Bodies in Tension

Movement and Friction in Rebecca Tansley’s The Heart Dances – The Journey of The Piano: the ballet

Depicting the conception, rehearsal and performance of a ballet inspired by Jane Campion’s seminal 1993 film The Piano, this New Zealand documentary offers insights into the interplay between dancers and choreographers, along with the physical and psychological pressures exerted by the process. Speaking with director Rebecca Tansley, Jasmine Crittenden looks at some of the thornier issues around perspective, artistic control and cultural appropriation underlying and uncovered by the film.

In January 2018, brothers Jiří and Otto Bubeníček travelled from the Czech Republic to New Zealand, ready for a challenge. In just six weeks, they would prepare the Royal New Zealand Ballet to perform the world premiere of Jiří’s full-length dance work The Piano: the ballet, a reimagining of Jane Campion’s eponymous 1993 film. The performance was an extension of a one-act piece that the Bubeníčeks had created for Germany’s Ballet Dortmund in 2014. 

As soon as Auckland-based filmmaker Rebecca Tansley heard about this, she decided to capture it on camera. The result was The Heart Dances – The Journey of The Piano: the ballet (2018). ‘I’ve never been one to dream up ideas,’ she says. ‘They have to punch me in the face.’ 

Several aspects of the project did just that. The Piano was Tansley’s ‘all-time favourite film’ – one she sees as ‘so important for women filmmakers everywhere’ – and the prospect of recording the process of adapting it promised to raise all kinds of challenges. ‘It became a rapidly evolving beast,’ Tansley recounts.

We couldn’t plan, because we were shooting in real time – and over six weeks. We just had to go in and see what we found, like detectives. But, at the same time, I knew I didn’t want to tell just one story; I knew it wouldn’t be only the story of the brothers or only the story of cultural appropriation. I knew I wanted to film the entire creation of the ballet, which meant there were many issues to cover.

Jiří and Otto Bubeníček

From the get-go, Tansley sought to immerse her viewers in the backstage world, rather than position them as flies on the wall:

I didn’t want viewers to feel removed, as though they were observing from a distance. I wanted them to feel like they were in the room with the dancers – to be so close they could hear them breathing and see their expressions and movements, to be engaged completely.

Indeed, the viewers first meet the Bubeníčeks, both of whom were principal dancers with the Hamburg Ballet, wandering through a Christmas market in Prague’s Old Town Square. Jiří is a choreographer; Otto, a stage, video, music and sound designer. As close-ups transport viewers into their frosty, magical, glittering world, the brothers are heard in voiceover: 

You don’t need to talk to express something very deep or very strong. We are humans. We use our body to express something. Love. Desire. Fear. Everything. For dancers, this is what we express. We are all dancers dancing, always.

This open, confessional statement foreshadows the film’s journey. Viewers prepare to travel through not only the artistic, intellectual and technical challenges of preparing for the ballet, but also its emotional and psychological vicissitudes. What can’t be predicted, though, is just how far the camera will go: into the complexities of European appropriation of indigenous dance forms, the tug of war between tradition and evolution, the difficulties of adapting film for stage, the intricacies of casting decisions, the importance of trust between dancers, and the agony and ecstasy of extreme demands on the body and mind. 

Tansley’s commitment to an all-encompassing yet unplanned approach is embodied in Simon Raby’s cinematography, which rises to the challenge of shooting in unpredictable, uncontrollable conditions. His work – which won him the top prize in the documentary category at the 2018 New Zealand Cinematographers Society Awards – is a diversion from more traditional ballet documentaries such as Dancer (Steven Cantor, 2016), which tells the story of Ukrainian-born Sergei Polunin, who, at nineteen, became the Royal Ballet’s youngest principal dancer; and Pina (Wim Wenders, 2011), which captures the work of German choreographer Pina Bausch in brilliant 3D. ‘There are so many amazing, beautifully shot dance films available,’ Tansley says. ‘But we didn’t have that freedom. We didn’t have control. We couldn’t change the lighting or the setting.’ Nonetheless, necessity – as the old adage goes – is the mother of invention, and these restrictions resulted in moments of extraordinary delight and surprise: from the afternoon sun glinting off a dancer’s arm to contemplative stills of worn-out ballet shoes and snippets of live performances shot from the wings of the stage, where neither the viewer nor the camera often has the opportunity to go.

Boyle and fellow dancer Alex Ferreira rehearse

Tansley is no stranger to the dramatic and visual potential of filming both a performance and its lead-up. In 2015, she made Crossing Rachmaninoff, a documentary that follows Italian-born, Auckland-based pianist Flavio Villani for four months as he prepares for his first public performance of a concerto, namely Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2.Along the way, he grapples with his relationship with his father, who has long disapproved of his son’s sexuality and pursuit of a career in music, and takes a pilgrimage deep into his Italian heritage. Tansley recounts, 

At first, Crossing Rachmaninoff was about rehearsing a concerto, but it became more about Villani facing demons and reconnecting with his family, and about artistic people generally – about the hopes and fears that anyone would have in striving to achieve something difficult and brave […] If you undertake a documentary on any aspect of the arts, it inevitably becomes a vehicle for exploring all sorts of issues and reflecting on society more broadly.

In making The Heart Dances, Tansley’s ambition to ‘film the entire creation of the ballet’ meant that settling on a narrative was a challenge. ‘Structuring a story isn’t easy when you have multiple threads,’ the director says. 

When I first started editing, I fell into three weeks of abject depression, wondering how I was going to make it work! I ended up thinking about it as a multi-protagonist drama, using the plot of The Piano as a scaffolding.

