Winter at Westbeth: Bastion for bohemians

By Aimie Cronin

In their winter years, Westbeth residents embrace the summer of their lives, writes Aimie Cronin.
Edith Stephens dances to her own tune. Photo / Duncan Hewitt
Edith Stephens dances to her own tune. Photo / Duncan Hewitt

It doesn't take long to love every character in the documentary film Winter at Westbeth. After an opening shot of a classic New York City skyline, a busy downtown scene, then a lingering shot of Westbeth Artists Housing, an 18th century building where it all takes place, the first person we see is Ilsa Gilbert, a poet in her 80s. She's in a coat, gloves, pants and a woollen beanie, all in different shades of brown, fiddling with a loud speaker. She stands on Westbeth's rooftop reciting poetry for the New Yorkers below and her vibe sets the tone for the rest of the film.

"I am at Westbeth," she pronounces, "the dancers are upstairs, but I go all the way to the sky above them and look out over the Hudson. I could do a little dance, too, were I not anchored to the ground. Many want to live here in my bastion for bohemians, but only a few may do so: the lucky ones. Everything is disappearing, let us not follow suit."

Winter at Westbeth takes place in the rent-controlled building in New York's West Village: 385 apartments strictly for artists, it opened in 1970 and is the largest of its kind in the world.

Only in New York, right? The residents appear to move in and stay put, and the three artists we follow in the film have been there for decades. All past the age of 70, Edith Stephens, a dancer and film-maker, Gilbert, the poet and playwright, and Dudley Williams, a renowned dancer, they each embody a sense of being eternally creative, something film-maker Rohan Spong was particularly drawn to when he eyed up Westbeth for his next project.

Spong, 35, on the phone from Melbourne where he lives, says he was in his early 30s when he started on the documentary, "I was struggling to make my own art, and I guess I wanted to know what would happen for the rest of my life, if I didn't give up, what sort of life would I lead and would I be happy, and Westbeth is such a positive outcome."

What he found heartening was that each of the film's subjects persisted with their work into old age, "that making their art had given them a reason to get up in the morning and to work through the joy and tragedies of their lives".

The first time we see Stephens, the dancer, she looks just past the camera, on a close-up shot. She has bottle-orange hair, liberal amounts of bright-green eyeshadow, and perfectly manicured brows. In the film she is 95 years old (today she is 98). The film shows old footage of her as a young woman in bright-coloured leotard dancing in grass. "They started out saying I don't know where this girl hails from, I never saw anybody dance like that before, it was because I was not imitating anybody, but myself."

Dudley Williams remembers every step of his past dances. Photo / Duncan Hewitt
Dudley Williams remembers every step of his past dances. Photo / Duncan Hewitt

She says she always wanted to be a dancer and the camera follows her to a courtyard, where she brings her face to the sun and moves slowly, still dancing, in her way. These days she spends much of her time making films. She speaks on the phone from Westbeth and is just as vibrant and joyful as she appears on screen, though she despairs over Trump, "as far as I'm concerned, he has already been impeached, by me", and she worries that the world is becoming more conservative, not more radical as she hoped it might. She says she is interested in astrology and talks about it in the film, but also "people's handwriting, their walks, their faces".

She says, "I'm really just 18 years old. I don't care about numbers, I just want to keep on working. I just feel myself and as myself, I'm young. You never end being creative. The reason I keep working is because I enjoy working and I enjoy the creative part. There are a lot of people who live here [at Westbeth] and none of them look old. They all have remained the same. That's the beauty of not thinking about age ... I don't know what that word means."

Ilsa Gilbert recites poetry from the rooftop of Westbeth Artists Housing in New York City.
Ilsa Gilbert recites poetry from the rooftop of Westbeth Artists Housing in New York City.

The film embraces the fact its subjects have lived. They have faced tragedy and delight and neither is overlooked. As Williams watches footage of himself as a young dancer, the camera lingers on him, the older man, "I remember every step of this," he says as he wipes tears from his face.

Despite their age and inability to perform as nimbly as they did in the decades before, the film triumphs in the fact they have so much still to give and they want to. Towards the end, Gilbert looks into the camera and says, "I'm not ready to say goodbye, I'm ready to say hello."

Winter at Westbeth is screening in cinemas nationwide from April 27.

- Weekend magazine

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