New Film Will Make You See Dance Anew

03/01/2016 03:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My interview with Peter G. Kalivas and Barbarella Fokos will help you see dance differently.

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Choreographer Peter G. Kalivas (R., foreground) instructs one of his dance company's performers (PHOTO: David Fokos)

Film, dance, choreography, and a hint of international arts diplomacy join together in a lilting and intimate film from The Artist Odyssey, or "TAO." The film, titled Peter G. Kalivas: Body as Phenomenon, is directed by David Fokos.

The new documentary's subject, Peter Kalivas and one of the film's producers, filmmaker, Barbarella Fokos, recently granted me an interview and revealed an ethos both artists share. Rather than adhering to prescribed ways of making great art while creating works within their respective forms, Fokos, who in addition to co-producing the 15-minute film also gets an editing credit, and Kalivas both ditch the templates and formulae that too frequently make dance, and even documentary film, either predictable or remote.

Not to confuse the act of ditching templates with the cliche of "breaking all the rules," the folks at The Artist Odyssey--and one senses that it's no coincidence the arts network's name forms the acronym "TAO," as in Tao I Ching, the higher-self spiritual path--are subtle rule-breakers--if rule-breakers at all.

As this gem of a short film demonstrates, to say Barbarella Fokos and her husband, David Fokos along with The Artist Odyssey cofounder, Chris Fessenden (who is also Body as Phenomenon's executive producer) cherish the arts is to say hurricanes are partial water.

Likewise, to say the film's subject, choreographer Kalivas is one of the most innovative names in dance and choreography today is to say Oprah likes a little chat now and then.

My conversation with Fokos and Kalivas took place via conference call. The latter was performing in the Caribbean at the time. Fokos joined the call from her home studio in San Diego.

HuffPo: Peter G. Kalivas-Body as Phenomenon is your first film under the umbrella of a new arts network called, The Artist Odyssey, correct?
Barbarella Fokos: No, this is the third film, our third release at the network, which your readers can see at theartistodyssey.com

But you have a long history of producing, directing and appearing in arts and other genres of documentary film, yes?
BF: Yes.

What were the first two titles?
BF: Honoring Life: Trinh Mai, Mario Torero: Artivist, and Frank Lee Drennen: More Love are the titles of our the other films produced with The Artist Odyssey. Peter is the first choreographer-dancer we've featured.

There are so many different media involved in the arts. Did you know that dance and choreography would be among the first art forms you wanted to feature after The Artist Odyssey launched?
BF: Yes, certainly! What's that noise? [a loud noise interrupts the conference call] It sounds like someone's at a drive-thru.

Peter Kalivas: [laughing] Who me?

No, no it doesn't. It sounds like a merry-go-round.
PK: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know what it is? I'm literally working on a cruise ship this week and next week, singing. And I'm literally off the ship now near a bunch of parties in the area. So, it's a little challenging.

I'm not drinking either. I promise.

BF: [laughs]

I think we're going to need you to download a breathalyzer app.
BF and PK: [laughing]

PK: Welcome to my big, fat, crazy Greek life.

BF: To go back to your question, yes; we always knew we wanted to cover dance because it's a major art form, dance and choreography, performing arts. It would be egregious to overlook something so wonderful.

PK: Dance is so underrepresented in arts reporting.

Expand on that a little.
PK: Well, I've been in the field for about 30 years, and it's shocking that dance still feels almost like a niche market. That's the mission of my organization. We're working so hard to see if we can come up with inventive strategies that let more people of all different economic brackets, all different cultural points of view engage and have and opportunity to meet our dance company and to experience our dance company. It's really important that we don't make our [dance-performance] products too expensive.

It's also important that we don't make our performances inaccessible because they're put off by the theater spaces. I'm really aware of that stuff; I'm really hypersensitive to other people's sensitivities about how we're received and about how people want to experience their art. It should be multicultural. It should show diverse points of view. It should speak to the people. That's the whole point of it. If my organization doesn't work that way, then it has no value.

Dance overall--even in commercials--whether it's seeing actors selling products, music selling products, dance is used in the same way, but much more superficially. I'm going to get a little testy here, but it's so easy to objectify dance than to really look at it and see what it trying to be on its own.

