA: Paul is a very private person. He initially said “yes” thinking it would be a small project similar to a fundraising video we had made for Paul’s outreach company, Taylor 2. About two weeks before we were supposed to start, Paul said “I’m not doing it, you can’t come.” He got cold feet. I told Paul we had already hired the crew… but he didn’t seem to want to budge, so ultimately I told him we would just come and film him on the first day, announcing the casting, giving the dancers a little instruction about the intent of the dance, and then we would leave. So Paul agreed to that; and fortunately for all of us, we didn’t leave that day and he let us come back.

My job [thereafter] was securing all of the funding, making sure dancers would be available, and communicating with the company staff about when we would be filming.

KG: The film was run through my production company, I wore the producer hat of hiring and paying the crew. Once we were filming I would switch roles between producing, directing, and loading footage on location. Because we were always nervous that Paul might pull the plug, we only had the people who absolutely had to be in the studio when Paul was there: our cinematographer and our sound man. Robert and I sat in a little room next to the studio and watched through a half-opened door, with an audio feed from the soundman. In those moments, Paul was really running the show and we had complete faith in Tom Hurwitz, our director of photography, to capture Paul’s process. Because Tom was the D.P. on [Paul Taylor documentary] Dancemaker, Paul knew Tom and trusted him; and he also knew Tom’s mother Jane Dudley, who had danced with Martha Graham, and was also a celebrated choreographer.

I was focused on coverage of the dance, balancing Paul’s development of the choreography for the main three characters, the choirmaster and choir, while being open and trying to soak up what was going on in the relationships of the dancers to Paul and to each other.

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SM: The footage in the film was shot several years ago – how has the atmosphere and creative charge at the dance studio changed since shooting the film?

RA: Since 2010, Paul has made eleven more dances, so in that way things haven’t changed. He is still prolific. What is different now is the formation of Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance. This is Paul’s initiative to bring back works by master choreographers and to commission new works by new choreographers working with the dancers of the Paul Taylor company.

Over the course of Paul’s life as a dancer-choreographer, and now purely as a choreographer, the way he demonstrates moves for new dances has changed over time. Paul is working on a new piece right now and from what we hear the process is similar to what we see in Creative Domain, but now Paul explains more and demonstrates less. As you can see in the film, the dancers are really tuned into him and are very familiar with how he communicates.The dancers are now also working with choreographers Larry Keigwin and Doug Elkins on pieces that have been commissioned under Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance. So that is probably the most striking change in the atmosphere.

SM: Matthew Diamond’s Dancemaker defined one chapter of Paul’s illustrious career through the creative process; and while Creative Domain also uses process and one of his projects to develop a chronology for the film, what’s missing at the end of this new film is a real sense of the man. What other facets of Paul Taylor, so notorious for his intense privacy, are missing from the twin narratives formed by Diamond’s film and yours?

KG: The narrative of Creative Domain was purely [one of] creative process. Because Dancemaker had been made, the history of Paul and the story of the company, as well as the perspectives of historians and critics, were covered and made, impeccably. I wanted Creative Domain to reflect the man we saw in front of us every day without the backstory, and to let Paul keep his mystery. It would be difficult today to make a film like Dancemaker with Paul – he gets his energy and his creative juice from his solitude. We were surprised by how much time he gave us.

I would love for someone watching this film to want to discover more about Paul, read his autobiography, watch Dancemaker, and most importantly, see his dances performed. I agree completely with dancer Amy Young’s conclusion in the film that his dances are the insight we have into him.

SM: Regarding Ms. Young, many of the dancers whose interviews appear in the film seem poised on camera, but the film includes so many close-ups and intimate medium-shots. Dance requires so much focus and precision that I can’t help but wonder if the film apparatus was sometimes a distraction to the Dance Company’s process. Did any of the dancers have issues with the intimacy between their faces and the camera? Was it ever too close for the comfort of the choreographers or designers?

RA: I’m sure there were times when the dancers felt the camera was getting a little closer than they would like, and Paul let Tom know when that was happening. There were two moments I recall that he asked Tom to move back. Several of the dancers have said that after a while Tom and Peter, our sound man, became like ghosts, and they began to feel their presence less and less.

Part of the intimacy was created by filming sections of the dance on days Paul was not in the studio, and we were filming the dance just for the camera. The scenes with and without Paul were intercut to heighten the intimacy.

SM: Having seen the film twice, I notice that the poster for the film has a tagline that may be construed ironically: “The Master Reveals His Craft.” This is true literally in that he allows the camera in to his studio, but as the dancers comment, what goes on in Paul’s head when he’s choreographing is completely unheard and completely genius. It exists purely in his mind, except for when the dance is complete. Did that kind of verbal privacy ever pose a challenge for this project?

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KG: Craft does have several meanings. “Paul’s craft” means a skill that he has finely-tuned. Craft is most important to his approach to the work; he doesn’t rely on inspiration or muses.

The verbal privacy is a challenge, but it made me work harder to edit, so that the film reflected him, to make the structure like him… poetic. When Paul talks about a dance being like poetry, “poems don’t always spell everything out you know,” I see in that statement both Paul’s approach to making dances and his spare verbal communication. Instead of overcoming it with explanation, we just linger on Paul’s face a little longer, to wait for the smile that tells you there’s more but he’s going to leave it up to us to decide what he means. When we really need an interpreter we come back to the people who spend the most time with him, his dancers, for explanation.

