Pennefather films
Natalia Osipova in “In Her Hands,” by Pennefather Films.

Summer Shorts

The dance films of Alice Pennefather

In the beginning of August, Marquee TV—a performing arts streaming platform—unveiled its inaugural “Summer Short Film Festival,” a curated selection of 28 short films of dance and music from around the world. The festival is a result of the partnership of Marquee TV with the San Francisco Dance Film Festival and Scotland’s Screen.dance festival. All the entries of “Summer Shorts” are offered for free viewing until the end of the month.

From a wide variety of the festival’s collection, four works—Dreams of Giverny, The Sun is God, Esprit du Jardin and In Her Hands—particularly caught my eye for their superb quality, fineness of concept and vividness of poetic appeal. A beautiful blend of fine art photography and film-making with evocative storytelling and choreography, these four pieces might to some extent be seen as a form of ballet-on-film art.

These four works, each lasting no longer than 11 minutes, are created by Pennefather Films, a small independent film company based in London, England; and all four are written and directed by British photographer and cinematographer, Alice Pennefather, who has several years of experience photographing for companies such as London’s Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, in addition to her impressive work on major feature films (Tomb Raider, Kingsmen, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Paddington 2, among others). Another common thread of these films is that all four of them feature the dancers—and choreography created by the dancers—of the Royal Ballet.

Ashley Dean in Esprit du Jardin by Pennefather Films

Choreographed by Kristen McNally, Esprit du Jardin is a nature-inspired reverie that takes place in a beautiful garden and unfolds to the evocative music by Michael Price. In the beginning of the piece, like an ethereal nymph, a dancer (a mesmerizing Ashley Dean) emerges from the chilling water of the stone basin, the snowflakes melting on her face, the icicles forming on her wet hair, her pink palms and her cheeks lit by the frosty glow. Hovering delicately on the tips of her toes, oblivious to the cool breath of freezing air, she moves through the magnificent splendors of winter wonderland, all covered by the glistening snow dust. The viewers follow her as she dances through the changing seasons, leaving the frost and chills behind to luxuriate in the garden’s visual beauty during the bright awakening of spring, the soothing warmness of summer and the misty tranquility of fall. At the end of her journey—and the film—she evaporates into the darkness of wintery water, as though she were a mere mirage.

A promising young choreographer, Valentino Zucchetti, choreographed three other pieces, which, in turn, comprise a trilogy dedicated to the life and creative work of the 19th-century artists.

Sarah Lamb in Dreams of Giverny by Pennefather Films.

In Dreams of Giverny, the famous paintings of water lilies, by French impressionist painter Claude Monet, vividly come to life. Filmed at Monet’s house and garden at Giverny, France, this exquisite work features the Royal Ballet’s principal dancer Sarah Lamb. Atmospheric and fantasy-like, Dreams of Giverny is an eloquent contemplation of a young woman, who is inspired by her surroundings and is transported, in her dreams, to the times when the great painter created his masterpieces.

As Lamb’s heroine makes her way through the garden, her ballet slippers covered with morning dew, she encounters Monet’s granddaughter (portrayed by Annabel Pickering, a student of the Royal Ballet’s school), who joins her on her imaginary journey.

Matthew Ball and Francesca Hayard in The Sun is God by Pennefather Films.

The Sun is God is a line attributed to the great English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. Alice Pennefather used this quote for the title of her film about love and loss. Accompanied by the second movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor and filmed in the vicinity and inside of Petworth House, an imposing estate in West Sussex, which Turner frequented himself, The Sun is God comes across as a period drama. It tells the story about a young girl (played by the terrific Francesca Hayward) dreaming about her fiancé (Matthew Ball), who perished fighting in war. In her thoughts, as she drifts through the manor and admires its majestic collection of arts, she relives the precious moments the two of them spent together as their love bloomed and flourished amid the backdrop of paintings and sculptures and the stunning vistas of countryside.

In Her Hands is inspired by the tragic life story of a brilliant artist, Camille Claudel, who was a student and a collaborator—and eventually a lover and the greatest muse—of the famous French sculptor August Rodin. If in the three previous films, the gorgeous settings—and the nature itself—dominate and propel the story, in In Her Hands, the choreography takes the spotlight. It’s a fully realized ballet and it’s superbly done.

Camille Claudel was a talented sculptress herself, who struggled to establish her own artistic identity, to make her own artistic voice heard in the world dominated by men. We learn, at the end of the film, about the cruel destiny that awaited her: she was confined to a mental institution by her family where she had spent more than 30 years of her life until she died, in 1943, penniless and abandoned.

Natalia Osipova and Matthew Ball star in In Her Hands by Pennefather Films.

Yet the film doesn’t show us Claudel’s mental and physical deterioration; instead it focuses on the pivotal time in her life when she decided to leave the unfaithful Rodin and to take her life and her creative work in her own hands.

The events of the film take place in Paris, in 1892, in a studio of Claudel (played and danced with consummate skills by Natalia Osipova), who reflects on her passionate yet tormented relationship with Rodin. As she works on her new piece of art, gently touching the clay and feeling the roughness of its surface, her mind drifts away and she imagines herself as one of her sculptures dancing with fervent abandon with her lover.

Set to melancholic strains of Gabriel Fauré’s Elegy, Op. 24, the dance leaps back and forth from “reality” to “fantasy.”

Natalia Osipova as Claudel “In Her Hands” by Pennefather Films.

As Claudel in her real life, dressed in a white lacy blouse and a long powder blue skirt, Osipova is utterly poignant and believable. When she works on her sculpture, absorbed in an act of creation, her forehead is wrinkled with concentration and grit; yet there is an unmistakable look of pain in her eyes, her face at once hard, lovely and sorrowful. In her solo dancing, she flings herself around the studio with sudden restlessness and intensity, as if allowing herself the reassurance of her own body, her flowing skirt becoming part of the movement.

In Claudel’s imagination, she recalls memories of her artistic and romantic life with Rodin (Matthew Ball) as two of them become their own art. Their dramatically charged pas de deux, full of ardent and sinuous movements, gives the film its highest moments. Set against the black background, it features only the dancers, who are clad in scant nude costumes to represent bare skin and evoke sculptural figures. And here the choreography and the dancing take center stage to a truly memorable effect.

Both Osipova and Ball demonstrate superlative artistry, bringing loads of emotion, technical and physical strength and charisma to their roles thus demonstrating in full spectrum the convoluted and tormented nature of their character’s passionate yet uneasy liaison.

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