New Film on Tribeca-Based Dance Company and Its International Mission

Tadej Brdnik speaking to students in New Delhi. From the documentary, "Moving Stories."

Posted
Jul. 26, 2018

by ROSLYN BERNSTEIN

The universal language of dance and its ability to heal and uplift us is the theme of "Moving Stories," a remarkable new film about dancers from the Tribeca-based Battery Dance Company who travel halfway around the world to teach at-risk young people.

For one week, the camera crews shadowed three pairs of six talented dancers, choreographers, and nurturing teachers who are part of Battery Dance's Dancing to Connect program. They fanned out to New Delhi, India, where they worked with girls rescued from sex trafficking and gender violence; to Romania, with Roma (gypsy) kids from one of Europe’s worst slums; to South Korea, with young North Koreans who risked their lives to escape; and to Iraq, where Adel Euro, a gifted Muslim dancer, fighting to survive in a repressed society, connected to his Battery Dance teachers online. With exquisite care, we see them guide their students to create a dance from scratch—not their dance but one that comes out of the students.

“We are all dancers,” Tadej Brdnik says of his young students.” “They just forgot how to be one.”

The film, to be screened Saturday, Aug. 11, at 8 p.m. in Wagner Park, follows Brdnik and his fellow dancers as they encourage these fragile students to give flight to their often stifled imaginations and find the dancers in themselves.

The innate capacity of all of us to communicate through dance is the overriding philosophy of the Dancing to Connect program, which under the leadership of Battery Dance Company's founder and creative director Jonathan Hollander has led more than 500 workshops in over 60 countries around the world since 2006.

The film moves smoothly from country to country as the teachers interact with their students and as the students create moves that will become their performance pieces. In each locale, the teachers—Tadej Brdnik, Robin Cantrell, Mira Cook, Clement Mensah, Sean Scantlebury and Lydia Tezlaff—are faced with different tensions and challenges. In New Delhi, the first question they ask the young girls, who had been sexually exploited, is “Do you feel safe?” Several girls answer yes; another responds, "sometimes." They try to liberate the girls from the popular Bollywood movie dance styles. Brdnik asks one student to perform a move of her own and she responds with what seems like a simple, modest bow: she shifts from side to side, lowering her head slowly. Later, we see the very same movement incorporated into the group’s final dance.

In South Korea, teachers Scantlebury and Cantrell use familiar athletic moves, such as having students grab their toes and do sit ups, to first introduce them to the alien idea of dancing.  

Transforming teenagers into a collaborative group takes some doing, especially when not all want to be there. The filmmakers deftly weave Mensah’s experience teaching gypsy teens in Bucharest throughout the narrative, turning the spotlight on Natalya, a rebellious girl who doesn't follow his instructions. Several times during the class, she opts out of the group activity, complaining that a disabled girl intentionally hit her.

It is remarkable to watch Mensah’s efforts to teach collaboration. He seats the group in a circle “so that nobody can hide and everybody is equal.” He explains that the workshop is based on their own creativity and that, at the end, they will be putting all the pieces together to perform for an audience. Ultimately, despite his efforts, Natalya continues to act out, forcing him to ask her to leave the group.

See "Moving Stories" trailer above.

Because of the dangers of studying dance in Iraq, Scantelbury and Mesah taught Iraqi-born dancer Adel Euro by Skype. After Hollander arranged for Adel to get a visa to travel to Amman, Jordan, the teachers met with him to rehearse for an upcoming Amman dance festival. Adel speaks movingly to the filmmakers about how dance changed his life. When his father brought home a DVD of Michael Jackson, Adel was reborn, he says. “I was one person before the DVD, another after.” The camera captures Adel on stage, moving with extraordinary grace, his fluid twists and turns mesmerizing the audience.

It is day seven of the Dancing to Connect workshops and in each city we see the kids arriving by bus for their final performances. The auditoriums and concert halls fill with excited parents and guests clutching programs.

The movements that we have watched over the week come together under the spotlights. The dancers from New Delhi, dressed in yellow and red tunics, whirl in circles. Following loud applause, the dancers are handed certificates, there are hugs and kisses and teachers and dancers both are teary eyed.

Scantlebury reflects on the week: “It’s been a mind-blowing experience for me,” he says. “We have hope. We have a lot of hope.”

SPOILER ALERT: The camera returns to Adel looking into the mirror in his dressing room. Then, flashing across the screen there is a news account of a massive suicide bombing that ripped through a Baghdad shopping mall, killing 293 people. Without elaboration, we learn that Adel Euro was among the dead. It is a somber note in “Moving Stories,” but one that does not lessen the film’s important message about the communicating power of dance.

"With dance, across the whole universe it can become a language that everyone can understand." says Mensah in the film,  “I don’t have to speak dance in English. I don’t have to speak dance in Arabic. I don’t have to speak dance in Romanian. It becomes the same language.”

"Moving Stories" is directed by Rob Fruchtman, with writer-producer Cornelia Ravenal, filmmaker Mikael Södersten and producer Wendy Sax.

The 37th annual Battery Dance Festival will take place from Aug. 12 to 17 in Wagner Park featuring dancers from Botswana, Canada, Costa Rica, Egypt, Gabon, India, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Macedonia and Spain, as well as New York City.