RA: He is most revealing when you see his notebook and he shows his notes, and counts, and diagrams. He spends months thinking and experimenting on paper long before he comes into the studio. The meticulousness of that process and all the unused and crossed-out pages reveal an intensity of concentration not otherwise apparent. Just the pages and pages of counts and notes surrounding them gives tremendous insight to the viewer.

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SM: How does Paul Taylor react to this film when he sees it, having allowed so much of his time and his company’s work to be documented onscreen?

KG: Paul was surprised; his first reaction when we showed it to him was “it’s really good.” I asked him if he felt it was authentic, and he said “yes.” About a year after we first showed it to him he told us he had watched it again and said he thought it was “wonderful.” So he felt we got him, and although it may be a mercurial reflection of him, it is authentic in that way as well.

RA: I think of Sean Mahoney’s words in the film: “He gives a little nod or a wink of approval.” Paul was not effusive but he asked for a copy of the film right away. For us, that was the wink.

SM: Since it’s been just over fifteen years since Diamond’s film, I would imagine there were certain aspects of your own film that you wanted to stand out as individualized and new, rather than redundant to the two films. Or perhaps it was the opposite: that honoring Dancemaker through homage or “visual reinscription,” as film theorists sometimes write, was the goal. So my next question has two parts:

Firstly, when working with D.P. Tom Hurwitz on the look of Creative Domain, were there conscious decisions in terms of technology, lighting, and photography to avoid or step away from his work on Dancemaker so as (not) to recycle or replicate that doc visually?

KG: I am a big fan of Dancemaker, and the artistry of Matthew Diamond and his editor Pam Wise.

I think if you work with the same cinematographer, you are paying homage, and the closest comparison between the films is the look of the interviews. We didn’t do any formal lighting, we captured the dancers in the moment, to keep the momentum going. I didn’t want the interviews to look like a television show. Formal lighting can be great, but it was not the right choice for this film – this film required immediacy and veracity.

Where the films really diverge is by only hearing from the artists inside Paul’s world. It is mostly Paul’s perspective, then his dancers, his rehearsal director Bettie de Jong, his assistant during the creative period Andy LeBeau, his Executive Director John Tomlinson. Peter Taussig, the composer of the music Paul worked with, is the only real outsider in the film.

Dancemaker was shot on film: color footage for the performances and interviews, black-and-white for the rehearsals. In Creative Domain, the studio footage was shot on an HDV camera, the Sony HVRZ7U; everything is in color; and we didn’t distinguish between creative process and performance, they are part of a continuum.

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SM: So to follow-up, did Paul Taylor himself or any of his design collaborators, like Santo Loquasto or Jennifer Tipton for example, impact the look and style of this film? Did they have aesthetic input?

KG: Other than being subjects and having their artistry and perspective captured that was the extent of Paul Taylor’s, Santo Loquasto’s and Jennifer Tipton’s impact. They didn’t have any input in the documentary itself, they are purely subjects.

SM: Embarking on a project like Creative Domain, given Robert’s position at the Dance Company, also forces you as filmmakers to honor the company’s historical import without becoming overly adulatory or self-serving in the process. What were your concerns regarding how the company should be represented onscreen when this film began to take shape? Was there a struggle at any point for positive/negative balance in the edited footage?

KG: For me I felt I was a safe distance away, literally (living in Massachusetts) and mentally. I’m not part of the company and although I am a fan, I don’t think I thought about balance. My biggest concern when making a portrait and following a process is that the subject feels like they’ve been seen and that they recognize themselves and feel the result is authentic. I relied on the generosity of the dancers to share their feelings about their relationships with Paul. The empathy and that desire to be close to Paul is an expression I think we begin to feel ourselves, we all want more from Paul, and we aren’t going to get it.

I did get feedback from people who were not with the company, advice that might have taken the film into a more feel-good direction, but I politely ignored it.

RA: I approached it from the perspective of learning and finding out myself about Paul’s creative process and revealing that. Even if with my position with the company I wasn’t privileged knowing very much about his creative process, I had never seen the notebook he keeps, much less the inside of it.

SM: One of the film’s smartest moves, I feel, is to avoid invoking the “art is dead” discourse that so often colors the reaction to documentaries like this; even with dance movies like Pina or Trash Dance, critics and writers decry how “niche” or “rare” a project on this subject can be. Dance obviously continues on in international culture with many fans. Still, in regards to American and Western cinema, has film done justice to dance as a subject yet? Are dance films dying out, or becoming more accepted and popular?

RA: In my life I have been more inspired by seeing live performance than dance films. I’ve been going to see dance performances since I was five years old. My mother was a longtime volunteer at ABT, and I also helped my sister doing lifts in her dance class.

KG: The films that impacted me are The Children of Theater Street, Dancemaker, Chariots of Fire (not a dance film, I know, but the running sequences are a kind of gorgeous choreography for camera), and Rize. Over the last two years, I’ve seen a number of dances made for the camera at dance film festivals like Well Contested Sites by Amy Dowling and Austin Forbord. That’s an example of work that I would love to see a lot more of.

I would like to see more dance documentaries being made. There are more and more dances made for camera, and more people watching on the internet and different devices. Today we have more access to archival dances too and that is wonderful. DSLR cameras, mobile phone cameras, tablets, inexpensive editing software, all have the power to keep the art form very much alive and accessible to audiences on the internet.

I think the problem lies when you get to bigger screens, larger projects, and supporting the art form. To do that we need audiences to support their independent theaters so that more diverse films can find distribution, and that always leads back to art education and exposing people to the art form.

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