Samurai Ballerina   1 comment

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What does a television show about a dance school in a small town have in common with a classic samurai film? Two angry & blustering but empathetic characters, and the ferocious, mercurial yet grounded performances behind them.

My choice for the best film of all time (and I’m far from alone in this) is Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. It’s a three-and-a-half hour epic about a ragtag group of swordsmen enlisted to save an impoverished village from a devastating bandit attack. There’s never a dull moment in that long runtime, and the story contains something for everyone: love, interpersonal conflicts, social justice, plenty of action and lots of humor. If you haven’t seen it, you may recognize the story from its two American remakes: the western The Magnificent Seven and Pixar’s A Bug’s Life.

The film contains a number of wonderful performances, but the most acclaimed is that of Toshirō Mifune as the headstrong and unruly would-be samurai Kikuchiyo. Mifune is one of the world’s greatest actors, and this is one of his best roles.

I’ve recently finished watching the first season of Bunheads, produced by Amy Sherman-Palladino (creator of Gilmore Girls), airing on the ABC Family channel. It had a few weeks of unevenness as it struggled to find its focus and settle its third-tier characters, but then it found a wonderful groove in the relationship between the show’s heroine, a frustrated dancer who moves to a small town and begins teaching at the local ballet school, and four of the teenage girls under her charge. The show is full of excellent acting: the star, Sutton Foster, demonstrates why she won two Tony Awards; the young actors who play the teen quartet are all perfect in their roles (I could write another essay on Bailey Buntain’s balancing act between cheerful deadpan and heartbreaking silent reactions); and every Gilmore Girls fan knows the genius of Kelly Bishop (grandmother Emily Gilmore), who plays the matron of the dance academy.

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But the most compelling and delightful character and performance for me is Sasha, one of the teenagers, played by Julia Goldani Telles. Sasha is the best dancer in the company and knows it, but inside, she’s a mess, and she takes out her problems on those around her. Her parents are too wrapped up in their own issues to pay any attention to her or her dancing. So Sasha—a model of discipline in the studio but nearly feral outside of it—lashes out at her friends and teachers. She seethes rage, even when she’s doing something kind.

The first time we see Kikuchiyo in Samurai, he snarls at someone standing next to him, for no good reason. It’s the type of thing Sasha would do (perhaps substituting a sarcastic remark for the actual snarl). Kikuchiyo’s behavior is so over the top—so unlike what we expect from a disciplined samurai—that new viewers sometimes take it for overacting. But as film scholar Michael Jeck notes in his commentary on the film for The Criterion Collection, “It’s the character who is overacting, and not the actor.”

For a few moments in the Bunheads pilot, I thought Telles was overacting. And then I thought of Jeck’s comment about Mifune, and it became abundantly clear that the same was true here: it’s Sasha who is overacting. Like Kikuchiyo, she’s compensating for her insecurities and vulnerabilities. In the same breath as the aformentioned comment, Jeck speaks of Mifune’s extraordinary body control as evidence of his talent. Again, the same is true of Telles (no surprise: dancer): she’s in control of her character’s every literal move. And as counterpoint to her angry bluster, she’s remarkable in the quiet dramatic scenes, too.

Compare moments when each blows up. (I’ll stick to the first half of the film/season, but expect a few mild spoilers). About a third of the way through Samurai, we get a glimpse of Kikuchiyo’s backstory and the source of his complex emotions:

In the 8th episode, Sasha gets a public scolding for not conforming to the school’s strict rules for behavior out of class. She skips class for a few days, then shows up with a new look. Watch her subtle change of expression and posture at the end of the argument.(I’ll confess a particular personal resonance with that clip; back in high school I had a similar yelling match with the drama teacher.)

My other favorite character moment from Sasha happened outside the bounds of story. At the end of the sixth episode, Sasha’s home life reaches a new level of tragedy. The story ends with an eerily quiet confrontation between her and her father, and then dissolves to the dance studio. The show had done dance sequences before this (including a hilarious ballet about a battle between paper, plastic and canvas grocery bags), but this was something different. Legend has it the episode came in under the allotted time, so Sherman-Palladino asked the show’s choreographer Marguerite Derricks to create a dance showing Sasha’s state of mind. The result made countless casual viewers into die-hard Bunheads fans, and such dream-like beyond-the-narrative dance sequences became a staple of the show:

(By the way: marvel at the audacity of a show building its primary set out of mirrors and windows! And shooting its musical sequences in a single unbroken take—that, too, has become a hallmark of its style.)

There’s quite a bit more linking these two stories than the performances of Mifune and Telles. Each is told with incredible warmth and love for its characters. Each features a group of well-trained individuals sometimes thriving, sometimes struggling within their discipline. Each presents both the intense conflict and the strong unity that can come from living in community. The similarities epitomize why I love both consuming and creating fictional narratives: they remind us of our shared humanity. Low-rent 16th Century samurai or aspiring 21st Century ballerina, we all share the same hopes and challenges: to find a home, a sense of purpose, and the love and care of the people around us.

Posted 25 March 2013 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Uncategorized

One response to “Samurai Ballerina

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  1. I enjoyed reading this, both for the content, and for the insight into your filmographic thinking.

    Michael

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Michael J. Piper p/BSG

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