Motion Studies: Teaching Twenty-First Century Screendance

Article originally appeared in Bellyflop Magazine, March 2014


Don’t forget that no tripod has yet been built which is as miraculously versatile in movement as the complex system of supports, joints, muscles, and nerves which is the human body, which, with a bit of practice, makes possible the enormous variety of camera angles and visual action. You have all this, and a brain too, in one neat, compact, mobile package. Cameras do not make films; film-makers make films. Improve your films not by adding more equipment and personnel but by using what you have to its fullest capacity. The most important part of your equipment is yourself: your mobile body, your imaginative mind, and your freedom to use both. Make sure you do use them.

Maya Deren

Commercial culture clearly tells us what dance on screen is. It’s Fred Astaire and his famous quip that ‘either the camera will dance, or I will’, and it’s Beyonce and her palm-turning, high-cut Single Ladies: dancing bodies as subject of camera gaze, with edits that fit to music.

Anyone who’s brushed up against the genre of ‘screendance’ is likely to have encountered work perhaps commissioned for TV broadcast during the 1990s, probably involving a choreographer working within the production model of the film and television industry: a model granting overall creative control to technically-specialised directors and producers.

The era of screendance commissioning for television is long over, and within a wider contemporary landscape of sweeping funding cuts, specialist niche festivals–Dance on Screen at The Place; South East Dance Agency’s Dance for Camera Festival in Brighton, and Moves in Manchester and Liverpool–read as a roll call of the fallen.

It is arguably now easier than has ever been the case to create screen-based work using materials found close to hand and home and to access screening opportunities across a variety of technological platforms as part of a rapidly evolving global screen culture – a culture which includes six-second uploadable loops, myriad mobile phone apps and increasingly lightweight recording devices.

A more complex issue is how to translate the study of screendance in Higher Education to a generation of students who have grown up taking camera-enabled mobile phones, access to YouTube and all other manifestations of mass screen culture for granted, but who are unlikely to spend the majority of their working lives progressing smoothly along state-funded, pre-determined career paths.

Screendance modules at undergraduate level have often begun and ended with camera and editing skills, on the basis that this adds a layer of technical ability to the student’s pre-existing choreographic knowledge. For a field emerging as an academic discipline in its own right – supported during the last decade by a flourish of writing from Katrina McPherson; Karen Pearlman; Erin Brannigan, Douglas Rosenberg and The International Journal of Screendance – there has been an acknowledgement of the need to focus on a wider picture. Taken as a starting point, a broader approach to screen literacy can offset against a focus on technical execution alone.

Simon Ellis, Reader in Dance (practice-based) at the University of Roehampton, summarises the situation:

The temptation in teaching screendance (or perhaps any choreography module that has a reasonably tight relationship to technology) is to lean heavily on skill development for the students.

Ellis expands on an ‘ideal’ relationship to technological engagement as one that ‘simply dissolves into the background so that aspiring screendance makers can deal with their materials and ideas, and not with technological complexity (which they can approach later in their working lives)’.

A deeper focus on historical lineage can also provide an alternative option to the traditional ‘Hollywood/MTV’ timeline, beginning with the late nineteenth century photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey, where the camera lens enables a ‘seeing into’ of previously uncharted movement worlds.

Following the thread of this parallel history leads through the Surrealist-influenced output of visual artists during the 1920s in their experimentation with non-linear montage, and the direct physical engagement of hand to celluloid film of animators such as Len Lye and Norman McLaren from the 1930s onwards. The thread leads from there on to the roll of honour of the mid-twentieth century avant-garde, where experimental film practice and choreographic input spectacularly collide in the work of Maya Deren, Shirley Clarke, Yvonne Rainer, Elaine Summers and others.

A study of contemporary practice also needs to reflect the wider, post-millennial arts-world shift towards conceptually-oriented work. Here, a generation of so-called ‘hybrid artists’, such as Katrina McPherson; Lisa May Thomas; Magali Charrier, Lucy Cash and Miranda Pennell–equally fluent in dance and screen-related culture and practice–work from within an expanded field, which is, as McPherson states, primarily concerned with ‘process and form’.

‘Feeding in’ a range of work from this expanded practice-base to 3rd year choreography students at Middlesex University, London, has included exposure to Becky Edmunds’, Skate (2009), where a bubble-wrapped camera is set in motion, spin-the-bottle style, on an expanse of Arctic ice; Christopher Steel’s Welcome To Southside (2008), where a taxi journey is filmed and re-exposed 36 times, generating a hazy, colour-saturated auric field from familiar London landmarks; and Nic Sandiland and Simon Aeppli’s Exosphere (2002), comprising the monochrome, single take journey of a tiny, light-weight camera, attached to a helium balloon. None of these works takes on the externally-focussed and production-driven agenda associated with ‘making a film’, instead focussing on the possibilities presented by relating a dance-oriented skillset to a screen-based movement context.

Study Number 1 – Close Up Jade Aitchison – Yr 3 Screendance 2013/14

This approach was reflected in student work created using minimal technical equipment including mobile phones and the editing software programs iMovie and Windows MovieMaker. This produced a series of often small-scale sketches, with a focus on movement-centred experimentation. These arguably translate into a range of twenty-first century Motion Studies, where – as with Muybridge and Marey – technological advances are used in the service of exploring highly individual movement worlds.

Inoron – Three Improvisations Charlie Ford – Yr 3 Screendance 2012/13

Chirstinn Whyte