In Mirra Bank's unflinching documentary, "The Last Dance," legendary children's author Maurice Sendak passionately describes the Holocaust piece he hopes to create with members of the acrobatically virtuostic Pilobolus Dance Company. He envisions a train station, a menacing figure and refugees. He imagines a double bill with the children's opera, "Brundibar," once performed at Terezin. "It's [my] loyalty to all the dead," said the 75-year-old author ("Where the Wild Things Are"), who lost numerous relatives in the Holocaust.
During such conversations, Pilobolus' three artistic directors squirm uncomfortably. "I just don't find waiting around at the train station ... very interesting," the troupe's Jonathan Wolken said. The directors suggest the story shouldn't be concrete but should evolve through improvisation.
"But I'm the storyteller," Sendak retorts at one point.
The tense moment is one of many Bank captured after Pilobolus members invited Sendak and his partner, writer-director Arthur Yorinks, to become their first outside collaborators in 1998.
Speaking by telephone from his Connecticut home, the author and set designer told The Journal he agreed, in part, because he loves collaborating with dancers and Pilobolus' work isn't unlike his own. "Their playful, almost shameful use of the body reminds me of babies and children," he said.
But as the partnership got underway, Bank captured the stormy, often hilarious clash of egos, as well as the vibrant creative process. In the film, the collaborators argue about the piece's title, whether it should specifically reference the Holocaust or involve nudity. "Those who went to the ovens were stripped naked," Sendak said of the nudity.
"It's a kind of stupid striptease," Wolken said.
The edgy, cinema verite style film joins a budding subgenre of movies, including Matthew David's 1998 documentary, "Dancemaker," that explore the sometimes prickly choreographic process.
Looking back on the Pilobolus partnership -- captured by Bank's handheld digital camera -- Sendak said he was "baffled by their tenacity, and I'm sure they'd say the same of me.
"It was unpleasant," he said of the tension. "I don't like getting angry or in an emotional condition, because the Holocaust subject was emotional enough."
Wolken, who also lost family in the camps, sees things differently. "Flying sparks can vulcanize a project," he told The Journal. "And Maurice loves a good argument. It energizes him. If he doesn't have one, he manufactures it."
"The Last Dance" began when Bank, an acclaimed PBS filmmaker whose work often involves Jewish themes, attended a Pilobolus performance in summer 1998. "I asked [artistic director] Michael Tracy what the company was doing next, and he said it would be a dark, Eastern European, possibly Holocaust-driven Grimm's fairy tale with Maurice Sendak," she recalled. "I said, 'My God, that sounds like a film.'"
Over the next eight months, Bank videotaped 125 hours of the collaboration, which sometimes seemed destined for failure. After one particularly turbulent session, Sendak dejectedly told Bank he felt "bumped off the rails." At 11 p.m. that night, he called her and threatened to quit.
"I think Maurice thought he could control the process more than he did," Bank said. Of why Wolken became his primary antagonist, she said, "within Pilobolus, his role is often that of provocateur."
The filmmaker found the discord "gut wrenching. I felt deeply connected to everyone involved," she said. "I also had a great deal personally invested in the project, and there were a number of times I thought it might fall apart."
Instead, the tense partnership eventually yielded a powerful dance piece, "A Selection," which received rave reviews in New York in 1999.
Bank's documentary also received rave reviews, not just from the critics but from the protagonists involved. "However, I cringed the first two or three times I saw it," Sendak said. "I didn't like to see myself carrying on like that. I became the big ... noisy Jew and Jonathan became the uptight, 'No, I don't want to go there,' Jew."
Wolken, for his part, called "The Last Dance" "a great film. But it presents just a narrow slice of what went on. In a good movie, you have to have conflict, and Mirra searched for it. As a good filmmaker, she at times manufactured it."
Both Sendak and Wolken told The Journal they are old friends, which isn't depicted in the movie. They said they'd collaborate again in an instant. But Bank isn't so sure. "Everyone was proud of the dance piece they created, but they also may never work again," she said. "Which is why I called the film, 'The Last Dance.'"
The film opens April 24 at the American Cinemateque in Los Angeles, coinciding with Pilobolus' performance of different works at the Ahmanson May 2 and 4. Bank and Pilobolus members will appear for a discussion after the "Last Dance" screening at noon on May 3. For information, call (323) 461-2020. n