The energising Māori ceremonial dance, haka, with its rhythmic feet-stamping, body slapping, and chanting, and the delicately disciplined movements of classical ballet feel worlds apart — and yet they come together in a ballet adaptation of Jane Campion’s seminal 1993 film The Piano. The ballet — a succinct, one-act affair — was performed in 2015 as part of a triple bill titled Three Stripes for Ballet Dortmund in Germany, and created in part, by two twin brothers — noted Czech choreographer Jiří Bubeníček, and his twin brother, designer Otto Bubeníček. The Heart Dances, a documentary by Kiwi filmmaker Rebecca Tansley, follows these brothers as they travel to New Zealand after being commissioned by the Royal New Zealand Ballet to expand the piece to a full-length production.
Bringing the ballet back to its original roots in New Zealand where The Piano was filmed and set, it becomes clear that the creative duo from Europe have failed to appropriately integrate the cultural aspects of this beloved story into the ballet, in particular those that involve the Māori people and their culture. After arriving in New Zealand to begin rehearsals, they are introduced to Moss Te Ururangi Patterson, a Māori choreographer who has been appointed as the production’s cultural advisor. The tension is felt immediately.
The Heart Dances gets behind closed doors — we see dancers rehearsing in studios, costumes and props getting made, and a stage being set. These scenes are standard to documentaries about the creative process and provide no new insights and some of the music used during the dance rehearsals — like songs with sentimental lyrics — can be distracting and feel out of place within the overall film. Some dance scenes only use a piano for music and this simpler approach is much more successful. By far the most fascinating development to witness is the creative and cultural clash between Patterson and the Bubeníček brothers. The checks and balances involved in the creative process, especially when in moments involving the discussion of sensitive cultural properties, provide the most interesting moments of the film and rightly takes up most of the running time.
Recently, news of insensitive casting in movies, lack of media representation of minority groups, and cultural appropriation have taken up many headlines, with the outrage that follows from the media sometimes reversing casting decisions and staging new productions to deepen the authenticity and sensitivity of an originally racist work. It is rare to bear witness to the conversations that happen behind-the-scenes, which in The Heart Dances, shows just how wide the gap of understanding is between different groups of people.
At first, the differences in perspectives feel insurmountable, as Moss attempts, in vain, to highlight the problematic aspects of the twins’ ballet. In one creative meeting, Moss raises the issue of having no Māori dancers performing in The Piano: the ballet, despite the fact that it uses Māori dancing and rituals as part of its narrative. He’s met with the standard answer: “the role is the role”. Andrew Lees, the technical director of the ballet, backs their argument by citing how the Puccini opera Madama Butterfly sometimes uses non-Japanese opera singers to portray its Japanese characters, though he fails to mention the deeply inappropriate and offensive nature of previous productions of the opera, which featured yellowface makeup and uninformed, stereotypical Japanese gestures. At that point, Moss understandably looks unconvinced and his patience is admirable. In another meeting, Jiří asks why the costume and makeup team can’t make the non-Māori dancers look like Māori, oblivious to the fact that what he’s asking is basically the same as blackface. Moss replies with a blunt and slightly bewildered “no”.
But, notably, audience empathy lies on both sides — Jiří is patient and willing to listen to Moss’ advice. He says to Moss at one point, “I am trying not to block myself so that I really hear what you are saying”. And when Moss gently tells Jiří that other Māori people aren’t going to be as nice as him, Jiří replies that other choreographers aren’t going to be as nice as him too — they won’t take no for an answer. This measure of collegiality is retained through the film, as Jiří eventually realises that authentic expression of the Māori culture isn’t there for the sake of political correctness, but actually deepens the work — authenticity enriches. As both parties recognise that they are doing this for something bigger than themselves, their egos are cast aside. The sympathetic dialogue, although sometimes contentious, is often beautiful to watch — wholesome even.
These conversations, with Moss on one side, and the Bubeníčeks on the other, are delicately handled by Tansley. The Heart Dances’ impartiality is its most commendable feature, as each person is given their say without any apparent bias in the filming or editing. Conversations and arguments play out naturally, and if anything needs to be clarified or elaborated after the fact, it is done through the talking heads. Jiří towards the end of the documentary reflects on the experience admitting that he couldn’t understand Moss’ concerns in the beginning and that for future projects he would be asking more questions at the start of the process. Tansley’s intention seems to be to tell this story as fairly and as authentically as possible and she fulfils that goal appropriately, making it easy to empathise with all involved even if they feel sometimes wrong.
The Heart Dances will be playing on Fri 14 June and Sun 16 June 2019 as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Visit the SFF website for more info.
Jesue Valle is a design graduate from the University of Technology, Sydney. He created the Instagram account Cineshots and cineshotsblog.com where he writes reviews on new releases and occasionally, some classic films.