Do you mean that we see dance as almost ambient--like it's in the background?
PK: That's exactly right. Dance is always framing and supporting and serving something else, something that's presented as bigger than us. It's not that dance is minor, it's just put in a minor position.

Do you aim to put dance in the foreground?
I do. It stands on its own. It's got its own voice, it's own purpose, it's own aesthetic. That's why I'm not a fan of the way dance is presented today. It's always in the background. You even go to Cirque de Soleil and other companies and organizations and you may not even realize that people are even dancing, they're so far in the background.

Barbarella, is that why you approached Peter Kalivas for TAO's first film on dance?
BF: To Peter's point, as a documenter of the arts, I wholeheartedly agree; dance is its own art form, it's own medium and is right up there with visual arts or music. It's not just a sub-genre under the larger category of performing arts.

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L-R: The Artist Odyssey co-founders, Barbarella Fokos, David Fokos and Chris Fessenden (PHOTO: J Grant Brittain)

Is that why you chose Peter's dance company as the vehicle to assert that idea, that dance is a major, front-and-center art form?
Yes, and specifically Peter as a choreographer. Choreography is an art. A choreographer is an artist. He's someone trying to use a specific medium to communicate something. Peter as a choreographer is using the medium of dance to communicate his artistic message.

Based on that, I'm tempted to use a metaphor like Peter Kavalis is to dance as painter is to painting. But would I be falling into the trap of subordinating dance to another art form?
PK: Yeah, I know what you're saying.

BF: But analogies can help people see things. It's a fair analogy. I writer uses a pen; a choreographer uses a body to create. That's why I loved interviewing Peter in the film and that's why we chose to call the film Body as Phenomenon. When I asked him in the film, "what does dance communicate that other forms of art do not?" That's what he answered, "body as phenomenon."

So for your purposes as a filmmaker, Barbarella, you succeeded absolutely in your mission presenting the choreographer as the artist and dance as the medium. Going to Peter's mission, though, to present dance: Is there any danger that this film over-represents the choreographer and again puts dance in the background?
PK: No, not at all. You know the film's been circulating at a remarkable pace, actually since it was released. I've had an amazing response from the public from people who have seen it. They're discovering it and the largest impression they're getting is what I would call "the reveal."

They're seeing this immense amount of frenetic energy and work that goes into creating the work and creating dance. They're hearing me and others talk about dance in a very thoughtful way, with concern that good choices are being made on behalf of the form and on behalf of the audience. That is all wrapped together in the film. It doesn't get separated out. They see how committed the dancers and everyone is to the mission.

They also see that the film and the messages are very fast-moving and it doesn't stop. I think Barbarella accomplished something that needed to happen for dance with this film. It's profound.

...

Barbarella, do you want to weigh in on that?
BF: In terms of separating out or diminishing dance from choreography, that would be like interviewing a conductor and saying that that somehow diminished the symphony.

I'd really like to know more about how the film reveals the unusual way Peter selects music for PGK Dance Project dance company's performances.
BF: Choreography and music go hand-in-hand because most often we see dancers moving to music. I found it exciting and different that Peter doesn't choose the music first--that he has the idea that sometimes he does; sometimes he doesn't. How that made an impact on the film is we just did our best to illustrate his process. It was all about showcasing Peter's process. Because his process is finding music after he's choreographed the dance. There is one piece where he was inspired by a sandstorm and the music came to him; so we just did our best to illustrate that. That did influence my decision to highlight the other section of the film which is then sound of dance. We wanted to be sure to include that

That's so interesting. There is a scene in the film where the sort of pitter-patter of feet dancing on the stage is so prominent and there is no music.
BF: If you noticed that, you probably also noticed that we left the screen black [the way the stage was dark during the performance] because we wanted the viewer who wasn't there to experience that live to have that same sort of physical and audible reaction. That was there because we wanted the viewer to hear the sound of dance itself.

We could have done a whole other film just about that and other stories rather than Body as Phenomenon. There were so many stories like that in interviewing Peter, though, which we didn't get to in the film. We could only do a few. The decisions of which stories to tell were all directed by getting to know Peter's process.

