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The Significance Of Dance In History Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2159 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The significance of dance has been proven from time to time in history. From the ancients who used dance as a religious art form to King Louis XIV’s court ballet1 during the Renaissance Era and ultimately the exploitation of dance during the 1950s as a political tool. Popular dance as such ballet has probably seen the most number of fluctuations in retrospect than another other dance form. It was used during the mid 16th century as court room dancing by King Louis XIV 2 until the upheaval of the French revolution which caused its decline. It was re-introduced in Denmark and Czarist Russia only in the turn of the 20th century. A sub-form of ballet was developed in Czarist Russia commonly known as Russian Ballet. Catherine the Great of Russia favored ballet as a great form of dance. Two big companies were founded in St Petersburg and Moscow; Kirov Ballet of Leningrad and the Bolshoi Ballet Academy which still exist in status quo.3

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One of the most significant roles in White Nights is played by actor Mikhail Baryshnikov .He is a famous Russian-American dancer. He joined the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad where his balletic abilities made him a prominent student. However the socio-political situation in Communist Russia was unfavorable for his dancing career which caused him to defect to America. He became the principal of New York City Ballet in 1978 and one of the notable students of Twyla Tharp and Martha Graham. 4 He plays the role of Nikolai ‘Kolya’ Rodchenko in White Nights who had successfully defected to the United States from communist Russia eight years ago. The 1917 revolution brought radical changes to Russia where even dance was greatly affected. It was Anatoly Lunacharsky who fought to preserve ballet as an asset for the society when he was appointed the Commissar of Enlightenment in the first Soviet government.5 However many Soviet dancers still defected to the West where greater opportunities lied for them.

This is where Nikolai’s appearance comes into the picture. He is the main character in the movie with great techniques and talent for ballet. The movie starts off with an average looking white man (Nikolai) waking up with a cigarette in his hand and abruptly starts dancing. He is dressed as any other ordinary man who just wakes up from his sleep. No one knows that this is a theatrical dance until the audience is revealed. His style of dancing is close to Russian ballet which consists of a lot of movements, air jumping and leaping and partial somersaults. A female character enters the scene who signals to Nikolai that he had betrayed her. She points to a looped rope, signaling him to commit suicide. He climbs a chair, ties the rope around his neck and hangs himself. A lady wearing a skull painted mask walks in and puts the mask on Nikolai’s face. The whole performance is a classic blend of morbidity and ballet where death summates the show. It is a success among the audience who eventually try to get Nikolai’s autograph.6

The plot continues when Nikolai and his manager board a London to Tokyo plane the following day which crashes in a Defense Base in Siberia. To prevent his former Soviet identity from revealing to the Siberian authorities, Nikolai pretends to be French and attempts to flush down his passport which nearly causes him his life. The movie symbolizes the quality of life during the 1980s when political tension was high between America and the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was the American president and Vitaly Vorotnikov was the prime minister of the Soviet Union during the Cold War in the 1980s. The Cold War (1947-1991) was a period of political and ideological differences between the two super powers of the world who imposed their ideologies and doctrines on other countries. 7 A nuclear arms race was developed during this period following the birth of certain intelligence agencies such as the KGB (1954-1991). 8

The KGB had a significant hand to play during the Cold War. It was the main intelligence agency for national security for the Soviet Union. It was their primary duty to monitor the lives of the public. Most of their operations were underground where they secretly murdered political dissents, detained people and even exploited the works of artists.9 When the KGB found out that Nikolai was a famous Russian dancer after the plane crash, they separate him from his manager and seek out to exploit his great talent for their own vested interests. They call upon a famous tap dancer living in Siberia to keep an eye on him. He initially stays with Raymond and his wife in Siberia where he makes racist remarks and the two are not able to get along well.

The evolution of tap dancing brought an obvious switch of footwear from clog shoes to soft shoes. River dance and the Irish Jig had been largely popular in the mainstream culture in the America. The Irish Jig was widely known as the precursor of tap dance. Tap dancing had emerged from indigenous street dancing competitions before organized competitions were put forward on stage in the 1900s. The introduction of soft shoes in tap dancing enabled the performer to have a relaxed upper body posture in turn for more defined steps. 10 Tap dancing has been defined as “a dance in which the rhythm is sounded out by the clicking taps on the heels and toes of a dancer’s shoes”. 11 The role is played by Gregory Hines who was a famous American actor, tap dancer and choreographer. He was a famous ambassador for his art where he won an Emmy award for the television film Tap Dance in 1989. He is unprecedentedly introduced in the movie as Raymond Greenwood during another performance held in Siberia which incorporates both theatrical and tap dancing elements. He is the lead character with a sense of style and charm who tries to win the heart of a woman with his tap dancing and singing skills. She declines at first, consenting after much persuasion. His dancing is very rhythmic, often complementing with the sound beats from the piano. There is more enthusiasm when he runs to the audience and tap dances around them. His style integrates bits of acrobatic tap where he holds a stick in one hand ensuring that the attention is mostly on the feet.

