Even if you’ve never heard of HMS Media, if you’ve watched Chicago dance footage in the last 20 or so years, you’ve definitely seen their work. With 15 Emmy Awards and 23 Emmy nominations for their work creating arts-based, engaging programs for public tv, these media gurus have shown an instinctual talent for theatrical production and an affinity for filming dance. Lucky us. Their first project, the PBS documentary Why Am I Hiding, a barrier-breaking inside look at Rape Victim Advocates, won them their first Emmy Award (1989) and even had Oprah calling for a copy. Co-founder Scott Silberstein — writer, producer, composer, director, musician, blogger, dance-lover, music aficionado and straight guy — is the S in HMS.
A classically trained pianist, Silberstein has always had the arts in his blood. Passion, compassion and a bit of genius led him and HMS co-founder (and band mate – they met at summer camp!) Matt Hoffman to film dance. “I got fixed up with a dancer in the Lynda Martha Dance Company,” Silberstein remembers. He went to see her in a show and fell in love. “The date didn’t go well, but I like to think of it as I got fixed up with dance.” Much like their experience with the rape documentary, pretty much everything they did struck gold. Starting out with clients like Mordine & Co, Hubbard Street and Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre and after winning two Ruth Page awards (and two more nominations) they quickly became the go-to guys for the Chicago dance community.
The next big project was another PBS documentary on a small, new company called River North. With a show quickly approaching, they were struggling to sell tickets. HMS convinced PBS to air the special a few days prior to the show as advertising and by the next morning they had sold out. “That was two shows in a row that we’d been able to make and team up with WTTW and see the world change a little bit,” says Silberstein. “The first, I really think some people got help and the second, a dance company survived. You start to feel a little powerful, like you can do something to help. It was powerful, but humble. It always needs to be about their work or cause first.”
Around this time, Dance for Life (DFL) was in its third year and really starting to take off. The brainchild of dancers Keith Elliott and Todd Keich, DFL is an annual one-night gathering of the top local dance companies for a performance to raise money for HIV/AIDS awareness, care and prevention. Silberstein got together with Elliott and Harriet Ross to talk about making a documentary for DFL. The same conversation continued for 15 years, but the stars never aligned. Fast forward to present. For the 20th anniversary of DFL, HMS Media’s Dance For Life: The Documentarywill air on WTTW 11 tomorrow night (details below). “This is exactly the right time, because it fell into place so easily and so quickly,” he says. “Going into the 20th, a great milestone, and giving an opportunity to tell their story again through the eyes of survivors, beneficiaries, and people that have lost someone…it was the right time. Almost now more than ever. With all the advances in treatment and medication, now no one is talking about it. The gay community is finally getting some recognition and receiving rights that are long overdue, but there is some push back. It’s subtle and that’s what is scary. Maybe now the need is stronger than ever.”
The will, the need, the funding and the desire was there. Now came time to film. “All of the dance had to be shot in one day at the Harris,” says Silberstein. “Instead of a half hour to space and check lighting, we’re going to dedicate that half hour to a full out performance and then we’re going to do it exactly the same way in a few hours. One day of live performance. No camera rehearsal. It was an intense day.” That intensity paid off. The documentary is a stunningly accurate presentation of last year’s live performance (I was there) technically and emotionally. It opens with shots cutting from Joffrey Artistic Director Ashley Wheater teaching warm-up on stage to people standing in line to get into the Harris Theatre to dancers rehearsing backstage to the audience finding their seats. The effect is an insider’s look to everything that is happening in real time. The into ends with Margaret Nelson calling the first cues, a quick peek at the dancers taking their places for the first number and the opening announcement. It’s like you’re there.
Then the show starts. While you do get to see a majority of the beautiful dancing, it is the interspersed interviews that really steal the spotlight. Personal accounts and memories tell the story of the devastating disease and the impact it has had on the dance community. “We wanted to make it look like the dances were created to tell the story,” Silberstein says. “The movement would complement the story. We got chills in the edit room, when we would line a shot up that would fit perfectly. I knew Matt Hoffman was doing some genius editing. He’s the best there is.” Gorgeous, heart-wrenching, poignant, hopeful, joyous and brilliant. I smell another Emmy.
Dance For Life documentary broadcast premiere: Thurs, Aug 11 at 10pm on WTTW11 with a rebroadcast on Sat, Aug 13th at 4am and on WTTWPRime on Fri, Aug 12th at 4pm. The program will also be available through Aug 31st at Comcast OnDemand. You can watch preview clips on the Dance For Life Facebook page.