From the opening shots of Ron Honsa’s transcendent documentary on dance, Never Stand Still, we feel the tingling sensation of something other-worldly about to happen. A solo dancer spins on a solitary deck, a majestic landscape of green in the background. She is human, after all, and yet — in the lift of her toes, the whirling white weightlessness of her tutu — she is somehow not of this earth. In a singular moment, she has become a spirit, and with her we are transported into another realm.

In honor of the 80th anniversary of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Honsa has lovingly crafted a film that reveals through live performance as well as through interviews with legendary artists and archival footage, a world that we as mere mortals can only elusively inhabit and wonder about. The film has been a winner of Best Documentary at both the San Francisco Dance Film Festival and the Dance Camera West Festival in Los Angeles, CA.

Honsa is no stranger to this magical place in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, which was declared a National Historical Landmark in 2003. Hired to film the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in the early 1980s on the festival’s grounds, he was immediately captivated. While there, he met Barton Mumaw, an early pioneer and an invaluable fount of information.

“From the youngest dancers in this film to the legendary masters of the dance, it was obvious to me that a deep and creative vibration has always resonated at Jacob’s Pillow,” he said.

As a filmmaker who has spent his life obsessed with a visual medium, capturing the fleeting beauty of dance seemed like the perfect melding of two forms of moving images. But it did not come without its difficulties. In fact, for Honsa, it’s a complicated issue, “Capturing the human form moving through space has always fascinated me. The trick is how to capture the ephemeral experience of dance in a two-dimensional medium that is caught in time.” There are, according to the director, a number of things to consider. A performance piece is usually meant to be seen by a live audience, but the question then remains, do you replicate the audience experience or try to add another layer of perception such as camera angles and so forth?

“A dance documentary,” he emphasized, “puts things in context. You’re not just appreciating the quality of what the artist is doing, but you get a better understanding of the process, what led up to it. It’s very important that what we do with the camera shouldn’t upstage what’s in front of you.”

This was never better realized than in the filming of “Bumblebee.” This frenetic piece, brilliantly executed by the young dancer and choreographer, Rasta Thomas, is performed under a spotlight with a single camera. Standing in place, the dancer moves his torso with a rapid-fire urgency, as if he were being attacked by a bee — a performance reminiscent of the great French actor and mime, Marcel Marceau.

There are so many striking styles and rhythms that grab the viewer’s attention, it is almost impossible to pick a favorite from the panoply of performers the director has assembled. An overriding sense of the universality of the medium prevails throughout. The festival is known for gathering some of the most eclectic and energetic troupes from all over the world — from Nikolaj Hubbe’s Royal Danish Ballet to Gideon Obarzanek’s Chunky Moves; from the hypnotic serpent-like rhythms of Shantala Shivalingappa to Broadway legend Bill Irwin’s own tributes to Chaplin, the Charleston and the sheer fun of “schtick.” The film itself becomes a virtual globetrotting extravaganza brought squarely down to earth in this New England wonderland. Mark Morris, founder and artistic director of the Mark Morris Dance Group, perhaps said it best, “I’m interested in a big picture of dance. I like to say that my work is not for everyone — it’s for anyone.”

Perhaps the best thing that could be said about the film is that it works for the “anyone” that Morris mentions. Regardless of your orientation to this elusive art form of dance — from the passionate music professor to the retired dentist, or even the deli counter clerk who sells you that weekly lottery ticket and has agreed to go to a screening with his mother — it reaches out and pulls you in with an unbridled, unapologetic energy. You can’t look away.

To Honsa, it’s a generational issue as well. “I think the generational aspect is why the film is responded to by a broad audience. It gives a great deal of respect to these elderly, wise, talented people,” he said. With seniors like Merce Cunningham getting in their two cent’s worth, Honsa has succeeded in this challenge. The documentary’s focus on this great artist, however brief, was completed a short time before Cunningham’s death last year.

Images seared upon the senses are abundant: A clip of Alvin Ailey’s performance of “I Want to Be Ready” — a muscular and overpowering rendering of song to dance; Jomar Mesquita’s Mimulus Dance Company from Brazil, moving sensuously to every beat; and a humorously engaging piece called “Falling Down Stairs” by Morris, shot in the early ’90s. The deep-toned narration by choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones, interspersed throughout the film, never gets in the way.

