About a month before I started production on my new feature film, Five Dances, I was having a conversation over pizza and beer with an artist friend, Oliver, about art and fear. The film, my fifth, was going to be a very different, and very scary, creative experience for me. I've always gone into production on my films obsessively prepared, with a finished, polished script and a scene-by-scene shot list. My previous film, Private Romeo, was a gay retelling of Romeo and Juliet in which I remained faithful to Shakespeare's script. Iambic pentameter leaves little room for improvisation. This time I purposely wanted shake myself up creatively, to see if I could improvise and respond in the moment to what was happening around me. By design, I had only a patchwork script and would be going into a dance studio with just a skeletal crew and five dancers, all but one non-actors, and none with any film experience. I was eager to explore dance on film. But as I admitted to Oliver, I also was terrified to the point of sleeplessness, by the idea of stepping into the unknown -- and dragging everyone along with me. "It's important to be terrified," Oliver assured me. "It's the best way to make art. Don't be scared of fear."
Like most gay men and women who grew up closeted, I already knew a lot about fear. So I thought a lot about what Oliver said as I entered the studio on our first production day with my brave dancers, who were not only acting for the first time but working in the dark, plot-wise, only ever seeing the scenes they were in (which I was frantically writing and rewriting daily), with little idea of the total picture. Their fear of the camera was painfully palpable, but so was their willingness as artists to trust, and to walk, or dance, into new creative territory with me.
And I thought particularly hard about fear and art as I began to write into the script a fraught romance for two of my male dancers. Ryan Steele and Reed Luplau are both young, extraordinarily talented and openly gay, with a nonchalance about their sexual identities that was unthinkable to me when I was their age. Watching their physical comfort with each other onset as they became off-camera friends inspired me to write the love story that eventually became the emotional center of my film.
Still, when I approached them about shooting what I envisioned as a tender but very physical love scene, I expected resistance and came prepared with an impassioned (and, I thought, brilliantly eloquent) speech about my personal commitment to portraying fully formed gay characters on the screen, and about the politics of gay imagery in cinema. Alas, the speech was unnecessary -- pointless to them, with their millennial-generation sexual politics. Though they listened politely, I could see that they were bored. I doggedly gave it anyway, start to finish, and moved myself practically to tears.
Later, after we wrapped production, I pressed Ryan again about the love scene. Surely he'd been afraid? A former ballet dancer from a small Midwestern town, Ryan came to New York at 17 to star as Baby John in the Broadway revival of West Side Story. Now he was barely 21, this was his first acting role, and the scene was so emotionally revealing. And this was film, not stage. Whatever he did would be out there in the world forever. Yes, he admitted, he'd been scared. "But I think I learn the most when I'm scared, and the work that I put out is better. It's really interesting what my body and mind can do when I'm afraid," he said with a disarming wisdom. (Out of the mouths of babes....) And what about being openly gay as a young performer? I was curious to know. He shrugged. "I'd be lying if I said I never thought about it, but my career has only developed in the past couple of years. I've never faced a situation where my sexuality even mattered."
I was envious of his intrepid approach to fear. The truth was that I'd likely been more scared during filming than Ryan or Reed, or than my other daring dancers, Catherine Miller, Kimiye Corwin and Luke Murphy. They're all live performers, and they face fear every time they step out in front of an audience. To function and succeed they must learn to deal with it. Perhaps live performing is a metaphor for what gay boys and girls all over the world do each day when they wake up and step out of their homes and walk into their schools. We learn to disguise our fears. Sometimes, like Ryan, we master and use them to our advantage. Though I don't like to postulate, perhaps that's why there's a disproportionate number of gay people in the arts. Being gay and being an artist both require familiarity and the ability to deal with fear.
In the end we made a beautiful film that we're all very proud of. And almost one year to the day after we wrapped production, Five Dances will premiere at Lincoln Center's Dance on Camera Festival on Feb. 1, as the festival's opening-night film, a great honor. (There will be an encore screening on Feb. 2.)
Looking back at my body of work, Five Dances might be my most interesting, and possibly my best, film. And though I've been an out gay filmmaker since I first yelled "action" on my first film set in 2002, and have dealt with both overt and covert gay subject matter in all my films, perhaps, to further mix metaphors, Five Dances is my true artistic coming out.
Watch the trailer:
Five Dances will screen at the Dance on Camera festival, hosted by Film Society of Lincoln Center and Dance Films Association, on Feb. 1 at Walter Reade Theater, and Feb. 2 at Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Director Alan Brown and actor Ryan Steele will be in attendance for a Q-and-A session following both screenings. For more information on the festival, visit filmlinc.com. For more information on the film, visit fivedancesthemovie.com.