“She put her money where her heart was.”
That line comes about an hour into the documentary An American Ballet Story, but it sums its subject up perfectly. Rebekah Harkness was a fabulously wealthy woman who loved all forms of dance, and wanted to support them.
So, starting in the ‘60s, she opened up her house, and her wallet. She personally paid for the fledgling Joffrey Ballet to tour the Soviet Union. She subsidized performances by the great flamenco dancer Jose Greco.
And, after hosting the dancers of the Joffrey at her summer mansion one summer, she opened a school in Manhattan and, finally, a theater.
So why is there no trace of her contributions now?
Well, as the film explains, two things got in the way.
First, ego. Harkness, who considered herself a serious musician, wanted Robert Joffrey to choreograph pieces set to her compositions; he declined and eventually abandoned her patronage, taking many of his dancers with him.
Second, envy. Harkness then set up her own ballet company, sending it on tours of America, Europe and Asia. But in New York, dance critics called her productions “dated” and “vulgar.” They accused her of trying to buy her way into the art.
Harkness didn’t dispute she’d inherited a great deal of money from her oil magnate husband. What of it? “A silver spoon feeds a lot of hungry mouths,” she observed.
But much of the dance world looked down on her. Without that institutional respect, her company couldn’t attract outside funding, or government grants. When her own fortunes declined in the 1970s, so did her ballet. The company folded in ’75.
Unfortunately, the documentary provides neither a good history lesson, nor a fitting monument. Only one piece, “The Kiss,” is seen in any kind of extended form, and even that is overcomplicated by editing that cuts together at least three separate, years-apart performances. It’s impossible to concentrate.
Worse, other dances are seen just in snippets, often without the original music; sometimes a single classical piece plays over several different productions, often choreographed in different styles. It’s impossible to tell what the performers are reacting to, to truly feel the emotions they’re trying to convey.
Filmmaker Leslie Streit does have a multitude of interviews here with former Harkness dancers, all of whom seem to recall experiences fondly. But was the company itself significant? Did it truly, as the film asserts, change dance and how it was taught?
There’s not much evidence of that, at least on screen.
A few more interviews, with some unbiased observers – and more actual dancing – would have helped immeasurably. Unfortunately, in the end, the film isn’t much different from the subject it’s chronicling — a personal project that never quite shares its creator’s passion.