Director Ezra Hurwitz on creating a remotely-directed technicolour dance film with MOMA, the San Francisco Ballet and Steve Reich
For many people, Covid-19 and lockdown have glued us to our sofas. Bingeing Netflix shows, taking part in Zoom calls, staring off into middle distance – all safe, housebound activities. For Ezra Hurwitz, though, he’s been inspired to explore the impact of Covid-19 through a more physical outlet – dance. The ballet dancer-turned-director has just released his latest lockdown choreography film.
COLORFORMS is a joyful, fresh film created in collaboration with MOMA San Francisco and the San Francisco Ballet. The company flexes and plays around the airy MOMA space to a hypnotic and engaging musical composition by Steve Reich. With its dynamic cinematography and the complex interplay of the dancers and the architecture, the fact that Ezra directed the film remotely because of Covid-19 restrictions is particularly impressive.
The film was created in order to raise money for the arts during this difficult time when live performances have become impossible in many places – anyone hoping to watch the full film can subscribe to SF Ballet’s 2021 Digital Season.
LBB> When MOMA commissioned you, what was their brief and what was your creative starting point?
Ezra> This commission came to me by way of San Francisco Ballet in November 2020. With their performance season cancelled they were trying to produce a film that could feel as substantial as the in-theatre experience. I thought we could even transcend that expectation with film.
LBB> The film is a wonderful journey of shape, music and colour that starts off in the gallery setting and then moves into the wider natural world... can you tell me about the art at the beginning and if they frame the rest of the film?
Ezra> The choreographer Myles Thatcher was really inspired by the Kelly artworks in SF Moma's collection - which definitely informed our colourscape for the rest of the film. We loved the idea of modern art being somewhat of a conundrum for many, and the way it often feels like we're meant to understand or appreciate fine art works in a way or in a language we haven't been taught. I think we wanted the film to give invitation and license to experience art (fine and performing) in any way that suits the viewer.
LBB> What does Steve Reich's music bring to the film?
Ezra> The music by Steve Reich is a work that was composed long before the film. Myles Thatcher and I loved the hypnotic repetition in it. With our emphasis on modern art fluency and appreciation, Reich - as one of the fathers of experiment/modern music - fit the bill perfectly. I love the momentum of the score and how it seamlessly propels the visuals forward. Its repetition, however, did call for me to figure out how to keep the visuals evolving and engaging - especially for a 17 minute film with no dialogue!
LBB> The colour in the film, the cinematography and grade create this really fresh aesthetic. I'm curious how you built up the look and aesthetic of the film and what you were hoping to evoke?
Ezra> COLOUR IS EVERYTHING in this film. And I have to thank Jenny Montgomery of Company 3 who really delivered on the grade. The wardrobe designer, Susan Roemer, was hyper specific in the colour palette of the costumes, which were all designed and built for the work. Even though they look like ready to wear pieces, i think the curated approach created a nuanced look. I also wanted to keep a really clean palate that the colours could feel dynamic and vibrant against - which perhaps gives it that spring like quality. I also really thought about James Turrell when creating the aesthetic for the more abstract spaces, and how they might stay in conversation with the corresponding galleries at the Modern Museum of Art.
LBB> You had to direct via Zoom, which must have been a challenge. It's one thing doing that when it's quite a still film but this involves so many performers and so much movement! How did you make it work? Did you get a chance to visit the spaces where the film was shot, as there's so much interplay between the dancers and the architecture?
Ezra> The Zoom directing wasn't ideal - but proved necessary due to stringent Covid guidelines in San Francisco. Having been a professional ballet dancer before, I was able to speak the same language as the talent - which was crucial on set. I also spent a great deal of time and detailed planning with Myles, the choreographer, and our incredible DP Ricardo Campos - using rehearsal footage of the dancers to motivate and anticipate the camera language. The hardest piece was honestly the lack of preparation on location, not really fully understanding the MOMA space until we were really able to shoot. With that architecture and environment being such an integral component to the work, we really pushed to incorporate it organically in the final hours.
LBB> How did you develop the choreography?
Ezra> Myles Thatcher created the choreography in the SF Ballet studios, under intense Covid testing procedures. The work is part of the SF Ballet's digital performance season and was created as a comprehensive dance piece that can/and will be adapted for the stage and live performance. Myles is really amazing at creating a dynamic structure to his work. Even though it's not an explicit narrative, the choreography has character and characters built into it, and a pacing that keeps things fresh and evolving. We thought a lot about how to create movements that could live in a non dance-customised environment like the museum and red wood grove, while still showcasing the ballet dancers virtuosity. Myles also made sure to incorporate incredible pointe shoe material and athleticism for our abstract world, which was captured in the War Memorial Opera house on proper sprung floors.
LBB> What are your favourite moments within the film?
Ezra> There are so many moments. It was both a challenge and a pleasure to create something longer than 30 seconds, or three minutes. I think some of my favourites are the look of the ‘yellow tree solo’ and the material filmed in the iconic lobby of SFMOMA. That space is just so dynamic. The producers almost killed me when I saw the floor, and demanded we get a crane in order to showcase it. I also love the Calder mobiles that we feature in the ‘Two Men's Section’, and the weird bubble gum chewing in Male/Female Duet.
LBB> The film has been created to raise money for the arts in a very challenging time for the arts & culture sector - why was it important for you to get involved?
Ezra> The performing arts world is where I come from - and it has truly been decimated by the pandemic. Dance on film has been the one medium through which these artists and institutions can continue to work and create - even if they are still haemorrhaging. It was really meaningful for me to be able to support them. The arts, of all kinds, are often discarded as non-‘essential’ during times as trying as this past year. Not only are they essential to the culture and life blood of the world, but they also make up the livelihood of so many.
LBB> This isn't your first Covid-era dance film. You also made Inside & Outwards, which featured dancers on New York rooftops expressing the experience of lockdown. It has a very different emotional resonance, but do you feel the two films are in any way connected? What did you learn from the production of the last film that you were able to put in place for this one?
Ezra> So, I've done quite a bit of dance on film during the pandemic - including my film on Quarantine Mental Health featuring Sarah Jessica Parker, four films for Lincoln Center and the NYC Ballet, and this work for SFMOMA and the SF Ballet. Working through the pandemic has certainly informed my approach to filmmaking and production. Planning is everything! Also, learning to do more with less (less time, less people, less money) has been challenging but crucial.