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Helioscape (2008)

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Jenna Savella ...
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Written by Berry / Buck / Mills / Stipe
Performed by R.E.M.
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A journey definitely worth taking
23 May 2009 | by (Scotland, United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

Helioscape is described as, "a portrait of the turbulent emotional landscape of a star," and I'm not sure that I understand what that means. Probably in the same way that I don't really understand a lot of excellent poetry that I nevertheless enjoy, can feel uplifted by, or that inspires me to try to see the world differently. If someone wants to explain it to me, I am very interested. But not nearly as much as I am in the experience.

And watching rising star Jenna Savella (National Ballet of Canada) is an experience. She did what so many dancers and choreographers say they strive to do. Take me on a journey.

This is a beautifully composed work. Beautifully danced. Beautifully photographed. But what I particularly liked was there was neither an absence of cinematic technical innovation nor an excess of it. There was no sense of using the departures that film allows 'just because they could.' Let me explain. The ballet begins in field and forest. Savella's body is almost ritualistic. Tattooed, and with a sheer red covering that stands out against the greenery while not compromising her athletic, dancer's body. She twists and turns, performs seamlessly flowing relevé and arabesque, not with the staccato movement of classical ballet, but as if her body is one continuous curve.

But this is not just dancing in an outdoor environment recorded on camera. At a certain point in the film, the dancer is suddenly in darkness. Yet only darkness of a sort. Her body is still lit. She is no longer in the forest. Her space is unencumbered by physicality. The plane on which she dances maybe revolves slightly. It is as if her triumphant celebration to the sun has continued undeterred by eclipse, equally joyous, totally autonomous, the sun's light a spirit guarded within the physical form of the dancer.

She bursts back into the forest again. And while her dance has the delicate alertness of a fawn, connected to her environment, her expression it totally that of a woman, absorbing every sight of nature for the wondrous thing that it is, the curiosity of a child combined with the intelligent awareness of an adult female. I am reminded of the famous series of photographs, Natural Dance, by Hal Eastman, where a dancer becomes one with the elements of nature. But unlike, Eastman and his Isadora Duncan –inspired dances through natural environments, Ms Savella preserves her balletic tradition. This results in a continuously dynamic relationship between her and her surroundings.

The scene shift dates back to a not dissimilar short, Dance In The Sun, by Shirley Clarke. And before that, A Study In Choreography For The Camera by Maya Deren. But director Jacob Niedzwiecki has clearly made this his own. In Deren's film, a pioneering one in its day, the scene shift is to emphasise the dancer's geography as distinct from the physical geography. Clarke's dancer is more formal. And personifies an identification with the sun and nature itself, rather than with the 'helioscape,' the view of the sun. Niedzwiecki and Savella achieve a uniquely human statement. Savella's facial expression is as much part of the dance as every other part of the composition.

While there are people to turn out short films of this calibre I am content to let people more expert than myself provide the understanding. I am just grateful that they do, and long may Niedzwiecki and Savella continue to do so.

George Balanchine said that the tree of dance "takes a long, long time to blossom." I think we can safely say that it has.

(readers please note - the running time is 6mins 18seconds, not 18 seconds as listed on IMDb at time of writing)


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