Tap dancing had indeed emerged from streets. It was a mode of escapism for most individuals who had endured racial discrimination and subjugation in America. In White Nights, a black tap dancer is deliberately chosen to address the issue of racism during the 1980s despite the civil right movements two decades ago. Raymond is an African-American dancer who came to the Soviet Union as a selector where he meets a lady from Moscow and settles down with her. He is able to relate well to tap dancing which has a deep cultural history of racial discrimination. The KGB bring Nikolai, Raymond and his wife to Moscow where they are confined in Nikolai’s former house with 24 hours security and camera surveillance to ensure they do not make an attempt to escape. Freedom of movement and privacy of one’s life was greatly suppressed in Communist Russia. And none of the KGB’s undercover activities were known to the common people

During Raymond’s stay in Leningrad Moscow, he uses tap dancing as a platform to getaway from the pressure from the KGB and the racial remarks from Nikolai. His dance steps are random without any initial choreographing to show that there are other purposes of dance besides choreographed stage entertainment for the masses. He came to the Soviet Union assuming that he could escape racism in America, only to realize that racism exists beyond national boundaries.

The KGB even brings Nikolai’s former girlfriend (Helen Mirren) to the apartment to convince him to dance willingly for the Russians. After Nikolai’s departure from the Soviet Union to America, Helen was detained by the KGB where her passport was confiscated disallowing her to travel anywhere for four years. What intelligence agencies do not know is that for an artist dance is never a commodity. Self-initiated passion must lie within an artist to make him dance with true devotion and dedication. This was the reason why Nikolai did not dance willing despite having all the facilities such as a dance studio to practice his talent in.

Dance does not tend to exist by itself. Emotions and sentiments are run high when a dance is performed. During the scene when Helen brings Nikolai to the performing arena in Leningrad, he executes a dance piece which touches her heart and ultimately compels her to forgive him for causing her life to be at stake by the KGB. She plays a vital role in helping him and his friends to get help from the American embassy for a successful escape. During his confinement stay, Nikolai secretly escapes to a ballet school for young girls where none of them recognize him as a great ballet dancer. This shows the censorship of information to the public in the Soviet Union. Nikolai’s identity as a great ballet dancer was completely destroyed because the Soviet government did not want the public to question his departure to a country with conflicting ideologies on democracy. Censorship of information was strictly enforced in the Soviet Union where even dance especially ballet was heavily controlled. 12

Anyone who dissented against the KGB’s orders was treated with hostility and aggression. The KGB separated Raymond from his wife when they found out that Nikolai had escaped to the ballet school for young girls without Raymond noticing. They began monitoring their activities on a more frequent basis including their dialogue with one another. This is where one of the most popular dance scenes in the movie comes in. It is a duo dance by Nikolai and Raymond during their confinement in Leningrad. Despite coming from two dissimilar dance backgrounds, they are able to create a contemporary dance with substance. Their respective love for dance is so great that it was able to overcome their political and racial differences. The contemporary-oriented dance has a good coordination of steps with the background music. The dance commences with slight turning and twisting, kickboxing, sliding off the floor and ultimately fragments of tap dancing without the use of tap dancing shoes. The whole dance is monitored by a KGB member. Both Nikolai and Raymond are aware of the camera surveillance that is monitoring their performance. Towards the end of the dance, that very same KGB member gets into the mode of dancing as well. This shows the subliminal influence of dance on people.

Towards the end Nikolai misleads of the members of the KGB that he has a thing for Raymond’s wife to bring her back into the apartment. She is brought back thinking that Nikolai wants to start an affair with her when his real intention is re-unite her with Raymond. The trio executes a well organized plan to escape from the apartment without being caught. Helen calls an employee of the American embassy to help them escape. Nikolai and Raymond’s wife manage to escape leaving Raymond behind with the KGB. He is brought to a remote place thinking that he is about to get exiled from Russia where he is re-united with his wife.

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The exploitation of dancers and their dance had been greatly utilized in White Nights. However due to that exploitation, dancers such as Nikolai and Raymond could come together despite their ideological differences and find a common ground. Dance never exists by itself. In this movie it has existed with the pressure exerted by government-backed intelligence agencies as such the KGB on dancers. However dance has the unique ability to make people from conflicting backgrounds be tolerant of each other. Dance will always seek to inspire those who yearn to live in a free society without any racial discrimination.

1997 words


Notes from the Learning portal, Dance History


Notes from the Module Kit on History of Ballet

Notes from the Learning portal, Dance History


Mikhail Baryshnikov, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikhail_Baryshnikov

Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anatoly_Lunacharsky

Information from White nights

Cold War, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_War

KGB, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KGB

KGB, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KGB

Notes from the Module Kit on Tap Dancing

Answer.com, Tap Dancing, http://www.answers.com/topic/tap-dance

Censorship in the Soviet Union, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship_in_the_Soviet_Union


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