Alan Brown’s fifth feature could have been called Five Dancers, although it only focuses intensely on one: Chip (Ryan Steele), a sweet-faced 18-year old who, like so many limber Midwestern kids before him, has decamped to New York to try his luck as a professional hoofer. He quickly falls in with the members of a tiny modern-dance company in Soho, all of whom are already firmly committed to their métier and its attendant routines. In a series of short, precise strokes, Brown sketches the simultaneously loose and queasy camaraderie of artists on the margins. The question is whether Chip—who’s introduced while earnestly rehearsing a solo number alone in a sunlit studio—is built for the physical and emotional rigors of his chosen passion.
It’s an ingénue story, then, and Steele, who has starred on Broadway in Newsies and Matilda, makes an appealing lead. Chip is a naïf living out of a sleeping bag, but he has some backbone underneath his lithe musculature, and a brain behind those wide eyes. Though Steele’s performance is occasionally stilted, this isn’t necessarily a problem, since the contrast between Chip’s halting conversation and his loquacious body language in the studio is part and parcel of the characterization. (It seems that Steele is also a skilled ventriloquist: Chip turns his shyness into a joke by telling one new friend “there’s a man in my mouth,” then continuing the conversation through naughtily clenched lips.)
The scenes establishing Chip’s troubled family life back in Kansas City via a series of phone calls are more hackneyed, but luckily, Brown has another, more novel strategy for character development. Chip can be seen finding his feet (literally) in the sequences where the troupe practices for an upcoming public performance. Each of the rehearsal sequences has been precisely choreographed to reflect the shifting dynamics of the group, with a special emphasis on Chip’s burgeoning yet tentative attraction to the sexy, dark-eyed Theo (Reed Luplau).
Brown’s last feature, Private Romeo, was a same-sex Shakespeare adaptation that told its star-cross’d gay love affair in iambic pentameter—a reimagining of the Bard that was also an act of high fidelity. Five Dances has some similarly erotic aspects—including sexual encounters of various orientations—but ultimately isn’t nearly so ambitious. Its achievements, which are minor but sincere, are to showcase some beautiful bodies executing dexterous maneuvers (the choreography is by Jonah Bokaer) and also maybe to strip away some of the skyscraping romanticism endemic to many post-Rent plays and films about what it it’s like to be young, beautiful, and living hand-to-mouth in New York City. True, the script skimps on the grimmer details of couch-surfing, and Derek McKane’s digital cinematography favors clear lighting and clean movements where a little dirt and murk might be more appropriate, but there are no delusions of grandeur here, on either side of the camera. Chip is chasing small breakthroughs rather than a big break. He gets there, and so does this occasionally awkward but finally light-footed movie.