For 15 years Dori Berinstein was a Tony Award-winning force behind the scenes as a producer for some of Broadway’s biggest hits, including Thoroughly Modern Millie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Legally Blonde: The Musical. While she had, at times, worked in television and film (see Dirty Dancing and “The Isaac Mizrahi Show”), it was largely in a production capacity. That changed when Berinstein found inspiration for her first feature in the opening of the 2003-2004 Broadway season. It was inevitable some of the shows set to debut that year would soar while others failed, and that’s exactly the kind of tension the first-time director looked to examine.

Berinstein’s ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway documents rehearsals through opening night—and for some, the final performances—of four of the season’s prospective shows (Avenue Q, Caroline, or Change, Taboo and Wicked) and was just as diverting as anything on the Broadway stage.

Her second documentary, Some Assembly Required, chronicles the lives and work of six teams of child inventors as they prepare for competition in astronaut Dr. Sally Ride’s TOYchallenge. The movie made its world premiere at SXSW earlier this year.

But it is Berinstein’s most recent documentary, Gotta Dance, that is the talk of the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. The movie follows the 12 women and one man chosen as the first senior hip-hop dance team for the New Jersey Nets. “I had a quote from Florenz Ziegfield stuck in my head that would serve as the mantra for our film: ‘Age doesn’t matter unless you’re a cheese.’ The adventures of this senior hip-hop dance team had the potential to showcase that perfectly,” Berinstein says.

From early auditions to the pressure of the final performance Berinstein leads the audience on an engaging emotional journey that will make you forget you’re watching a movie and not right there with them. However, the entertainment comes from more than simply watching 81-year-old Fanny practice her hip-hop moves and dance around in a bright pink poodle skirt. As much as the documentary focuses on age—and indeed many of the humorous moments are the result of the ages of all participants—it is ultimately an examination of will and persistence.

Whether it’s 62-year-old Joe B.’s push despite his lack of rhythm or Betty/Betsy’s acceptance and merging of her two unlikely personalities, each member of the 2007 NETsationals team showcases that willingness and persistence that characterize a Berinstein documentary.

In between this week’s screenings of Gotta Dance in Tribeca, Berinstein explained to MM what draws her to film and how this story in particular is one for the ages.

Mallory Potosky (MM): How did you originally hear about the NETSational Senior hip-hop team?

Dori Berinstein (DB): I was reading Cindy Adams’ column in The New York Post, when I came across the item that the New Jersey Nets basketball team were holding auditions for a first-ever, senior citizen dance team. At that point, it wasn’t clear that the group would be dancing hip-hop. I just had to dive in and check it out!

MM: Before meeting the group of 13 that would eventually be chosen for the team and carry the movie, what made you think that this subject would make a good documentary?

DB: The idea of making a film that celebrates aging had been on my mind for several years. I had witnessed age discrimination and it made me furious. Just because someone turns 60, 70, 80, whatever… why should they have to age out of a job? Shouldn’t ability, experience and wisdom figure most prominently? When I read about the team, I thought, ‘This could be it!’ I was excited about a group of seniors, all dance newbies, taking on a dream—diving into something they never thought, in their wildest dreams, that they’d ever do. I was ecstatic about the prospect of telling a story that said, “Just because you’re 80-years-old, who says you can’t shake the roof off a sports arena in front of 20,000 screaming fans with your cool dance moves?”

MM: It’s often said a woman never reveals her age. Obviously, the 12 women on this team didn’t feel that way since they wore their respective ages on their uniforms. But performing in front of a stadium full of people is quite different than allowing a camera into your life for the whole world to see. Did you find that anyone was reluctant to participate? Was anyone especially eager?

DB: Actually, prior to joining the Nets Senior Dance Team, several NETSationals had hid their age from their employers. They thought their real age could have a negative impact on people’s perceptions of their abilities and, in fact, on their employment. Wearing their age, front-and-center on their jerseys and then for our cameras was a very brave thing to do.

Separately, one team member, Betty, hid from us for the first two months of the shoot. She was tremendously shy. After a while, trust was built and Betty opened up to us on camera. Her journey, uniting her two personalities—Betsy: a very gentle, conservative kindergarten teacher, and Betty: a daring hip-hop dance aficionado—ultimately became one of our major throughlines.
MM: Before becoming a documentarian you were mostly a Broadway and television producer. What inspired you to direct film?

DB: I always wanted to direct. I made the leap when I had a story I absolutely, no-matter-what, just-try-and-hold-me-back, had to tell. It was about Broadway behind-the-curtain. I dove in the moment I felt ready. I had worked as a director in TV, produced and supervised film for over 15 years and was a seasoned producer of Broadway shows. I felt ready to handle the responsibility of capturing Broadway backstage as a director. Since then, I simply can’t stop. I love directing. There are so many stories I want to tell. I can’t wait to tackle a narrative feature.

MM: Your first documentary, ShowBusiness, was set on Broadway, which seems a natural fit coming from your background. What made you look to TOYchallenge for your second film?

DB: Some Assembly Required came out of my work with Dr. Sally Ride. Dr. Ride has a company dedicated to inspiring kids (girls in particular) to pursue math, science and engineering. The statistics are horrifying. By 8th grade, interest in science and math plummets. It’s really a national crisis. At any rate, Dr. Ride asked me to be a Judge at the national TOYchallenge Finals. When I saw first-hand how the lives of these kids had changed just by participating in the competition, I wanted to chronicle their journey, capture the process from blank page to insanely cool toy creation… These kids were empowered, thrilled with what they were able to accomplish. It wasn’t at all about winning.

MM: All of the documentaries that you have directed and produced have a start and end point—from the idea for a play to opening night on Broadway in ShowBusiness, the eight-month stretch before the final competition in Some Assembly Required and auditions through the final performance for Gotta Dance. So they all have this natural progression and story to follow, but as a director what do you look for to keep the pace of the movie interesting to audiences?

DB: The Tony Awards, the TOYchallenge competition, the final dance of the season, gave us some structure to work with on all three films. However, far more important, was the process our characters went through getting to those final moments. It’s about getting lost in the lives of our protagonists, caring about their journey, rooting for them, watching them change and grow. All three films are about passion, about chasing your dreams no matter what the risk is… It’s not about who wins the Tony, who creates the best toy or who has the hottest dance moves. So long before we get to Act III, I’m looking to craft a story that offers engaging characters you grow to care deeply about, humor, drama and suspense.

MM: When you’re in the midst of production and so many things are happening around you that aren’t planned or can’t be postponed—especially with the large topics that your films cover—how do you choose what should be focused on? What makes you prioritize one scenario over another? Is it instinct? Is it something that can be learned?

DB: This is exactly what I love about making documentaries. You don’t know where you’re going. Anything can happen. That unpredictability, that risk…watching the story unfold before your eyes and having to think on your feet, is exactly what I love about this medium. In the beginning of all three films, I tried hard to be everywhere and capture everything (38 Broadway shows, 50 teams of middle-schoolers creating toys, 13 hip hop senior dancers). I needed to get to know my characters, I wanted to be there when they had their ‘ah ha’ moments… when they nailed that dance move… when they hit the wall. You just don’t know when or where the great moments are going to come from. As we start to get a handle on the story we want to tell, our focus narrows, we’re more deliberate, we’re able to be more discriminating in our filmmaking. But until the last shot, the story is in flux. I love that.