But in spite of the actual performance footage, Honsa has intercut such sequences with close-ups of collapsed dancers during practice sessions in their worn ballet slippers. Children gather at one of the barn doors, to watch a rehearsal in action. Fade-ins and fade-outs of his “ephemeral” dancers over the verdant landscape punctuate these moving images. The viewer is given a moment, however brief, to meditate on the sheer beauty of it all. As dancer Judith Jamison says in one of the many interviews conducted for the documentary, “You have to touch the human spirit, don’t you? What’s the point otherwise?”

In fact, there are so many memorable quotes from legendary greats and newcomers alike, the audience is almost in danger of being overwhelmed. Still, each and every word is an expression from the heart.

Marge Champion, a film dancer during MGM’s Golden Age, is emphatic when she says, “Dance is not for anybody who wants to be sure and safe.” Merce Cunningham puts his finger on the pulse of Jacob’s Pillow when he describes it as “a place where people could, quietly or not, think differently and act differently.” For Suzanne Farrell, former star of the New York City Ballet, the place resonates with history, “When I came and danced here, I could feel what I call the dust of the performers who had been here before, and I like to think that I left some of my own dust back in 1976, and that everyone here that dances feels the same way.”

This sense of a living history, an organic fermentation that pervades the space, was one of the attractions for Honsa. “I wanted to create a documentary about a place that had a strong legacy of history — the place is crucial but if the film only looked at a place, it would be limited in terms of engagement. People inadvertently enter in. It’s the stories about people, people’s perception and involvement. It was important to portray the Pillow not as a museum but a living, evolving place,” he said.

What’s missing in this cinematic tribute — these personal stories, if anything — are the daily rigors and pains of a dancer’s lifestyle. How many aborted beginnings, how many spills and splintered attempts preceded the opening night performance? A quick shot of worn slippers is a start, but what is actually sacrificed for the art? It takes little imagination to read between the lines. This has to be one of the most, if not the most, demanding and short-lived careers one could choose.

“I came to this as a filmmaker,” Honsa explained before exclaiming rhetorically, “Why do you guys do this!”

“It is nuts. You work really hard, with amazing endurance; it’s so competitive, no different than being a professional athlete,” he added.

That, finally, is the question in the viewer’s mind and if that had been addressed in a little more depth, it could have added a richer dimension to the entire piece. As it stands, the film is a celebration. We can still be grateful for that.

Jacob’s Pillow began in the late 1700s as a New England farm and was named after the biblical story of Jacob, who laid his head upon a rock and dreamed of a ladder to heaven. A large rock resting behind the main farmhouse was the inspiration for the pillow and a switchback road to the property was dubbed “Jacob’s Ladder.” In 1931, when modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn and his wife, Ruth St. Denis bought the property and formed the Denishawn Company, it became known for a whole new dance form, no longer rooted in European ballet.

When the couple ultimately split, Shawn created the first all-male dance company in America. Over 50 years later, Honsa created his award-winning documentary, The Men Who Danced, which celebrates that revolutionary group. The pure athleticism and grace of the male body is wonderfully celebrated, and black and white clips of the dancers are interwoven throughout the current film. A tradition that Shawn created now thrives in the work of the young choreographer, Rasta Thomas, who feels he is still striving to make male dancing acceptable to the general public.

Though Honsa was a bit reluctant to single out the genius of any particular performer or performance group, he was obviously impressed with a work entitled “Invisible Wings” from the San Francisco troupe, the Zaccho Dance Theatre. When Joanna Haigood, their founder and artistic director, was doing a creative residency at Jacob’s Pillow, she discovered that the place had served as an integral part of the Underground Railroad. In the film, a segment of the piece she developed shows her suspended in the air, a symbol for the slaves who believed they could not only break free but fly. Folklore, certainly, but it became a powerful imagery for her work.

Thanks to Honsa’s sure directorial touch, the wings of the dancers in Never Stand Still are quite visible indeed.

“Never Stand Still, Dancing at Jacob’s Pillow,” opens May 18, 2012 at New York’s Quad Cinema located at 34 West 13th Street, New York, New York, 10011. For ticket and showtime information visit or call 212-255-2243.

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