The Washington, D.C., region is no Hollywood, but it has its own film industry, focusing on broadcast journalism, primarily news, documentaries and special projects for government and quasi-government organizations like PBS, The National Zoo and The Kennedy Center.
Retired ballet dancer Leslie Shampaine has built a second career in film production, primarily in the D.C. region. Over the past 20 years, the Bethesda resident, who is married to Georgetown University professor at the Center for Jewish Civilization Ori Soltes, has produced primarily documentaries for name brands as diverse as The National Zoo, National Geographic, Al Jazeera and The Kennedy Centers Honors, which broadcasts annually on CBS television.
Prior to that, her ballet credits included the Los Angeles Ballet and more than a decade at various European ballet companies, primarily following Hungarian choreographer Youri Vamos to different cities and theaters, including the Basel Ballet. She also guested with the Israel Classical Ballet.
As a film producer, she works behind a desk, not a camera. That is until the perfect story came along and Shampaine couldn’t find a director to take on the project. That took her back to her childhood love and first profession: ballet.
“Call Me Dancer,” Shampaine’s self-produced film, co-directed with her friend and colleague, documentarian Pip Gilmour, will screen October 15 and 17-19 at the Edlavitch DC-JCC’s JxJ year-round festival program.
The documentary, which took more than five years to complete, tells the story of Indian-born Manish Chauhan, a poor street dancer from Mumbai who discovers ballet. Through hard-won training from Israeli American ballet master Yehuda Ma’or, Manish breaks barriers to succeed in the highly competitive and driven world of professional ballet.
But unlike many dance movies, “Call Me Dancer” offers a distinctive true-life perspective, following student and teacher over five years of pain, sweat, tears and triumphs.
Shampaine focused her camera on a story that went beyond the young street kid overcoming financial and social strictures to make it in the classical dance world. Aside from the heartwarming story of Chauhan’s challenges and triumphs, Shampaine shines a spotlight on fading ballet master Ma’or’s story. She captures how his Indian ballet students venerate him like a guru or grandfather, and how his crusty, bitter demeanor melts as he comes to love these budding dancers.
In 1972, when Shampaine was a pre-teen, her single mother moved with her three daughters to Tel Aviv. They lived a life immersed in the thriving cultural scene – classical music, dance, opera and art galleries were a regular part of Shampaine’s life in Tel Aviv.
And there she continued the ballet studies she had begun in St. Louis. She remembered seeing Ma’or perform with then-renowned Bat-Dor Dance Company. There he was the primary partner of the company’s founder and artistic director Jeannette Ordman. As a teenager, Shampaine studied at the Bat-Dor studios.
“Then [back in the U.S.] in the ‘90s,” she said, “I started taking his [ballet] classes in New York City.”
“The atmosphere in Yehuda’s [classes] was like home,” she noted, referring to her classes at Bat-Dor as a teen. “That’s the feeling I have in Israel: Everybody was accepted. You could come in [to Yehuda’s class] with your dog. You could come in with your baby. I could come in pregnant. He was very accepting of everyone – all shapes and sizes.” At the same time, he was demanding. He had worked with 20th-century ballet greats Rudolph Nureyev, Natalia Markarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Ma’or reached out to Shampaine six years ago, when he realized he had two young male prodigies who needed more recognition than he could offer in this modest dance studio in Mumbai.
Her former teacher called her about his students. “I said [to Yehuda], ‘This is a really great story. I’ll see if there are other [filmmakers] who are interested and vet them for you, because you need a good person to tell this story,’” she said. It turned out there were no takers. “I didn’t want to put myself out there for this,” she admitted. After careful consideration it became clear that her intimate understanding of the ballet world made her the best candidate to make this movie.
“It’s my first film as a director,” she added. “I never made a film. I didn’t have a company behind me, but I had to decide if this would be my first film [as a director]. I really felt like I needed to get more creative in my life. Since I had my kids, I was doing production management and producing.” But her kids were getting older, so she said yes.
Now that the film is on the festival circuit, Shampaine reflected: “It was the toughest five or six years of my life, but I kept going because … ballet is my DNA … my passion for dance just kept me going through all the difficulties.”
Among those difficulties: finding funding, filming on three continents from India to Israel to New York and Washington, D.C., and a COVID-19 interruption that set the film back.
“I taught myself,” she said. “I could see from what I did every day, so I taught myself what not to do. I had an editor who advised me about shooting a scene and I had no idea what material I’d need so I shot everything I could.”
“Call Me Dancer” has been earning praise and recognition at film festivals and from film buffs, dance lovers, Southeast Asian, Israeli and Jewish audiences. Shampaine hopes the film will find a broader audience in general release or even via broadcast or streaming.
In the meantime, she’ll return to India in 2024 on a Fulbright Fellowship to create a curriculum based on the film emphasizing the social impact it can have especially for children and teenagers.
“This is a movie for every kid who has a dream and everyone tells them you can’t do it,” she said. “Manish was told he was too old to be a dancer. Yehuda was told he was too old to teach. They both proved them wrong.”
Lisa Traiger is Washington Jewish Week’s arts correspondent.