Peter, do you have anything to add regarding how you choose music for dance?
PK: I hope this doesn't come off in a weird way, but I'm equally [to dance and choreography] trained as a musician. I studied piano and voice as well as flute and violin as a kid. But I was really serious especially at piano and voice. I sing professionally, which is why I'm in St. Thomas this week. So I actually trust my skill set, and I really have lot of faith that I can make the right choice when I need to make the right choice. If I let things come to me, it feels more organic. As Barbarella says, I'm working on the time and notice things all the time--inspirations and sights--I write them down. It's a constant process. I have books and books and journals and journals of music I have yet to use. It all comes back and returns to me in its own way and its own time.

How much time added time, I mean time as a resource, rather than pausing to research music before creating a new dance piece--how much added time does that give you in your process as a choreographer?
PK: I can't imagine taking a sabbatical to do that part of the work as research. And yet, I have friends who do work like that, who live for that moment. I don't need that kind time away in my version of process. Just the other day, when I was making dance, I saw something in my head as I was driving to the studio. It wasn't until I was in front of the dancers that I began to make the movement. I made the movement in about two minutes and it was done. It just poured out.

Peter, your cultural-exchange work with the State Department is highlighted in the film. I'm wondering if, Barbarella, you were surprised to learn about the work Peter does with the State Department.
BF: That's one of those examples where that could have been an entire other film. What I would have done if we could have is get that whole story. But that's a whole other film. The inclusion of that part, however, was a sense of place. But what we did with this film was focused on a handful of dances and pieces. I was personally impressed with that aspect of Peter's story and had to include it at least in passing...We'd like to follow up on that and work with Peter again.

Well, it looks like I have scoop. There might be another film, this one about your adventures in Kazakhstan. How long, Peter, have you been working with the State Department and taking American dance to other countries and is it an ongoing relationship?
Our relationship with the State Department is going strong. In fact, I'm going to Belize next fall and Latvia for the very first time with several of my dancers. We'll be there the second and third week of July. We're going to be doing a tour of four cities. It's basically a roving, site-specific dance festival. We're going with specific pieces and doing them in alternative places like a warehouse, castles, a cave and different kinds of places. We're doing full concerts in those places; and we're developing original works in each of those cities with local dancers. We're going to process with locals for three days and we're going to premier what we're doing together in those shows.

It's cultural exchange and really getting in there and having a deeper relationship with different countries. There's not that much exchange if you just do a master class in another country. This is real cultural exchange. We already speak the same dance language, now we can say, "why is this or that interesting to you in your culture?"

It's very validating when you meet dancers in places like Belize where the economic situation is very different, yet they still feel the need to move their bodies and self-instruct. All of those efforts are extremely important. That's why I like talking about culture around dance. Not to get completely away from the esoteric and aesthetic because I know people appreciate seeing this dancer doing this movement and that dance. Some people just need to dance.

Will there be video of these performances abroad?
PK: Yes. In fact, I think the State Department requires that there be video of these performances. I always do a pictorial of like a hundred photos in an album for the department of all of the dances. These State Department trips are amazing to me. I've done master classes and rehearsals abroad in basements and garages, out in the back of someone's house. It doesn't matter where it happens. It matters that it happens.

Barbarella, is that good news to you that there is going to be footage that might make it into a follow-up film?
It definitely would. Any film we ever do we want as much footage as possible. For example, Peter has a long history with famous dancers in Europe and elsewhere, with Alvin Ailey. We went through some of that footage for this film when we were editing. For anything we mention, we want visuals. It's film; it's all about visuals. In the end, for this film, we decided the best visuals we had for the best story we could tell was all about being inside the mind of the choreographer, from the studio, to rehearsal, to on-stage live performance.

And your mission, Barbarella, at The Artist Odyssey is very specific. Can you tell us how this film fits that mission?
The mission at The Artist Odyssey is to document the artist. We basically capture the story. My mission personally, is to understand the whys and the hows. What is their message. Peter fit right in line with that because we got to peek behind the scenes. People go to dance performances. They go to see dance as art. What they don't get to see is the process that goes on behind the dance, behind the process of creating it. That's what we're doing in this film.

You can see the entire documentary, Peter Kalivas: Body as Phenomenon at TheArtistOdyssey.com and learn more about the choreographer and his dance company at ThePGKDanceProject.org