Elliot Caplan can't do an arabesque to save his life. But that's not stopping the University at Buffalo professor from trying to put Western New York on the dance map.
To that end, he's relying on a trusty, if slightly stiff, partner. With the help of his camera, Caplan is establishing an archive of films about choreography, the first of its kind. Known as the Center for the Moving Image, it will be housed at UB, where Caplan has served on the faculty of the media studies department for the past two years.
The archive's first entry will be one of Caplan's own: a documentary about the making of "Ghost Light," a ballet commissioned by UB for the studio ensemble of American Ballet Theatre. The troupe will showcase the work during a mixed-repertoire program at 8 p.m. Saturday in UB's Center for the Arts.
"I want to make Buffalo a national center for the preservation of dance," Caplan says. "Dance needs to be recorded, and it needs to be recorded in a way where it's not boring to look at."
Which is one way of saying what the archive won't include -- namely, recordings of dance performances filmed from the back of a theater. Such a vantage point distracts viewers from the nuances of movement, according to the Emmy-winning filmmaker.
"That's not a testament to the art of dance at all -- that's a mistake. I want to go into a studio and document the interplay between choreographers and dancers."
In other words, Caplan wants to make, and train others to make, the kind of art that became his hallmark as resident filmmaker for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Over nearly two decades there he documented the legendary collaboration between two of the avant-garde's most influential figures: dancer-choreographer Cunningham and composer John Cage.
"I didn't know how to film dance when I came on the scene, and Merce and John could have worked with anyone. So it was an enormous responsibility," Caplan admits. "I was always nervous in the beginning because they were so famous. I don't know that I ever got over that, but I always tried to do work that I believed in."
Caplan landed in New York City during the 1970s, after receiving his graduate degree in filmmaking from the Chicago Art Institute. The Connecticut native hadn't intended to stay longer than the duration of a three-week housesitting gig. But he became enchanted by the East Coast autumn and scratched his plans to move to Los Angeles.
Invited by Cunningham to become a production assistant in 1977, he was promoted to resident filmmaker six years later, launching a career that would help redefine the genre of dance documentation.
In the spirit of the struggling artist, Caplan did some of his best work in a broom closet. "I made an editing studio there," he recalls. "I poked a hole in the wall and put in an air conditioner. I worked there for nine years."
One of Caplan's recollections from that era dates back to 1990. Holed up in the converted broom closet, he heard a knock at the door. It was Cage, asking if he could see what Caplan was editing. It happened to be footage of Cunningham warming up at the barre.
The next day, Cunningham and Cage appeared at his door, requesting to see the same footage. Within the cramped closet, the three men sat shoulder to shoulder, with Caplan wishing he had enough room to film them.
"Then, a year or two later, I was sitting in a theater and it was time for [Cunningham's solo]," Caplan recalled. "His entire solo was him warming up at the barre. It was a very moving moment because I knew that he had made that solo because of the film."
Although the three artists had their share of differences, they trusted each other's judgment. To this day Caplan credits that trust with giving him license to take risks.
His innovative approach involved moving the camera so close to the dancers that the equipment was "almost like another dancer." He mixed their breathing and footfalls into the soundtrack.
"We would spend weeks rehearsing a dance for the camera," he recalls. "If I had the dancers for an eight to 10-hour day, I'd usually end up with two to three minutes of useful material a day."
With every film he made, Caplan says the goal was the same: to give viewers "a new way to discover to dance." Along the way, he created a seminal body of work in dance filmmaking.
His work has aired nationally on PBS, Bravo, Arts & Entertainment, and internationally to 35 countries. "Cage/Cunningham," his feature-length documentary on the artists' collaboration, was released theatrically and translated into six languages.
"Points In Space" was distributed to more than 400 U.S. libraries through a MacArthur Foundation grant. "Changing Steps," which documents different incarnations of a dance, was filmed at the Sundance Institute, where Caplan helped run the dance program in the late 1980s.
Although he's best known as a dance filmmaker, Caplan's subjects include a who's who of artists and innovators, including Jackson Pollack and Maya Lin. From 1996 to 2000, he served as segment producer for "EGG," PBS's national series on art in America, receiving an Emmy and a Cine Golden Eagle for outstanding cultural programming.
At the moment, he's working on several films, including one about Holocaust survivors. He's put that on hold to finish documenting the making of "Ghost Light" for American Ballet Theatre.
Kirk Peterson, artistic director of ABT's studio company, described the collaboration between ABT, Caplan and choreographer Brian Reeder as "a dream project."
"We are so thrilled to be collaborating with Elliot Caplan on this fascinating project. Documenting the process of creation and the evolution of movement ideas in dance has been a much-neglected area of preservation, particularly in the ballet world."
With Caplan's vision, and UB's support, that's about to change.
"The process of making dance is often overlooked, but it seems to me that the process of making a dance should be around for people to study," Caplan says. "It has to help people understand what dance is about so that they don't think it's above them. That's what will enliven and enrich the art."