“Without A Mirror”, a new dance documentary by filmmaker and dancer Eric Mann made it’s New York City premiere earlier this week. Photo credit: Unreel Films
Filmmaker and performer Eric Mann released his new dance documentary, Without A Mirror, earlier this week at New York City’s Big Apple Film Festival, and the slice of life short-film is already proving to be evidence of the prodigious and breathtaking power of dance.
The inspiring, emotional, and perspective-widening documentary spotlights Elizabeth Whitaker, a professional working musician in Arkansas, who, as an adult, wanted to begin studying ballet. Whitaker possesses a noteworthy personal trait, however, that proffered a unique challenge to both her teacher and herself in her desire to learn ballet: she’s blind.
Mann, whose production company, Unreel Films shot and produced the film, met Whitaker through her dance teacher, Lauren McCarty Horak. McCarty Horak, a former dancer with Ballet Arkansas and current teacher in the Little Rock, Arkansas area, knew Mann from their childhood growing up in the area and told him about her student one night over sushi.
“Immediately, I was captivated,” Mann told Dance Network. “She wanted to learn ballet just for the sake of learning it and never grew up doing it. This is the true spirit of dance. Not for any results, but just for the sake of expressing through our bodies…that same day I called Liz and told her I was so inspired by her and would like to tell her story. She agreed and the rest was magic!”
Earlier this week, Dance Network had the opportunity to speak with Mann about Without A Mirror, balancing his work as a filmmaker and performer, and the response he’s received from the film thus far.
Read the full interview below:
Elizabeth Whitaker (left) and Lauren McCarty Horak (right) in “Without A Mirror.” Photo credit: Unreel Films.
Dance Network: Eric, congratulations, and thanks for taking the time to chat with us about Without A Mirror. Now, before we get into the film itself, you’ve been making movies and video content for a while now and your company, Unreel Films, sort of specializes in celebrating the arts and making great dance films. Dance Network fans might know some of your work through performers like Lizz Picini who did your short, Shut Up And Dance, or your girlfriend, Alicia Albright, (who we profiled last year) from her work in your piece, Water. What do you think it was that lead you into filmmaking, and why do you think you’ve found such success making dance films?
Eric Mann: What a wonderful question, and it has been such an incredible ride going into filmmaking. I've trained as an actor, singer, dancer since I was 11 years old, and went to Elon for Music Theatre. After I graduated, I toured with the national tour of A Chorus Line, and then shortly afterward was cast in a show that was slated to go to Broadway; it had a star-studded cast, producer backing, and we even did our out-of-town tryout-- things were progressing exactly as I had hoped! Then, for any number of reasons, the show never made it. After that experience, it took me eight months to get my next job, and during that time (I called it the dark times) I didn’t know what to do with my creative energy. I was catering and just felt like I was living a monotonous life. I felt myself brimming with creative ideas but had no place to channel them. I spiraled into a bit of a dark place internally and began asking myself questions like, "why was I doing this, why am I in New York, what is the point of being an artist?" I was colluding with that place inside that operates from pain and fear, and I didn’t have the means to express the movement of energy within and I felt very alone.
Even in the midst of this, I knew that there had to be something out there, I was just never taught what to do or how to take the next right step. I don’t remember who gave me the book, but I read, The Artist’s Way, and did the 12 step program (I call it AA for artists). This incredible book taught me that I could be in charge of my creative integrity, and I didn’t need to wait on someone or something to let me create. I could take that next step internally to express the core of my being. No one else can tap into that for you, but YOU can.
It was here that I had a story in mind to tell, but I knew that putting on a show in the theatre was expensive, difficult to get space, and very challenging for people to see. So, instead, I wrote a short film and taught myself everything about filming and editing (I grew up painting and had a love for that— I think of film as a combination between acting/theatre/storytelling and painting). It took me a year to edit this film, and I never really knew what would come of it, (and frankly didn’t care). I just wanted to tell a story.
