Raising the barre

The American Indian Film Fest kicks off with a pair of ballet-dancer biographies

Marking National American Indian Heritage Month, the American Indian Film Festival kicks off with a pair of ballet-dancer biographies. Of course, you know one of 'em is gonna be about eternally elegant George Balanchine muse Maria Tallchief — and indeed, Sandra Osawa's Maria Tallchief will have its world premiere at the fest. Praised as the first American prima ballerina and a standout in an art form that had, until her rise to prominence in the 1940s, been largely European, Tallchief brought audiences to their feet and critics to tears. She married Balanchine, and their creative collaboration continued even after their divorce (she wanted a baby; he didn't) — a notable result of which was her role as the original Sugar Plum Fairy in his Nutcracker.

Maria Tallchief — bound for PBS after its festival screening, a fact that's evident in its straightforward style — spends ample time contextualizing its subject's importance not just as a dancer during one of ballet's most historically significant periods (stateside, anyway) but also as a Native American woman proud of her Osage heritage. Black-and-white archival footage illustrates her considerable gifts, with testimonials from peers and observers (and Tallchief herself) recalling the thrilling life of a talented artist.

More contemporary is Gwendolen Cates's Water Flowing Together (also bound for PBS), which focuses on recently retired New York City Ballet star Jock Soto, one of the last dancers to work with Balanchine. Part Navajo Indian, part Puerto Rican, Soto — who also happens to be gay — is shown from his teens through his 40s, earning praise along the way from seemingly every ballerina he ever partnered, as well as from choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon, who saw him as an inspiration. For a guy who was initially told he didn't have the body of a dancer (and whose dad bought him blue fishnet tights for his first ballet class), Soto's impact on the dance world is shown to be immeasurable.

The 32nd annual AIFF also features fictional narratives (including a ghostly tale set at South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation), shorts, and the American Indian Film Institute's American Indian Motion Picture Awards Show, at which the fest awards will be presented and Native musicians and dancers will perform.


Nov. 2–7, $5–$10

Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema

One Embarcadero Center, promenade level, SF

Nov. 8–10, $5–$10

Palace of Fine Arts

3301 Lyon, SF

(415) 554-0525


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