Consequently, both the film itself and its interpretation of the making of the ballet waver between the auteurist approach, which puts total power in the director’s hands, and cinema vérité, which strives to capture reality as it happens. As Errol Morris, director of The Thin Blue Line (1988) puts it, 

We have two ideas about how movies are made in our heads. Idealizations. Platonic ideals. One of them is of a movie that is completely uncontrolled, and another is a movie that is completely controlled. The auteur theory vs. cinéma vérité […] What is so powerful about film is it makes us wonder where that line [between the controlled and the uncontrolled] is drawn, and it can always be drawn in different places.[1]Errol Morris, quoted in Nick Poppy, ‘Interview with Errol Morris’, The Believer, 1 April 2004, <>, accessed 17 May 2020. Emphasis removed.

The camera darts from one subject to another, capturing myriad perspectives, and thereby depicting the ballet as a collaborative, multifaceted creation, rather than a singular vision imposed from the top down.

It is this shifting line that makes The Heart Dances so compelling. On one hand, theatrical tension depends on elements of control – in this case, the ‘scaffolding’ of the plot of The Piano, the performance’s looming deadline and, of course, Tansley’s decisions as director and producer (in collaboration with those of Raby, editor Thomas Gleeson, co-producer Robin Laing and others). On the other, suspense lies in what cannot be controlled or predicted: chiefly, the subjects, particularly as they meet with unexpected twists and turns. 

One of the most provocative and important conflicts of the film is that between the Bubeníček brothers and Maori adviser Moss Te Ururangi Patterson. Two worlds collide when the brothers, assuming they’ll be free to draw on a Maori haka in their choreography, meet with Patterson’s desire to ensure the haka is used appropriately, as well as his concern about the lack of Maori dancers in the cast. 

Tansley establishes these two worlds visually through breathtaking long shots, the spires and domes of Prague contrasting with the steep mountains and wild jungles of New Zealand. The conflict is not just between individuals, but between two histories, two cultures and two ways of thinking that have clashed over centuries – and it’s a struggle that impacts the future of dance. ‘A ballet company or an arts company in general has the responsibility to honour the heritage of the artform,’ former Royal New Zealand Ballet executive director Frances Turner says, in one of the film’s talking-head sequences. ‘But, equally, we’re all on an evolutionary journey. We’re all in the twenty-first century.’

The Heart Dances doesn’t shy away from the conflict, which plays out in difficult conversations between the Bubeníčeks and Patterson, and between each of them and the camera. Here, as in the rest of the documentary, Tansley prioritises immersion:

Some people side really strongly on this issue and, as a non-Maori, I was really concerned about how I was representing [Patterson] and his argument. I was very aware of my own bias […] I worked really hard to be right down the middle. I wanted people to watch the film, then have their own discussions.

Ferreira and fellow dancer Paul Mathews rehearse a scene

And this tension is just one of many that plays out behind the scenes of The Piano: the ballet. Also significant to viewers’ immersion in the film’s world are the unique experiences of the cast members, each of whom has a role – be it minor or major – to play in Tansley’s ‘multi-protagonist drama’. While the Bubeníčeks and Patterson debate political, social and cultural issues, the dancers confront their aspirations and limitations, physical and mental. The camera darts from one subject to another, capturing myriad perspectives, and thereby depicting the ballet as a collaborative, multifaceted creation, rather than a singular vision imposed from the top down. 

Hence, when Jiří begins teaching the cast his choreo­graphy, the film cuts between the studio and confessional-style interviews with the dancers, who offer intimate details – from, as Rhiannon Fairless describes, putting their feet into buckets of ice to prevent swelling to, as Luke Cooper recounts, the effort required to find the mental discipline to ‘switch on’ and follow despite the physical ‘shock’ to the body. Beyond the individuals’ relationships with the mind and body lies their relationship with the choreographer, as dancer Caroline Wiley articulates: ‘The choreographer always knows so much more than the dancers for so long, and then, when they finally put the pieces together, it just makes sense. It’s just like a puzzle.’ And beyond that still are the dancers’ relationships with one another.

In parallel with the drama of the ballet’s development, The Heart Dances tells the story of The Piano: the ballet by inserting scenes from the live show. The camera cuts deftly, without warning, between the rehearsal studio and the stage, where, backdropped by magnificent moving images of New Zealand’s wild coastline, the dancers sweep the strenuous daily graft of preparation aside and subsume themselves in performance. This simple yet powerful technique compresses time, creating moments of sublimity that transport the viewer. Additionally, it invites thematic comparisons without resorting to didacticism. ‘The ballet picked up on so many issues from Jane Campion’s film: relationships, freedom, feminism, cultural domination,’ Tansley says. ‘Even though she made The Piano more than twenty-five years ago, these themes are still relevant and can be explored further, and illuminating them through dance is an interesting way to do it.’

This thematic breadth and depth also means The Heart Dances, which won the Naples International Film Festival’s inaugural Focus on the Arts Award in 2019, has wide appeal, attracting audiences beyond mere lovers of dance. ‘Before I made this film, I wasn’t a massive ballet fan,’ Tansley confides. 

I went to the ballet now and again, but not religiously. I was more a broad consumer of the arts […] One of the things that’s been really nice about the reaction is that many people who’ve seen the film aren’t part of the typical ballet audience. In fact, one person said, ‘I don’t even like ballet, but someone took me to see it and I really enjoyed it!’

1 Errol Morris, quoted in Nick Poppy, ‘Interview with Errol Morris’, The Believer, 1 April 2004, <>, accessed 17 May 2020. Emphasis removed.