After that, a year later, I had friends ask me to film their dance videos and other little promos. At the time, I had no idea what I was doing, but because I had done one project, they were like, "oh, Eric films!" I trusted my gut, and just went with the spontaneous play that was dropped in my lap. I created a film production company too around that time - Unreel Films.
Striving Part II: Identity. A film by Eric Mann and Unreel Films/On Point Dance/Craft Film Society
From there, it kept growing, and through word of mouth and Facebook, companies and institutions started to hire me— and now the company has been running successfully for five years! It unfolded in ways I never expected and it keeps unfolding in ways I don’t expect it to. What has been the through-line for me throughout this entire process, however, is just the desire to tell stories and share what I’ve learned along the way. We are truly all in this together, and film has such a powerful resonance to reach many people, and touch their heartstrings at the same time.
I feel so lucky to get to create every day and share what I see through the lens. I love filming dance because I was a dancer and know what it’s like to express movement; there is nothing quite like the feeling of moving through space, expressing the in-expressible— so, for me, to be able to capture that on film gives me utter joy. To see people move from their core and shine is why we all love dance. It expresses something within us that is beyond words, and that’s what film does too. It allows us to get in closer into that movement that we wouldn’t be able to with theatre. The liveness of theatre is unparalleled, but I think it’s important to have both; they can complement each other.
Shut Up And Dance. A film by: Unreel Films
DN: Wow! That's such a remarkable and relatable story. So, regarding Without A Mirror, we know it’s a “slice of life” style documentary and that you shot the entire thing in about two days— but, can you tell us a little about how it initially came about?
EM: Without a Mirror came to fruition because of my friend Lauren McCarty Horak. Lauren used to dance for Ballet Arkansas, and is now a teacher in Arkansas. I met her for sushi one night when I was home for the holidays, and she said, “Eric, you’ll never guess what I’m doing?”
My ears perked up, “What?”
She replied, “I’m teaching a blind woman how to dance!”
Immediately, I was captivated. Her name was Elizabeth Whitaker, and she wanted to learn ballet just for the sake of learning it and never grew up doing it. This seemed like the true spirit of dance. Not wanting to dance for any specific results, but just for the sake of expressing through her body. I knew this was a story worth telling, so that same day I called Liz and told her I was so inspired by her and wanted to tell her story. She agreed and the rest was magic!
DN: There was a premiere of the film down in Arkansas at the School For The Blind, and that brought about a very special moment. Tell us about that.
EM: These kids were truly magnificent and one 11-year-old girl came up to me after we showed it to the school, muttering some words to me. I leaned in closer, and asked, “What did you say?” to which she declared, “blindness doesn’t define me,” and kept repeating it over and over again— verbatim of what Liz says in the film. My heart melted and it made the process worth every second. I found out from her mom later, that she dances locally and has the same gumption as Liz.
Royals Tap, Featuring Natalie Weiss. Film by: Eric Mann and Unreel Films
DN: What did it mean to you as a filmmaker, actor, and artist to hear Elizabeth say to you, “my blindness does not define me”— and then, to have a young visually impaired student repeat the words to you after the screening?
EM: This truly means the world to me. I wanted to tell and share the story because it was something that inspired me, but then to have an 11-year-old resonate with it just truly makes everything worthwhile. It was just so humbling. When we step into our own path and honor that, it’s incredible what fruits it produces, and the ripple effect it has. Our own little pebble affects others whether we know it or not. And, when we step into our own greatness, it resonates with others and provides feedback, connections, and healing. I’ll quote Jason Mraz - “Love is a funny thing…whenever I give love, it comes back to me.” I had no idea that this would happen, and I feel so grateful to be a part of the flow of this little film’s journey. I feel very lucky.
On top of its entrance in the Big Apple Film Festival, Without A Mirror is currently available to be viewed and voted on as one of only sixteen films in the First Glance Short Online Contest. Viewers can click here to stream and vote on the film.