In the absorbing documentary Capturing Grace, there is a remarkable moment when a woman demonstrates the toll Parkinson’s disease has taken on her mobility. Limping, she takes a few short steps. “But if I pretend I’m dancing,” she says, “I don’t have any problems.” Then she glides easily around the room, and the transition may make you gasp. The sequence is reminiscent of Alive Inside, the recent documentary that shows how music restores lucidity to people with memory loss.
“The plasticity of the brain seems to be such that dance is a powerful way of pushing back against the disease,” says Dave Iverson, who directed, wrote and produced Capturing Grace. The film’s subject is Dance for PD, an affiliate of the legendary Brooklyn-based Mark Morris Dance Center. The program brings together dancers and people with Parkinson’s, because, as the program’s website says, “professionally trained dancers are movement experts whose knowledge is useful to persons with PD.” Iverson follows a group of people with Parkinson’s rehearsing for a dance concert with the center’s program director David Leventhal and other choreographers. The film concludes with their triumphant performance.
Iverson, a former reporter and producer with Wisconsin Public Television who now lives in San Francisco, is excited to accompany Capturing Grace to two screenings at the Wisconsin Film Festival. Both screenings will take place at Sundance, on April 11 and 12.
The origins of Capturing Grace go back to 2009, when Iverson was working on the documentary My Father, My Brother and Me for the PBS series Frontline. “That film had as its framework my family’s saga with Parkinson’s disease,” says Iverson, who was diagnosed 11 years ago. In terms of symptoms, he contends with less than many people who have the disease. “I’m incredibly fortunate,” he says.
As he was making the Frontline film, Iverson heard about the Mark Morris program, and visited a class. “I was really intrigued by it, and moved,” he says. “I had the feeling I wanted to come back to it at some later point.” In reporting on the program for PBS NewsHour, he met Leventhal. “David and I got to talking, and he said, ‘We’re thinking about putting on a performance next year,’” Iverson recalls. “I felt like it had the possibility of being a really amazing story, following this group over the course of a year.”
The film focuses mainly on people with Parkinson’s, but it also sheds light on the world of professional dance. “David says at one point that dance fits Parkinson’s like a glove,” Iverson says. “What he means by that — and I’ve heard him say this in other situations — is that dancers don’t just go out and do whatever they want. It’s a mindful, focused process. They have to focus on what to do next, the next step, the next move. With Parkinson’s disease, part of what happens is that the body becomes less automatic. What you didn’t think about doing, you now have to think about — how to take that step, how to reach out and hold something.”
The filmmaker’s earlier reporting on Parkinson’s and his own diagnosis with the disease helped him build trust with people on the other side of the camera. “That gave me a bit of standing,” he says.
Iverson says the film’s compelling subjects are “really wonderful characters” and that the film had become one of his most meaningful endeavors: “I believed then, and I believe now, that this story is really worth telling. It came to mean more to me, really, than anything I’ve ever done.”