For a man who does not trust words much, Alex Reuben is pretty easy to talk to. An art-school lecturer in London, with a background in design and DJing, he is best known today for his work with dancers — teaching them, choreographing for camera, and producing beautiful short films on dance.
Reuben is an original in the dance world because he cut his teeth in an unusual sort of school — the South London clubs where, as a DJ, he could observe dancers week in week out.
“I especially liked seeing people dance individually, seeing how they improvise and express themselves,” he says. “Dance isn’t just an expression of individuality and character, it also says things about our histories, where we come from, and what our environment does to us.”
His latest film, Routes, released this week nationwide, is a beguiling work of art which packs a weighty political punch. In these days of big cinema documentaries such as Bowling for Columbine and Supersize Me, there is nothing unusual in that, except that this 48-minute journey across the southern USA contains no dialogue at all — not a single word.
In essence, Routes is road movie about dance. It shows the wealth of beauty and subtlety in dance forms that exist across the southern states.
More importantly, the film uses the warmth of its subjects and the sheer level of talent on offer to make viewers question their assumptions about American culture — assumptions that Reuben first of all had to recognise in himself. “I went there with lots of preconceptions — mostly subconscious — but I never realised before how much I would roll my eyes every time an American says: ‘Have a nice day.’ Because of Hollywood and gangsta rap, there is this European superiority towards America, but culture there is not superficial at all — it is much more sophisticated, and this is what I wanted to show.”
Far away from MTV and manufactured pop, vivid three-minute snapshots of different communities dancing float across the screen — from British-influenced “flatfooting” on wooden boards in the Appalachian Mountains and Native American tribal dancing, to “bucking” in inner-city Memphis housing projects — a wild mix of mime and breakdance — and the Melrose Golden Girls cheerleaders “krumping” in what looks like some otherworldly hybrid of hip-hop and street-fighting.
Reuben’s camera sees things that onlookers might miss, and this eye for detail he attributes in part to his childhood Jewish experiences. “My mum’s Scottish — maybe Jewish, we’re not sure — and my dad’s side is Ukrainian Jewish. I had a strong sense of history, but the most important thing would have been songs and music, the ornaments of silver and gold, the ceremony of the shul. Compared to the rest of the culture that I was taking in — growing up in South London, outside a Jewish community — I think it’s these juxtapositions that planted a germ for the future.”
The film itself ended up going on quite a journey in the editing suite —from a 90-minute narrated documentary with interviews, to a far shorter and more ambitious, fluid piece of expressionist film that would not be out of place being screened in an art gallery.
“The first cut had a voiceover and interviews,” he explains, “but I was never comfortable with it because I could never get in all the information that I wanted. Also, the political environment around the making of the film made me dislike the ways in which words are misused — events like the abandonment of local people after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. So now the language of the film is one of images, movement and music — dance, not words. This film became my little political statement.”
As the camera travels across the South — from countryside to inner city, through musical gatherings of every background and ethnicity — it becomes clear that the deeper message of Routes is not so much in how people dance, but rather the ways in which, through dance, these disparate communities have more in common than they could ever have imagined.
Is there any chance that he might turn his camera to Jewish dance once day? “Well, I have been to quite a lot of weddings and barmitzvahs,” he laughs. “My uncle asked me to video my cousin’s wedding once, and I didn’t do it. It’s actually quite a skill, doing weddings — I’m not trained in that. You know, what if I don’t get the ring or something?”
Routes (Dancing to Orleans) is out today at the Gate Picturehouse, London W11, and then at PictureHouse cinemas nationwide