Scott Silberstein is not a stranger to compelling documentaries. He and his business partner Matt Hoffman, through HMS Media, have produced several series that dealt with the silence surrounding rape and sexual assault to an entire film emphasizing the work of the River North Dance Company. Their most recent project highlights the mission and art of Dance For Life, which has become the "largest dance performance-based AIDS fundraising event in the Midwest."
"The conversations to do a documentary about Dance For Life started well over 15 years ago," said Silberstein. "Keith Elliott and Harriet Ross were approached in 1994 and the idea was well received but just never came to fruition. Both AIDS and Dance For Life were really in their earlier years and no one knew what was going to happen with either."
Now, in its 20th year of operation, Dance For Life was poised for someone to tell its story. "This seemed like the best time to feature the project," said Silberstein. "There is a new set of challenges in the HIV/AIDS community and broadcast and online media reaches the greatest audience possible to that message."
The documentary is simply titled Dance For Life. Silberstein believed there was no reason to add or subtract from that title. As Keith Elliot, a Dance For Life co-founder had previously said, "This was not a vanity piece. The film is about the strength of the dancers. This was not about Dance For Life but about the Chicago dance community."
The project was partially underwritten by the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and was filmed almost entirely during the rehearsal and performance of 2009's Dance For Life benefit.
"We would film during each dance company's rehearsal then film again during the actual performance. This gives the illusion of eight camera shots during one performance," said Silberstein.
What surprised him the most was the fluidity of production. "This was an exquisite … an extraordinarily smooth filming day. I'm not sure we could have pulled this off anywhere else but Chicago," Silberstein said, adding that the "Chicago arts community believes in collaboration." Dance For Life as an organization and the documentary itself is a symbol of that collaboration so often heralded in Chicago.
The documentary includes commentary from "storytellers". These individuals tell their own personal story of AIDS and Dance For Life. "John Ford, my director of photography came up with a great way to make these stories even more personal. The storyteller, rather than looking at the camera looked at my face through a teleprompter," said Silberstein. This technique deemphasized the camera and allowed the storyteller to give their account to a face instead. "Our production crew didn't want to get in the way of the story."
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Harriet Ross, Todd Keich, Randy Duncan, Keith Elliott, Danny Kopelson and dozens of others tell their story. By telling their story, they are telling the story of Dance For Life. Not just what it means as an organization but what it means as art and as pure human ingenuity to dance in the face of death. Ross reflected that living in the early days of AIDS as a teacher and choereographer felt like "burying my own children." Keich added that since the dancers themselves do not earn a lot of money that they "can dance and it's an amazing gift."
Silberstein utilized the choreography of each dance piece to tell the larger story of the AIDS epidemic and Dance For Life. "The choreography helps tell the story. We let the dance advance the story. For example, when Nan Giordano is talking about the dead and dying dancers that she was faced with, we lined up a dance piece that told that story."
The documentary originally premiered on May 11 to a small group. Silberstein said that the final piece is slightly different from the May 11 version. "There is much more footage of Harrison McEldowney's finale. We had to compress some other footage but we got the performance in there." McEldowney's finale is reason alone to see this documentary. Set to the music of Annie Lennox, a barrage of sight, sound and emotion fill the stage. McEldowney's finale encompasses the very spirit that Elliot, Kopelson and Ross speak of throughout the film. The documentary is to air on WTTW on August 11 at 10 p.m.
Dance for Life's 20th performance will be Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011 at the Auditorium Theater. Tickets for the performance will be available for purchase June 15. Pre-order tickets now by contacting 312-922-5812. Also see www.danceforlifechicago.com .