Monday, February 01, 2010

Mindy Aloff Interview

Mindy Aloff, author of Hippo in a Tutu, is interviewed by Kent Worcester of The Comics Journal.
"Both animation and theatrical dancing are labor-intensive activities that benefit from a benevolent visionary at the helm. Animation today could learn much from what Walt Disney arranged for his staff to do: to visit the ballet and sketch the dancers. And dancing could benefit from Disney’s appreciation of melodic, song-based music with a clear pulse as a floor for dancing. Unfortunately, the simple pleasures of dancing that asks the performer to use a comprehensible vocabulary of steps and expressive gestures, which relate moment by moment to music, are exactly what most students of both animation and choreography want to evade now. Balanchine, in fact, once wrote about how dancing could learn about the elaboration of fantasy from cartoons. Artists globally, though, don’t want what these historical animated films are equipped to teach – joy as the text and complication as the subtext; instead, they want complication, edge, as the text and more complication as the subtext. I think the culture is going to have to change for either group to learn from one another, and I just don’t see that happening in my lifetime. Perhaps a few individuals will take this as a challenge and prove me wrong. I certainly hope so."


Pete Emslie said...

Thanks for linking to that article, Mark. First off, I have to say how interesting and articulate Mindy Aloff is as the interviewee. Her responses are beautifully thought out and intelligent in tone.

I'm really interested in her subject of dance in the Disney films, as I've long appreciated dance movement in both animation and live-action films, and also I've been involved myself with social ballroom dancing for about 15 years or more. Sadly, Mindy is bang on in her assessment of dance in contemporary animated films. As you and I once discussed about the feature "Cats Don't Dance", Mark, apparently they don't in that movie! Instead, though the animated movement certainly hits the beats of the musical track, it is all slick animated trickery, as none of it really has at its roots any legitimate dance patterns.

I thought the same thing recently while watching Disney's "The Princess and the Frog". While Ray the firefly sings the lovely ballad, "Evangeline" (a waltz), Naveen romances Tiana with a dance, yet it in no way bears any resemblance to the steps of a waltz. Sure, the characters spin rhythmically through the water and I think Naveen concludes with a typical dance dip. The movement hits some of the accents in the music, yet never is there a feeling of the frogs actually waltzing in 3/4 time. I'm equally frustrated by what I see in contemporary live action films, by the way, as whenever a couple are shown from the waist up while supposedly waltzing, it is obvious to me that they're faking it, as there's no way their feet are actually following any sort of waltz choreography offscreen. Again, it's all trickery (and it usually appears that the male leading has absolutely no sense of rhythm!)

It sure wasn't this way in the best of the Disney classic features. Snow White's dance with the Dwarfs is based on real polka movements; Aurora and Phillip really do a Viennese waltz in "Sleeping Beauty"; even the comic dance of Baloo and King Louie is a satirical take on real swing dancing (AKA jive). Lately, though, I can't recall any animated dance sequence that was convincing as the real thing. Even Belle and Beast are faking a "waltz", as the song "Beauty and the Beast" is not a waltz rhythm to begin with!

I find this quote from Mindy most telling:

"Artists globally, though, don’t want what these historical animated films are equipped to teach – joy as the text and complication as the subtext; instead, they want complication, edge, as the text and more complication as the subtext."

Yep, she's absolutely right. Today's audiences don't seem to value "joy" in their entertainment, and couples dancing onscreen is sneered at by the oh-so-cool mindset of most of today's mainstream moviegoers. Likewise many of today's animators. It's too bad - as Mindy also states how much simple pleasure and joy is to be had by real dancing. I know that to be true firsthand, and I am grateful for all those years I spent taking lessons at Arthur Murray's!

Amber Gail said...

Thanks for the link to this interview!

I've read Mindy's book and I agree strongly with what she says in it. Unfortunately I felt that it did not live up to the expectations I had for it. Like she says in the interview, she has assumed a lack of understanding and interest in the reader for choreography, and so does not discuss it in explicit detail. Instead she focuses on the uses and applications of dance in general terms - the emotional and social elements. I can only hope to see a more involved book on this subject matter in the future! It's sad that she does not seem likely to write another.

The message in the quote you've shared here seems muddled and unclear to me. When she says that "the culture is going to have to change for (animation and theatrical dancing) to learn from one another" is she referring to the need for theatrical dancing to explore more "elaboration of fantasy" and for animators to re-familiarize themselves with dance and movement in general? Or is she referring to a need for both groups to return to a simpler message of joy communicated through dancing rather than pursuing what she calls "complication and edge"?

Either way, my response to the question she had been answering - Are there things that cartoon and animation studies have to teach students of dance? - would have said more about staging and timing than this rallying call for "melodic, song-based music".

My favourite bits of this interview by far were "Animators don’t seem to enjoy dance as a serious human activity for moment-by-moment pleasure and/or regard. It’s affiliated with escapism, daydreaming, neurosis." as well as "In 2010, we don’t live in that kind of culture, and most of us don’t dance. My word, we don’t even walk! It’s different, and our films, in all genres, reflect that difference." They do! We do!! Such a shame.