Dancing with the Scars

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By Rory Winston

”Where is all that fervour and fever? Spill it onto the page,” comes the eternal rebuke from the tormented narrator of Shaping Scars. But, luckily, both fervour and fever do one better for the Poet/Actress, Fern Beattie, as they spill from her mouth onto the landscape of contemporary dance, bursting between the frames of an art film –one that washes over the viewer like the disavowed tears of our own frustrated and frustrating affairs.

Directed by London-based Hungarian graphic designer and filmmaker SholtayShaping Scars lives up to its title. While its monologue attests to unrequited love’s slit-your-wrist moments, its choreography evokes the balmy moments of close proximity and the temporary scabs that form. Of course, both words and dance seem to agree on one thing: when those scabs do inevitably reopen, the wounds are more painful than ever. And they are twice as likely to leave a permanent scar.  Still, while all this heal and tear is going on in dialogue and dance, the film’s sensibility remains one of romantic reminiscence. It is a cinematic work whose sensibility manages to reshape each nick, gash and scar into an aesthetic object to be relished over time.

Playing the femme fatale of a lesbian duo, dancer Fanni Eszterhazy elicits an emotional duality – she is superficially powerful but internally frail, she is an ice queen born of a wallflower. This while the passionate and needy lover, dancer Mariann Hargital, does her best to undermine her aloof demeanor by trying to make sense of it for her and analyzing what may have gone wrong between them in an attempt to salvage their relationship.

Although Hargitai is undoubtedly representing Beattie herself, Lajos Peter Turi’s insistent and unremitting choreography, together with Hargitai’s powerful presence as a dancer, makes us wonder what if anything would survive of Eszterhazy’s character were she to give in and stay. Reminiscent of works by Talia Favia for Mather Dance Company, Turi’s choreography constructs a vocabulary based on exaggerated versions of everyday human gestures. But what starts out as movements within the control of those employing them to express things soon evolves into a language that redefines its speakers, making them no more than subservient tools to sentences that have begun to live their own lives independent of the intended message.

Despite words to the contrary, the viewer is also convinced that few characters are strong enough to inhabit a world with someone as unforgivingly analytical and aware as Hargitai. Beattie’s petition-cum-lambaste-gone-lament is a vortex of poetic imagery and analysis. Listening to her speak to her lover is a verbal equivalent of watching Swan Lake’s Odile (played by Maya Plisetskaya, no less) doing an endless series of virtuoso level fouettés in a vain attempt to communicate with a down-to-earth Merce Cunningham dancer. After Beattie’s torrent of clever phrases and cutting insights, it is clear that Eszterhazy’s character is promised just about everything were she to stay except, of course, a moment to breathe or think.

With the help of the DP (Andras Kiss Gravi) and the editor (Csilla Zsely), Shotay achieves a soft fluid phrasing that is a dance of its own. It finds gentle beauty in abusive moments, quiescence in the midst of a war, sublime in the otherwise overstated. In a very clever way, Shotay undermines pathos by sporadically giving us glimpses of the narrator’s presence – these asides are a solid reminder that what we’re watching is a subjective version of history, a story that has been filtered through the writer’s own scars. Had Shotay allowed for a bit more divergence between the film and the story, we easily could have been left pondering if the two struggling dancers were no more than different parts of the same person.

Remaining faithful to the intentions of even the best authors doesn’t always serve the best interests of a film. Still, despite any minor shortcoming, the film manages to sustain tension while giving us frozen moments of true beauty. Slated for screening at the LGBT Toronto Film Festival as part of Pride Toronto as well as at the Los Angeles Dance Shorts Film Festival, Shaping Scars is starting to gain some well-deserved traction. The diverse talents responsible for this attention have in their own idiosyncratic way shown both flourish and finesse in their given fields. I have little doubt that each of them will go on to forge their personal experiences (both good and bad) into the beautifully shaped scars known as art. When it comes to fervor and fever, Shaping Scars – a short film that clocks in at just under 7 minutes – has ample amounts of both.

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