An extraordinary dancer, Ryan Steele, dominates “Five Dances,” the camera pivoting on his every sinewy stretch and turn. Almost all of writer-director Alan Brown’s latest feature transpires in a Soho studio where a small troupe is rehearsing five pieces choreographed by Jonah Bokaer. But rather than adapting the pieces to conform to his paper-thin narrative, Brown explores the tensions and contortions of dancers expressing fresh emotion through a pre-existing art form. The result avoids docu-style randomness while furthering only the most rudimentary story and character points, allowing the dance to speak largely, and magnificently, for itself.
Much as they did with Shakespeare’s text in their similarly gay-themed “Private Romeo,” Brown and longtime cinematographer Derek McKane trace complex configurations of confusion and desire in a densely resistant art medium. Steele is cast as Chip, a kid fresh from Kansas whose dancing talent is as immediately obvious as his naivete. Broke, he secretly sleeps in the studio until invited by fellow dancer Katie (Catherine Miller) to crash at her place. Tearfully threatening phone calls from his gin-soaked mother, whom he must constantly placate lest she follow him to New York, represent bridges yet unburned.
To a great extent, Chip’s baby-chick quality encourages the other dancers’ protectiveness and mitigates the jealousy they might otherwise have felt toward his superior talent, which quickly earns him an important solo. When Anthony (Luke Murphy), another dancer in the two-woman/three-man troupe, makes a sexual overture, Chip instinctively shies away, angry and defensive, only to come back, apologize and melt in his arms. Unsurprisingly, the sex scenes are shot with the grace and complexity of a choreographed dance, the movements of the intertwined bodies confined to a much smaller space, the leaps, lifts and twists internalized.
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The five dances of the title are surprisingly short. Oddly, Brown makes little distinction between parts and wholes, and the broken-down individual moves prove just as compelling as their final configuration in the choreography, sometimes even more so. The sensual movement of bodies through space creates a visual language whose infinite variations seduce and fascinate over the course of the film’s numerous rehearsals. The clean, open spaces of the loft-cum-dance studio lend the entire film a clarity echoed in all aspects of the staging and production, from the costumes to the amiable camaraderie of the troupe.