Local queer filmmaker Glenn Holsten’s new documentary “I Am” lovingly chronicles the experiences of six students from St. Katherine’s Special Education Day School in Radnor with eight dancers from the Second Company of the Pennsylvania Ballet. The 40-minute short film, which will screen at Prince Music Theatre Sept. 19, shows how the students and dancers created a performance choreographed by Pennsylvania Ballet’s Jessica Kilpatrick.
Holsten became involved in making “I Am” when the local nonprofit Art-Reach contacted him. The organization was interested in shooting an overview of its activities creating cultural experiences for people who have limited access to the arts. However, when the opportunity arose to document the St. Katherine’s students participating in the dance program, Holsten knew he wanted to make a film about the collaboration.
“I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to go deeper than to do an overview or survey film,” the filmmaker said in a recent phone interview. Holsten documented all 10 of the one-hour, once-a-week dance rehearsals, and used the verité footage from those shoots to build the first half of the film. “I Am” then expands into classrooms, and includes performance footage to show the extent and positive effects of the partnership. That said, the second half of the film also shows some of the challenges of staging such a performance, as practice time gets tight and some rehearsals are fraught with difficulties.
“I Am” allows viewers to observe and get to know the students and dancers and then watch them grow. One of the best moments in the film has Kilpatrick connecting with J’son, a student who is sitting in the corner during one rehearsal. J’son is having a bad day, but Kilpatrick coaxes him into giving her a hug and then participating in the rehearsal. The scene illustrates not only how Kilpatrick gained J’son’s trust, and quickly, but also how the collaboration encouraged J’son to express himself artistically and build self-confidence.
Holsten described his process of creating an inviting environment for filming,
“We showed up and no one knew each other. It’s like kids in a playground, or high-school students at the lunch table on the first day. We tried to make everyone feel comfortable,” he said. “We all ended up admiring each other. Being inspired by J’son’s moves, or Thomass, I had an appreciation for what was happening.”
“I Am” nicely captures the students practicing, as well as candid moments such as those involving the 14 performers acting very much like teenagers backstage, tickling each other or taking selfies. The filmmaker acknowledged that the subjects’ physical relationship changed as well. The students and dancers who once stood next to each other got closer and became more comfortable over time, leaning on one another, or holding hands.
Holsten’s warm, organic approach to the film mirrors his experiences making it. He has made several documentaries about people with disabilities including “Hollywood Beauty Salon” about a Germantown program for people recovering from mental-health issues. He explained the appeal of these subjects.
“It’s an opportunity for us to sit with our differences and get to know each other. ‘I Am’ is a patient film. You observe and get to know these kids from St. Katherine’s. They are clearly present in the film. It’s an invitation to be in community with these people, even if it’s just on screen. But there’s also growth on the part of the Pennsylvania Ballet dancers, who are stretched in a new way.
“It’s about letting us be with people in a way that’s not confrontational and enjoy each other’s strengths — strengths we might not think are there.”
Anyone who sees “I Am” will be rooting for the students on performance day. The subjects in the film have a vulnerability and insecurity that Holsten feels we all possess. This, too, is what he said drove him to make the film.
“I wanted [the students] to be as natural as they were, and I would present the best side of them. Someone like Thomas, who has limited words, I enjoyed being with him and seeing him smile and wave at the camera.”
As for Holsten’s interest in dance, the filmmaker effused, “I love to dance. It was hard keeping my head not moving while filming the rehearsals. Looking at the raw footage, I leaped off the couch and danced to the music.” (Kilpatrick selected the music for the performance.)
But what Holsten most appreciated is that the students became dancers.
“I love that they tried. Some have a natural talent, some stretched, but they all grew.”
“I Am” will screen as part of an Arts-Reach Benefit at Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St., Sept. 19. A filmmaker and participant Q&A will follow the screening. For more information, visit https://www.art-reach.org/support/events/.