Haunting Douglas

Expertly crafted video portrait of modern dancer/choreographer Douglas Wright, "Haunting Douglas" owes much of its impact to a generous sampling of the innovator's work. Images of the artist's muscled body dominate the film. Helmer Leanne Pooley savvily incorporates conflicting agendas of showcasing art and uncovering his bio.

Expertly crafted video portrait of modern dancer/choreographer Douglas Wright, “Haunting Douglas” owes much of its impact to a generous sampling of the innovator’s work. From the opening shots of Wright’s supine nude form inch-worming along the floor, a lit candle tucked between his legs, images of the artist’s extraordinarily muscled body dominate the film. Documentarian Leanne Pooley savvily incorporates conflicting agendas: He was only interested in showcasing his art, she was intent on uncovering his bio. Docu works on both levels, though subject matter will limit film to dance fests and public TV.

Pooley skillfully interweaves current encounters with Wright, tapes of past theatrical performances, excerpts from experimental videos of his pieces, readings from his soon-to-be-published autobiography “Ghost Dance” and interviews with friendly talking heads.

Though Wright mocks the arrogance of the release-form whereby he must renounce all control “in perpetuity” of the film, and decries the director’s inclusion of personal experiences painful to him (what he describes as Pooley’s “metaphorical pound of flesh”), he turns out to be amazingly forthcoming and, luckily, almost as articulate in his writing and talking as he is mesmerizing on the dance floor.

Pooley chooses her dance clips wisely, relating individual numbers to specific areas of Wright’s life story yet never allowing the force of his eclectic choreography to be subsumed by mere biography. Wright speaks of the anger that fuels his movements; that rage is on display in a performance of “How on Earth.” Sorrow over deaths of friends breaks the internal connections of his body in “Elegy.” Wrestling with mental demons could not find a better visual correlative than the black-and-white clips from “Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men.”

Pic traces Wright’s early years in the small New Zealand town of his birth where “a dancing boy was frowned on with a frown handed down for generations.” Sublimating his gyrations into the more acceptable form of gymnastics pleased his father but not himself, and Wright soon graduated to full-blown hedonism, making a vocation of sex and drugs until a lover suggested he do what he had always wanted to do — dance.

At the height of his career as a major dancer with the prestigious Paul Taylor company in New York, Wright quit, returned to New Zealand and developed his own style amid the greenery he could no longer live without.

The last act of the biographical drama concerns Wright’s struggle with HIV, which at first attracted audiences in untold hundreds “waiting for me to die in time with the music” but also inspired some of his most dramatic work, including “Forever,” a startling mix of filmed and live performance that brought down the house in Holland.

Tech credits are excellent, playing up the contrast between relatively hi-def present-time footage shot by Pooley’s cameramen and the grainy, magically murky artifacts that represent other filmmakers’ attempts to capture Wright’s creations.

Haunting Douglas

New Zealand

  • Production: A Spacific Films production. Produced by Leanne Pooley, Shona McCullagh. Directed by Leanne Pooley.
  • Crew: Camera (color, DV), John Cavill, Simon Raby; editor, Tim Woodhouse; music, David Long; sound, Terry King. Reviewed at Dance on Camera Film Festival, New York, Jan. 23, 2004. Running time: 76 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Douglas Wright, Paul Taylor, Kilda Northcott, Debra McCulloch, Shona McCullagh, Lloyd Newson, Malcolm Ross, Billie Farnell, Tobias Schneebaum.
  • Music By: