Mia, A Dancer’s Journey

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“I didn’t make this film to figure out my relationship to my mother. I did it because I wanted her to know when she left this world that what she had done in her life would not just disintegrate and disappear. I also promised my mother before she died,” explained Maria Ramas, daughter of ballerina/teacher, Mia Slavenska, “that I would complete the process that she had started.  Telling her story would be a coherent record and her view of her art.”

Slavenska, who died in 2002 in Los Angeles was, perhaps, best known as a member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. But Slavenska’s life was so much more than that, and the film, Mia, A Dancer’s Journey is a 55-minute jewel that brings to life not only the stunning ballerina with riveting stage presence, impeccable technique and artistry to burn, but a determination to bring the European art form to American audiences.

Mia is also a document of history, one that took Ramas, who also wrote and narrated the film, and co-director Kate Johnson, who also edited and did the motion graphics, 10 years to complete. In addition, the pair, along with Brenda Brkusic and Ted Sprague, produced the documentary that they agree was a labor of love.

Said Johnson, a filmmaker, video artist and assistant professor at Otis College of Art and Design who also has a dance background: “The ephemeral nature of not only dance but art history struck a chord. We had to tell the stories of artists, not in just the terms they achieved, but the risks they took, sacrifices they made and the time periods they lived in.

“It wasn’t just about what or where Mia danced that’s part of the story,” added Johnson, “but the larger part is her own personal story, one that fulfills a larger theme—what artists risk and the sacrifices they do to create their work.”

Ramas and Johnson both live in L.A, where the film premiered on PBS last November, and has since been airing on PBS stations nationwide. Mia received its New York premiere at Lincoln Center’s Dance on Camera Festival in January and continues to air throughout the country, with a screening at Jacob’s Pillow in July. In October, San Francisco Dance Film Festival launches its sixth season with a special screening of Mia, with San Francisco Ballet co-presenting the film.

The duo met after Slavenska died, when Johnson was recommended to Ramas to help put together a video for her mother’s memorial in February 2003. It was then that they realized they had the makings of a larger film, one that ultimately has been embraced by dancers and non-dancers alike. It’s also creating Emmy buzz.

So who was Slavenska? A Croatian beauty, she was the epitome of glamour. But when mother and daughter left their native country to join the Ballet Russe, the troupe that made its New York debut in 1938, the 22-year old phenom wasn’t chosen for leading roles.

Impresario Sol Hurok opted, instead, to promote the red-haired siren with the smoldering eyes as a sex symbol, her last name changed to Slavenska. (The dancer was born Mia Corakin in Brod-na Savi, which had been renamed Slavonski Brod in 1934 by the government of Yugoslavia).

It was also in 1938 when the prize-winning French film, La Mort du Cygne (released in the United States as Ballerina), brought Slavenska further fame, its star nearly leaping off the screen with her quicksilver feet, liquid line and powerful presence.

But when her contract expired with the Ballet Russe, Slavenska left, and after briefly joining various troupes, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera Ballet and London Festival Ballet, she decided to form her own touring company. With her indomitable drive and desire, Slavenska, who also wanted to direct and choreograph, formed Ballet Variante in 1947.

But after five years, the dancer wanted something more modern, more progressive, well, more American, and in 1952, she formed the Slavenska-Franklin Ballet with Frederic Franklin whom she’d met in the Ballet Russe. It was in this troupe that she performed one of her most electrifying parts: Blanche in Valerie Bettis’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with the playwright Tennessee Williams declaring Slavenska the best Blanche he’d ever seen.

Explained Ramas, who spent more than 30 years in academia at UCLA, teaching European and women’s history, and has since retired: “What was important to my mother was her career and her struggle, and to be recognized as an artist. She attempted to be more than a dancer.  She wanted to be a producer, she hoped to choreograph—she wanted to have an impact. She wasn’t successful at that because of the times.

“And that’s what we wanted to tell, her struggles. So when it fell apart, she had to pick herself up and do it again. This showed her strength and independence. She didn’t want to be some choreographer’s muse—she wanted to be her own muse. “Streetcar” gave her that opportunity.”

Ramas, who was born in 1947 and didn’t fully realize the extent of her mother’s fame until making this film, said that with “Streetcar,” Slavenska became an American artist.

