The inspired career of Merrill Ashley, a great ballerina under the mentorship and direction of the late George Balanchine, is spotlighted in “The Dance Goodbye,” directed by Ron Steinman, which looks in on Ashley upon her retirement and follows her life afterward as she moves on to a new phase as a teacher of Balanchine’s legacy.
The film was among the 20 features and 36 shorts shown at the 44th Dance on Camera Festival (February 12-16, 2016), co-curated by Joanna Ney and Liz Wolff and presented by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Dance Films Association, which was celebrating the 60th anniversary of its founding.
One need only see the clips of Ashley in her full ballet glory to appreciate what a great star she was with her exquisite form and movement and the intense feeling she could convey with every step and gesture. After 30 years with the New York City Ballet, and a plethora of injuries, she faced the fact that it was time to retire.
How painful the decision was is reflected in the film through her comments candidly expressing her conflicted feelings. The night of her final performance in 1997 and the accolades she received is movingly shown. Throughout the film Ashley reflects on her work, the problems with her injuries and her great admiration for Balanchine.
But although her performing career ended, Ashley has found new challenges as a teacher with the mission to further the work of Balanchine and provide inspiration to would-be ballerinas the world over. She travels extensively and the film shows her in action in many countries, imparting her knowledge from her own experience and from what the master taught her. It becomes clear that Ashley still has so much to give, as well as gain` fresh pleasure from what she accomplishes. We also learn much about her personality and her insights about the art form.
The film shows the problems she had to endure through injuries, and she makes the point that every ballerina faces injuries sooner or later. For her walking was affected as well as performing. Surgery was required, but she has come through that period with courage and determination.
Director Steinman has packed the film with clips and comments from those admiring her work. But at heart is a moving portrait of a ballet great, which gives the film historical impact and makes it a fascinating document as well as a moving experience.
Over the years the Dance on Camera Festival has provided many such treats. Co-curator Ney has said, “Celebrating dance in all its many shapes and colors is this festival’s mantra. Diversity, passion and commitment are, as ever, the watchwords of the Dance on Camera Festival."
Co-curator Liz Wolff has asserted, “Dance on Camera allows for a legacy in dance to be honored and preserved,” pointing out that this year’s event highlighted “some of the great male dancers and pioneers.” Posted March 21, 2016.