Interview with dancer and film creator Kathleen Rakela

I am honored to share with all of you an interview with dancer and film creator Kathleen Rakela. Like me, she is a dancer who has spread her wings and embraced the world of creativity. Lets find out how she has spanned the gap between dance and film...

First off, I’m curious to know a little bit about your dance career. How did you start and what made you stop?

I grew up in a farming town in Northern California and started ballet lessons when I was six. However, my teacher eloped with the piano player and I had to wait four years until the tap teacher remarried another ballet dancer before starting lessons again. Due to family and school problems I dropped out of ballet for another year. Then, my mother took me to see a production by the Joffrey Ballet and it totally transformed me. I knew I had to dance, became serious and auditioned for the Sacramento Theatre Ballet. Although I wasn’t very good at that point I did the combinations with every row and they put me in as a trainee because I worked so hard. I moved to Sacramento and danced there for a couple of years before going to New York to work with David Howard at Harkness House and the Joffrey Ballet School. I then went back to dance with the Sacramento Theatre Ballet and the Pacific Ballet before realizing that my real gift is teaching, choreographing, and creating original ballets. I moved to LA and, while there, came upon the teacher who eloped with the piano player. She had become an excellent teacher and coached me to become a teacher in the Cecchetti Method of Ballet.

I still actively teach, choreograph and set ballets.

What drew you to film making after dance?

I had an idea to create a western ballet version of “Romeo & Juliet” where Romeo was a cavalry soldier and Juliet a Blackfeet Indian. I spent 3 years doing historical research, visiting Indian reservations and museums and taking history classes at Montana State University. I hired 7 professional dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet, Moscow Ballet and Colorado Ballet and, with other local dancers and actors, created “Romeo & Juliet of the Rockies.” We gave six performances in five towns and it was a big hit with standing ovations everywhere we went.
Anyway, while I was studying at the university I got an idea for a screen play. I went to the film department and asked about taking a script writing class but they said you had to be a sophomore in the film department to take the class.  I felt compelled to write this script so I stayed for two years to take the class but by then I liked it so much that I ended up staying and getting a film degree. I went on to advanced screenwriting and took all kinds of screenwriting classes and received coaching from LA screenwriters.

Do you find any parallels between dance and film making?

There are so many parallels to creating a ballet and creating a movie. In ballet you communicate without words. The movement, the space, the geometry, rhythm, designs, the personality and soul of the dancer along with the music, all work together to create beautiful flowing images. With movies, you create moving pictures with the use of as few words as possible to tell the story and communicate similarly through setting, emotions, expressions, and visuals. Another parallel is in the use of pacing and rhythm. Ballets have a certain pacing and rhythm and so do movies. Also, knowing about music, art, design, sculpture, all those things are intertwined.

I founded Yellowstone Ballet Company in 1991 and have produced and directed 25 annual productions of The Nutcracker, the major classics, Swan Lake, Giselle, and Cinderella, and 8 original full-length ballets. I’ve had the pleasure to work with composers, set designers, costume designers, dancers, actors, and stage crew. When you create a big production with limited resources and limited crew you have to be everywhere and be on top of everything. It is like being one of those icons with 6 arms and many heads.  You also have to understand human psychology and learn to work with divas and personalities. I’m finding it totally natural to move from ballet producing to movie producing.

Tell us a little bit about your film, Rise.

In 6th grade I had a teacher, Mrs. Bresnahan, who totally changed my life and that of my classmates. She would teach us World History by having us cook each country’s food in class, listen to their music, examine their art and learn about their artists, poets, musicians. She had us put on the play The Sound of Music, and taught us all about the Renaissance. She took us on field trips to museums, the symphony, and even to a slaughterhouse where I witnessed the truth about meat processing.

We loved Mrs. Bresnahan. Learning became incredibly rewarding and fun. She nurtured us and we found our self-worth. We wouldn’t miss school for anything. And the whole class became “A” students. But, when we came back from summer vacation for 7th grade, we found our beloved teacher was removed. (Maybe it was the field trip to the slaughterhouse.) How dare they get rid of this great teacher who made each one of us blossom! We were angry! This class that loved school now hated it. We were out of control. Kids ruled. Our poor 7th grade teacher didn’t last long and myself and half the class were expelled. We all began going in a very downward direction. On top of that my parents divorced, and I developed a neurological disorder that affected my left vocal chord. I tried to hide the impediment by withdrawing and not talking. I sought spirituality and other means of communication: writing, painting, sculpting, music, ballet.

Years later, I began putting everything together to write this screenplay. If a class full of good “A” students can become hoodlums when the arts and humanities and a beloved teacher are removed, what would happen if we gave these thing to our at-risk students? So, the class in RISE is my class and Mr. B, the teacher, is my beloved teacher, Mrs. Bresnahan.
The movie sounds intense. What drove you to make this film?

RISE is complicated movie. There are many different tracks that it is written on and there are many profound moments that will challenge the audience on different ways of thinking. There are some intense scenes that will get to ones core. The “outcast” of the outcasts, sacrifices himself to save his enemy. He’s the sacrificial lamb. Somehow he knows that in order to save the town he must pay the ultimate price. It is so sad but there is a beauty in the scene that is transformational.

Besides wanting to commemorate a wonderful teacher, I also want to get people thinking about our current educational system. As my younger son went through school I started to see what to me was a disturbing trend. Teachers stopped making up their own lesson plans, and instead started relying on a centralized curriculum and rubrics. My son was having trouble with Algebra and went to his teacher after class for help. The teacher told him to get help on his website. He went to the teacher’s web page and it asked him what method he was using and what rubric he needed help with. I was like, “what the hell are they talking about?” I had never heard of a rubric so I started researching and what I found is shocking. Rubrics were created in the 1970’s but didn’t creep into the educational system until the 1990’s. They are used to standardize education. The US educational system is a 3 trillion dollar business. It seems that Microsoft is behind the systemizing of education to make everything computerized. Once everything is graded by rubrics a robot can take over. Sorry, but the long range plan for these corporations is for robots to take over as teachers. It is not science fiction. All the schools use rubrics now and the teachers don’t realize that by going along they are creating their own noose. Why hire a teacher when a robot that doesn’t get sick or need health insurance can easily correct papers with the rubric system. I hope RISE will challenge people to look at the way we are educating kids.

What has been the most challenging aspect of making this film?

The creative part is my strength and that is solid, but unfortunately I could use some help in the “getting the money department.” We have the story, the creative people, the super actors, the incredible location. It is all there but movie making is expensive. So the fundraising is the challenge.

What has been your favorite part? 

My favorite part of film making is working with other creative people, giving them the framework so they can also blossom and express their own creativity as an actor, set designer, director of photography, costume designer, etc.

What’s in the future for you? Any more films? 

I am interested in profound movies where the audience can have transformational moments. I have several movies in development but they are on the back burner while I get RISE produced.

When and where will we be able to see, Rise? 

Late 2017 or early 2018.

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