“That was her way into this culture, into American art. It showed a kind of direction she would have gone in, which was different than what Balanchine was doing. It was a combination of modern expressionism and what she learned when she studied with Gertrud Kraus [for example], as well as her telling American stories. That is why we included “Streetcar” as the climax.”

But since there was no crowd-funding, corporate money or single donor patrons readily available to the small touring company (and even a single philanthropist is no guarantee, with Walmart heiress Nancy Laurie recently having pulled the plug on Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet), Slavenska-Franklin Ballet was forced to shut its doors in 1954. The troupe then sold “Streetcar” to American Ballet Theatre, a premiere that Slavenska attended, albeit unhappily.

Thus, at 47, Slavenska retired from the stage, spending her remaining four decades teaching at UCLA and CalArts, and also in New York, where students flocked to Slavenska’s classes. Among them were postmodern dancers from the famed Judson Dance Theater, including Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs and Steve Paxton.

Paxton, who lives in Vermont and was the originator of contact improvisation, wrote in an email: “It’s not well known that a number of the Judson dancers studied with Slavenska. She had a great aura—aristocratic and glamorous, a discerning eye—yet was warm, amused, and, in time, developed a clear focus on each of her students’ technical development. I came to trust her guidance completely.”

Childs, whose seminal 1983 work, “Available Light” with set design by Frank Gehry and score by John Adams, is currently in revival and will be performed in June at L.A.’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, wrote in an email:

“Mia was a great teacher, because every exercise she taught made sense, and I could understand how the perfect placement and alignment she demanded challenged the limits of the body without ever violating the inherent structure. It was from this that I learned how to train on my own, for which I am ever grateful.”

Snippets of Slavenska teaching can be seen in the documentary, along with excerpts from an interview conducted in the 1980s by graduate student Bridget Murnane, now a professor at Cal State Los Angeles. Threaded throughout the film, these clips are enhanced by the dancer’s own words, voiced by Emmy award-winning actress Blythe Danner, who reads from the memoir that Slavenska had been working on for the last 20 years of her life.

But one of the main obstacles in making Mia, besides the obvious one of financing, was that Johnson and Ramas did not have much film footage of Slavenska. There were numerous still photos, as well as clippings and the memoir, but for the flow of the film, creating a kind of cinematic alchemy was left to Johnson.

She explained: “I didn’t want the stills to be static. I experimented with different motion styles, compositing, animation, and scaling to create something that I hope feels like it’s dancing.

“In some cases there was only one photo or no photos or film to illustrate a passage. I didn’t want to do film recreations with actors, and I wanted to keep the audience as connected as possible to Mia, so I chose archival photography of her to sculpt the film around. I created passages in which I designed the composition, movement and at times metaphor, to support the story we are telling emotionally and viscerally.”

Johnson, who is also a principal force behind EZTV, a groundbreaking Los Angeles media arts organization, recalled that when she and Ramas were sifting through archival footage at Lincoln Center, she was fascinated by seeing people that were recorded and moving, “but are no longer with us—you’re seeing them in their prime and this is captured.

“We can see ourselves as victims of time,” Johnson, 45, added wistfully, “but through photography and film we’ve conquered time—at least for a moment. For me it’s like magic, looking at a flickering screen and seeing something that is gone. It’s one more triumph to say we were here. That’s my love of the documentary form.”

In one of the documentary’s most poignant scenes, Ramas returned Slavenska’s ashes to Croatia, where a posthumous burial was held in 2005, caught on film by Johnson and filmmaker/consultant Michael J. Masucci.

“Because of the film, we brought Mia home,” recalled Johnson. “We took her home to Croatia, and that was the most fulfilling aspect of making the film. Whether it’s metaphorical or literally, we took her back home.”

Mia, A Dancer’s Journey was also a profoundly affecting one for Ramas.

“My mother was there when I took my first breath and I was there when she took her last. But what I did discover was that I came to see her as a full human being. I came to understand why she could not let go of her identity as an artist and why it was so painful in her final years.

“She was exiled from what she was put in this world to do—to dance, to create. I understood. I got her. I didn’t understand that until I made this film.”

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