The Dance Goodbye (First Run Features, NR)

Dance-Goodbye 75It offers both a realistic look at what it means to be a professional dancer, and the assurance that it is worth it.

Dance-Goodbye 500

Ballet may be the cruelest of all art forms. It demands a specific body type, then places amazing physical strains on those bodies. It requires that dancers perform amazing athletic feats, yet make it look effortless. The extreme nature of performance means that injuries are a constant threat to every career. Finally, ballet requires years of training just to enter the profession, but the extreme demands of performing mean that most dancers will retire at an age when the careers of their peers in other professions are still on the rise.

Those paradoxes lie at the heart of the documentary The Dance Goodbye, which has two goals: to celebrate the career of prima ballerina Merrill Ashley, and to raise awareness about the need to help retired dancers transition to another career. Ashley began studying ballet at age 7, and earned a scholarship to study at the School of American Ballet at age 13. Three years later, she joined the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet (NYCB), became a soloist in 1974, and a principal dancer in 1977. She went on to enjoy a 31-year career with the NYCB, performing all over the world and originating numerous roles, including several created by George Balanchine specifically for her.

But even the greatest career must come to an end, and so it was with Ashley in 1997. As she and many other dancers in this film point out, for a dancer retirement means the loss of a way of life and a sense of identity that has been their central focus for most of the time they have been alive. Fortunately, she made a successful transition to a position as a Teaching Associate at the NYCB and also travels around the world teaching other dance companies to perform Balanchine’s works.

The nonprofit organization Career Transitions for Dancers was founded in 1985 with the goal of helping dancers adjust to life after dance, and the origins of The Dance Goodbye lie in the appearance of the organization’s director as a guest on a radio talk show hosted by Eileen Douglas, co-director and co-producer of this film. She and co-director Ron Steinman enjoyed extraordinary access to Ashley’s life, and Ashley comes off as an extraordinarily straightforward and hardworking individual. Douglas and Steinman have also assembled an extraordinary collection of video clips and other archival materials of Ashley dancing, which they combine skillfully with more recent footage of her teaching and contemporary interviews with Jacques d’Amboise, former principal dancer with the NYCB, and others from the ballet world.

The obvious audience for The Dance Goodbye is students and fans of the ballet, and for them it offers both a realistic look at what it means to be a professional dancer, and the assurance that it is worth it. Ashley was a marvelous dancer, noted for her musicality and perfect technique, and seeing her in motion is a rare pleasure indeed.

Extras on the DVD include a photo gallery, biographies of Ashley, Steinman, and Douglas, information about Career Transition for Dancers, and a trailer gallery of other First Run Features releases. | Sarah Boslaugh

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