The dancer Bettie de Jong is hung over a bare wooden floor with one leg bent back and the other stretched to the side. She turns slowly and opens one arm and then one knee, as if her limbs – long and luxurious – were pages in a book. She spins out on one foot while the other leg unfolds up to the side. Her arms rise radiantly, but without strength. Eventually she climbs back to her starting point and repeats the sequence. And again.
In the fascinating film “9 Variations on a Dance Theme” (1966), filmmaker Hilary Harris trains Frau de Jong, a long-time muse of choreographer Paul Taylor. Ms. de Jong repeats the variation, but as the film progresses it becomes less a direct dance than an intimate, cinematic exploration of the moving body. “9 Variations” is a classic. It’s also newly relevant as dance artists experiment with ways to showcase their art form on screens.
That’s not the only reason it feels so timely: In her isolated state, Ms. de Jong makes a lonely figure with her enigmatic angelic face. It seems like she is dancing alone in a room – who can not tell? – but her partner is Mr. Harris’ camera. It dances with her, sliding over her knitted full body, joining her trembling muscles, and following the movement of her graceful fingers as she dissects her body from above and below. But even if the camera has its way, distorting and blurring Ms. de Jong’s statue-like shape to make her anonymous, nothing can affect her ghostly aura.
Recently, two Taylor dancers – Michael Trusnovec, who has retired from the company but is now director of worldwide licensing for the Paul Taylor Dance Foundation and a rerun of Taylor’s dances – and Kristin Draucker, a current member of the company, decided to paying homage to Ms. de Jong by creating a new film.
“I remember seeing it one morning and only crying on the floor of my living room,” said Ms. Draucker when she saw the original in the early days of the shutdown. “I felt connected to dancing again. I wasn’t sad that I wasn’t on stage. Your dance really moved me. “
For “Neun neue Variationen”, the second video collaboration between Mr. Trusnovec and Mrs. Draucker, they asked nine dancers, all women – Sara Mearns, Margie Gillis, Tamisha A. Guy, Annmaria Mazzini, Xin Ying, Andrea Miller, Akua Noni Parker , Christine Flores and Caitlin Scranton – to watch Mr. Harris’ film and respond both physically and with adventurous camerawork. These movement meditations were then edited by Ms. Draucker and Mr. Trusnovec, which led to the 10th variation. (It is put on a score from DM R, the professional name of Diana M. Rodriguez.)
While these dancers were mostly filming themselves quickly on smartphones, Ms. de Jong, who is now 87 years old and rehearsal director at the Taylor Company, said that the creation of the original had evolved over the years. “He started it in ’63,” she said. “It took forever. I hated every moment of it.”
The characteristically blunt Ms. de Jong, who spoke to Mr. Trusnovec in a zoom conversation, performed the 45-second variation repeatedly. She danced in silence – music was added later – in sessions that lasted from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Then she would rehearse with Taylor.
“It practically killed me,” she said. “I tried so hard to get rid of it because it wasn’t dancing for me. No, I had no music, nothing to watch. “
Why did she do it? “It was just money I think. And eat. My tuna and my hamburgers. “She paused. “But it didn’t pay off very well.”
Ms. de Jong appreciated something about it. “He wanted to make a film that the camera made and not the dancer,” she said. “So he wanted minimal movement. I never prepared. I guess I had so much preparation in my desire to dance that it was like breakfast. After I put my arm across the floor, it was very easy to get in the mood. “
Ms. de Jong said that Mr. Harris tried another dancer, but the combination she created did not serve its purpose. For her, Ms. de Jong received advice from another member of the company, Dan Wagoner, who recommended that she use the beginning of her solo in Taylor’s “Scudorama” (1963).
“It starts with ‘Scudorama’ but then it’s about something he liked,” Ms. de Jong said of Mr Harris. “The leg rises and then goes back to the floor of ‘Scudorama’. And then I knitted a warm-up thing and he said, ‘Can you knit something like that in beige?’ “
Ms. de Jong was concerned about her sewing skills and turned to a professional. “I will not knit anything that is on the camera!” She said. “I found this little Hungarian lady who said, ‘Oh yeah, I can knit that’ and she did.”
Mr. Harris, who died in 1999, did not tell Ms. de Jong that his experiment had more to do with the camera than her dancing until he was done filming. Even now it is difficult for her to see; For one thing, he made her lift a leg that she didn’t want to lift. “My right leg,” she said, “goes higher.”
To persevere, she began associating it with repeating a daily bar warm-up. “It is boring!” She said. “Tendus are boring! So I took it this way: it was an exercise that I had to do. But it was unbearable. And maybe that’s why I can’t see it. It wasn’t comfortable. To dance like that without music is so boring and so difficult. “
But she still appreciates the effect of his angles, the way his camera controls the action. “That I like to watch because it’s very clear that the camera is doing it,” she said. “That is the art of the camera. I could feel him following me. “
For the meditative “Nine New Variations”, Mr. Trusnovec felt that the dancers were reacting to the camera, but beyond that, they were reacting to Ms. de Jong and “what she was doing,” he said. “They captured that purity, the elegance that she brings with her every time she does. It’s just so breathtaking. It’s so simple, but it’s so rich. “
Ms. de Jong, who danced for Taylor from 1962 to 1985, said the choreographer’s reaction to the film wasn’t exactly positive. “Oh, Paul hated it at first,” she said. “And then, when I recently got the Dance Magazine Award, he said, ‘Why don’t you show your film, Hilary’s film?’ That was the first time he mentioned this movie. He must have liked it anyway. “
Why did she think he hadn’t? “We all have very physical ways of letting you know,” she said. “He was a man of very few words and I knew he hated it. Probably more jealousy than anything else. That he didn’t make it. “
She met Taylor at Martha Graham Studios, where Ms. de Jong, who was born in Indonesia and later moved to the Netherlands with her family, was a fellow. She heard that Taylor was auditioning; Although it was just an invitation, he allowed her to attend.
Then she asked Mr. Wagoner if he knew what Taylor thought of her dancing. He said, ‘He never thought of taking a great dancer,’ and I said, ‘Oh, OK. That’s fine, that’s fine. ‘
But the next day she returned home after a morning graham class. She said, “At 1am the phone rang and that voice said, ‘Where are you? We rehearse! ‘That’s it. “
Mr. Trusnovec laughed. “This is Paul,” he said. “I bet you got there asap.”
Mrs. de Jong nodded. “I took a taxi even with no money,” she said. “I’m old now, but I feel like I had a very rich life where I got to dance Paul’s work. I loved all of his dances. I never cut myself into small pieces. I just went to heaven and danced for this man. “