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We’d much rather hear from the individuals who actually expose themselves, the dancers; while they don’t tell their stories, we see their camaraderie and diligence, along with an endearing, unexpected wholesomeness. We watch one dancer brushing the horsehair tail that bisects her bare fesses, and several others howling around a videotape of Bolshoi bloopers. It was for strippers like these that H.L. Mencken coined the lofty term “ecdysiast.”
Ecdysiasts or not, ballet is these dancers’ first language of instruction, and insiders will smile at the classical terminology (cambré, saut de chat, rétiré) used here to block out their bump-and-grind routines. Most viewers will be less familiar with the old burlesque techniques of strategic delay, like removing a stocking in eight counts when it really takes just four.
Unlike Darren Aronofsky, who shares Wiseman’s linked directorial interests in boxing and ballet, Wiseman films bodies in ways neither prurient nor prudish — and, of course, with none of Hollywood’s pyretic, choppy body doubling. Some of the dance numbers he films are original to Le Crazy, dating from the 1950s. In more cases, the numbers don’t show much artistic continuity with the cabaret’s old days, but they do convey something of the same saucy attitude, allowing for the passage of half a century. All are elegantly, meditatively captured by Wiseman: Three girls curling fingers and scissoring legs around a mirrored parquet; the bounce and arched backs of “Baby Buns”; the heartbreaking, brilliantly lit dancer writhing on a divan, cat-clawing the air to Antony and the Johnsons’ melancholy “Man Is the Baby.” It’s just a shame that the musical number ending the film is pure Vegas stripper kitsch, simultaneously cloying and clammy.
Neither Decouflé nor Mahdavi hesitates to invoke the word “art” on behalf of the cabaret, and when Decouflé, who studied under contemporary dance master Alwin Nikolais, performs some of the choreography himself — that is, when we see how arresting the dancing is, even on one simple, black-clad male body — we actually see what he means.
Or we think we do, until Decouflé yells for someone to bring a pair of moon boots to the girl in the revolving cage.
Margot Lurie, a former company member of ODC/Dance, is the editor of Jewish Ideas Daily. “Crazy Horse” is now in limited release.