by Jef Burnham
Premieres December 15, 2008 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.
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In Cat Dancers, Ron Holiday recalls his journey from the days he and his wife Joy were the world’s top adagio dancers, through their development of Cat Dancers, one of the world’s foremost exotic-cat routines, and the tragic end of the troupe. Accompanied by home videos, news footage and performance footage, Ron reminisces on both the public and private lives of the Cat Dancers. His story involves the likes of Tennessee Williams and William Holden, who provided the Holidays with their first cat, a black leopard cub named Aladdin; but the heart of the story is his relationship with his wife Joy, and the couple’s secret love affair with their late-joining third member, Chuck Lizza.
Much of the footage in the film is of the performances and training of the cats, including tigers, jaguars and leopards. One senses that not only were the Cat Dancers expert trainers, but that they were as devoted to their cats as they were to each other. To see the footage of their leopard Venus leaping 20 feet into Ron’s arms shows an incredible level of trust between animal and trainer.
As the only surviving member of the troupe, Ron’s story provides the film’s single, mostly uncollaborated perspective, laying objectivity aside in the film’s anecdotal composition. However, were Cat Dancers more conventionally objective with interviews of the Holidays’ friends, families and contemporaries, it would retain little of the spirit that Ron’s candor and honesty brings to the film. It is through this sense of Ron’s private discourse with the audience that the filmmakers draw the viewer’s investment. The only deviation from this formula is the occasional insertion of comments from Chuck’s mother, serving little purpose aside from providing awkward breaks in film’s momentum. Despite that single transgression in structure, Cat Dancers is an expertly crafted and highly emotional documentary.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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