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W.Va. filmmaker wins another Emmy

Courtesy photo
Filmmaker Deborah Novak watches Jorge Vargas apply makeup to dancer/choreographer Mia Michaels during filming of "Steve Caras: See Them Dance" -- her award-winning TV documentary.
Courtesy photo Novak instructs a film crew at the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Fla. She interviewed a number of dancers and choreographers in early 2010 for her latest film.
Courtesy photo Novak and Steve Caras look at photo contact sheets during production of her film, "Steve Caras: See Them Dance," which recently won a regional Emmy award -- her third.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Deborah Novak first slipped into a leotard and ballet flats at age 5. She trained and performed with the prestigious Dickinson School of Dance through high school, and continued classes with the American Ballet Theater while studying theater and film at New York University.

She quit dancing in her mid-20s to pursue a career on stage. Later in life, she took up filmmaking. Since returning almost 10 years ago to her Huntington home, she's won awards for documentary films like "Ashes to Glory," about the 1970 Marshall football team plane crash. And she's dancing again, nearly every day with Kim Pauley and the Charleston Ballet.

Steve Caras had been dancing for only three years when, at age 18, George Balanchine asked him to join the New York Ballet. His dance career was brief, though. At 26, Balanchine failed to cast him for a role he normally danced, according to the Palm Beach Daily News.

So he regrouped, picked up a camera and became a leading ballet photographer.

Although they never danced together, Novak and Caras crossed paths years ago in New York. Impressed, Novak made a note in her future-projects file. In early 2010, she and her husband, fellow filmmaker John Witek, decided to follow up.

The resulting hour-long documentary -- "Steve Caras: See Them Dance" -- first aired on Huntington public access and Arizona public television on March 8, 2011. On July 28, it won an Emmy for Arts & Entertainment at the 48th annual Ohio Valley Regional Emmy Awards.

"I'm on cloud nine," Novak said last week. The film already had won best of show at the Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival, but the black-tie Emmys are special, she said.

"There's just such a cache . . . when you get to the Emmys and they call your name, your heart flutters.

"I think it's big for ballet, too. They say ballet films are marginalized. This is about loss and regeneration. There are a lot of things nondancers can relate to."

Novak is no stranger to the Emmy awards. "My first was for 'Ashes to Glory,'" which premiered in November 2000. She won another for "Cam Henderson: A Coach's Story," and has filmed documentaries on Blenko Glass, all for West Virginia public television.

Her latest film was independently produced and financed. She credits her brother, a New York lawyer, for helping her meet Caras.

"His office was right next door to Terry Caras, Steve's brother. I kept hearing about Steve -- he's a dancer and he started taking photographs that were extraordinary. I started putting two and two together.

"We started in 2010. There's a lot of years in this. We started shooting in New York."

She and her team interviewed dance professionals like Patricia McBride, Allegra Kent, Jacques D'Ambroise, Mia Michaels and Peter Martins, the ballet master of the New York City Ballet. They collected archival photos from around the world of superstars like Mikhail Baryshnikov and Suzanne Farrell.

"I had to go all over the country to shoot -- Florida, North Carolina, but the bulk of it was in New York -- for about six months, and it took another six months to edit.

As director, Novak literally called the shots.

"If it's wrong, it's my fault," she said. "I interviewed every person. I'm really a writer, as well. I did the narrative. I have an outline. You never know where an interview is going to go -- and sometimes that's great -- but I would have certain areas in mind where I would try to guide an interview.

"I try to make it a conversation instead of a question-and-answer session. The dancers would really open up to me."

Novak thinks her dancing background gave her insight other dance filmmakers might lack.

"I knew what to ask because I'd performed ballet before -- not at that level -- but I've waited in the wings, waiting for my music. I suspect a lot of producers don't know ballet. You don't get the details -- are your ribbons sewn in properly? It was a lot easier, because I know the life."

Eric Himes, the editor and technical director, trimmed the raw footage to 56 minutes and 46 seconds -- "a public TV hour," she said.

Phoenix-based Arizona PBS agreed to do an initial broadcast, and it's available for satellite download across the country. Public TV stations in West Palm Beach (Caras' home) and Los Angeles have aired the film, but nothing in the Mountain State yet, despite Novak's best efforts.

"They've been notified about it. Every time I call, they have it; they're still making up their minds. It doesn't cost them anything. It's free. I'm not sure why they're digging in their heels.

"In Philadelphia, they're going to partner with the Pennsylvania Ballet," she said. "[Dancers] are going to answer the phones. They're going to run it during their pledge drive in September. I'd like to do the same thing here in West Virginia with the Charleston Ballet."

Novak's next project is another ballet film, but she said it's too early to talk about it.

"I think this will lead to more projects," she said. "I don't know ballroom dancing, I don't know hiphop. But I do know ballet."

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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