Sofia Coppola’s Challenge: To Convey the Feeling of Live Dance

Though she likes ballet, Sofia Coppola doesn’t consider herself an aficionado. Still, when she received an email from the New York City Ballet asking if she would direct a film for the company’s virtual spring gala on May 5, she didn’t hesitate. “I was so thrilled,” she said in a video interview last week. “It was so cool to get a note from City Ballet.”

Coppola, whose dreamlike first feature, “The Virgin Suicides” (2000), established her as a filmmaker who could hold a viewer’s interest through imagery and atmosphere as much as narrative or action, has won accolades and awards for her movies, including a screenwriting Oscar for “Lost in Translation” (2003) and the best director award for “The Beguiled” (2017) at the Cannes Film Festival.

“We were a little nervous to reach out to her,” Justin Peck, the resident choreographer and artistic adviser at City Ballet, said in the video interview along with Coppola. He had been discussing with the company’s artistic directors, Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan, “putting something substantial together, with real vision,” he said, and they agreed they wanted to engage with a filmmaker. Coppola, he added, was No. 1 on his list. “She was so responsive and excited about it, and warm to speak to that it just turned into a wonderful process.”

The 24-minute film (available on City Ballet’s website and YouTube channel, May 6 to May 20) includes “Solo,” a new work by Peck for the principal dancer Anthony Huxley, set to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and excerpts from Jerome Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering” and Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant,” “Liebeslieder Walzer” and “Divertimento No. 15.”

Coppola links these pieces by means of a poetic journey through the company’s home, the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, moving from black-and-white footage of the dancers in the rehearsal studio, backstage and in the huge empty foyer to color segments in the auditorium and on the stage itself. “Shooting in the theater,” Coppola said, “I felt the spirits of dance are there.”

In the interview, she and Peck discussed how they worked together, the challenges of filming dance and what they each took away from the experience. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Sofia, how did you approach making this film?

I’ve enjoyed going to the ballet over the years, but I have never filmed anything with a dance component. And my shooting style is pretty stationary, so to do something where there was so much movement, I had to think about using the camera differently. What was very helpful was getting Justin’s films, shot on his phone, of his rehearsals with Anthony. It was interesting to see his sense of movement.

What are the challenges of filming dance?

The challenge for me was to convey the feeling of seeing live dance. A lot of dance is filmed in a very flat, standard way. But getting close up, which is thrilling in rehearsal, doesn’t always translate onto film either. I had to move the camera much more than I am used to, and try to give the feel of experiencing a live performance from different vantage points.

There were also technical things. In the edit, we would say, “Oh, that is beautiful,” and Wendy or Jon or Justin would say, “Hmmm, his turn is a bit off,” or, “The feet aren’t in the shot!” I don’t normally think about showing someone from head to toe in a frame, but here you want to show the choreography fully.

Did you watch movie musicals growing up?

Yes, we watched a lot of musicals. I don’t know if that influenced me here, but the last section of the film, the finale of “Divertimento No. 15,” to me had that kind of old Hollywood glamour that I wanted to convey.

How much homework did you feel you needed to do to understand each dance piece?

I actually didn’t want to prepare too much, because I wanted to approach the dance in a fresh way. But Jon, Wendy and Justin all talked to me about the history of each piece — when they were made and what the choreographers might have been thinking. I also learned a lot about Robbins from Jean-Pierre Frohlich, and what certain gestures meant in the “Dances” solo. I wanted to try to give each piece a different visual personality, and we found that together I think.

You are both credited on the film for “concept.” How did you work on that together?

Coppola In our first conversations, Justin explained the dancers had been away from the theater for a year, so bringing the theater back to life, and the feeling of the dancers returning to their home, became the central idea. I like films that are more abstract and poetic, and for me each piece had its own essence and feeling, so we talked about that too.

Peck Part of the intention was to expose some of the inner workings of the theater an audience member wouldn’t normally see. We wanted to create a slow burn, from its inner workings toward a fully executed stage performance. It symbolizes the process for a dancer: starting in the studio, making your way toward the stage, then performing in the lights.

One of the things I really loved when I saw the rough cut of the film was that it felt like all of these excerpts were happening simultaneously, in their little sub-worlds in the theater. That’s a very authentic idea, the way the craft gets honed through rehearsals and comes together onstage.

Did you also discuss the idea of moving from black and white to color?

Coppola No, I just pictured it like that from the beginning. But then I wanted the end to be a celebration and a coming back to life, and hoped I could switch to color without it being too corny. I love the contrast between the rehearsals and backstage, then tutus and lights; it’s like a fantasy of what ballet is when you’re a little kid. Also the pale blues and yellows of the “Divertimento” costumes are so pretty, like spring colors coming to life.

Peck It’s also another very authentic representation of what it feels like to work in the theater. The backstage spaces are poorly lit, the hallways are dank and the walls are peeling. Then there is the magic that happens when you go out onstage and the warmth of the lights is on you.

Sofia, you staged “La Traviata” for the Rome Opera in 2016. Were there any similarities of approach for you here?

I think that experience simply helped me to say yes to this and not be too scared, because I had already done something I didn’t know how to do. The similarity was perhaps that both experiences were focused on art and beauty. It’s a nice break from movies, which are so expensive to make that it often becomes all about business. In the theater, there are all these craftspeople who are doing it really for the love of their art. There is a purity there that gives me so much in my spirit.

What did you take away from the experience?

Coppola I feel I have new friendships in the dance world! And it’s so energizing to collaborate in a new medium.

Peck We feel the same. Sofia has shown us she can dance with her camera.

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