Leeds International Film Festival: Screendance Competition – November 2014/15

Leeds International Film Festival: Screendance Competition – November 2014/15




Leeds International Film Festival has been a high profile presence on the major circuit for almost three decades. Traditionally screening programmes across an eclectic range of fields, from animation to sci-fi, the festival last year dipped a toe into the under represented – in British festival terms, at least – genre of screendance.

This initiative could be viewed as being either exceptionally brave, or extremely foolhardy, in a climate of diminishing state funding and recent loss of all other domestic festivals. Over the last ten years, well-established ventures in Brighton, London, Liverpool and Edinburgh have been extinguished in turn like lit points on a map, leaving LIFF as sole torch-bearer for a genre experiencing international academic and artistic acclaim, but which has traditionally struggled to attract dedicated film festival audiences.

Part of the reason for this impasse is that ‘screendance’ itself has always been a slippery creature to tie down. Described variously from the 1890s onwards as dance for camera; dance film; videodance; cinedance; choreocinema; and camera choreography, each term reflects differing aspects of a multifaceted form. Artists have also been quick to adapt to changing cultural circumstance, and to new technological possibilities, resulting in an intriguingly tangled celluloid and pixel-based heritage.

The tension between the expectation of commercially-oriented, entertainment industry ‘product’ and the drive towards artistic innovation has also worked at times against the best efforts of marketers and festival promoters, who have a vested interest in neatly defining a programme of work which will appeal to often first-time paying audiences, as well as to those with specialist knowledge.

LIFF’s screendance programme, selected by a panel of sector activists – film-makers Andy Wood and Simon Fildes; curator Gitta Wigro and Yorkshire Dance Director Wieke Eringa – showcased, in Wood’s words, ‘an engagement with choreography, either in the content, the edit, or ideally both’. This cross-section of global practice included examples highlighting the technical polish recognisable from film and television industries, and foregrounding clearly identifiable ‘dance’ content. Yevan Chowdhury’s Moving Yerevan (2014) appeared to appropriate conventions of the travelogue and the music video, with shifting locations – train stations, street scenes, a demolition site – used to construct a highly specific sense of place, inhabited by a series of intently performance-focused dancers, with each representing differing cultural traditions such as ballet, folk, hip-hop, and tap. At times, Chowdhury also appeared to move beyond the conventions of his chosen forms with moments of stillness and slowness of pace allowing for a naturalistic urban choreography of pedestrian and motor traffic to unfold.

A tightly edited technical language of close-ups and wide shots in Fuc Pak Jim’s Let’s Say (2014), showcased the motility of the human hand, and of the range and potential of physical and emotional interaction, in a domino-like cascade of shifting dynamics and impulses, contrasted by the closed-off, inward focus of tech-mediated communication. While In Rooms (2013), Paul Sarvis intercut footage of a single, dancing female in a bare white space, with the slowly-paced daily rituals – the putting on of shoes, crossing a traffic-filled street – of an elderly woman, with elements of voice-over and still photography interwoven within the whole.

Differing approaches to on-screen choreography surfaced in work by Shantala Pepe and Alex Pachón. Pepe’s slow-burning Embrace (2014) presented an atmospheric study in the understated connection between a male and female figure, by using a gradually shifting, unified movement vocabulary of leans and hand clasps. Set against the unchanging vista of the sea-sky horizon line, visuals were subtly supported by a sound score of wind chimes and bird call. Contrastingly, a single male figure, first seen in extreme facial close-up in Pachón’s Cracks (2013), articulated a gestural performance of sleep-induced closed-eye flickers. Constructing by edit a montage sequence of isolated joints – knuckles, neck, sternum, ankle, jaw – Pachón accentuated luminous monochrome imagery with a sonic counterpoint of clicks and cracks.

Work by Simona Deaconescau and Marites Carino made use of the camera almost as an additional physical presence. Deaconescu’s Silent Places (2013) – set against a dust-drenched horizon line – continuously circled, tracked and stalked five dancers in ever-altering proximity to their rough-and-tumble movement exploration of solos, duets, trios and quartets forms. Similarly, Marites Carino’s crisply monochrome Vanishing Points (2014) used lengthy tracking shots to explore the visual ambiguities of reverse motion, creating a movement language grounded in the bound dynamics and physical resistance of hip-hop, but subtly modified beyond recognisably human capability, with a male and female performer progressing along alternate urban pathways, as though drawn to an ever-narrowing point of connection.

Much of this work could sit happily within mainstream global festival programming, and as such is more readily accessible to first-time audiences. A further strand, however, reflected the depth and breadth of the form’s expanded lineage, and rewarded a more contemplative viewing engagement. Dealing with aspects of the conceptual, the improvisational and the digitally innovative, this strand of work draws more obviously on the heritage of experimental film practice, with influences from the surrealist film movement of the 1920s, and of the groundbreaking mid-twentieth century U.S. based artist Maya Deren, among others. While this strand of screendance history has achieved far less cultural prominence than the traditional ‘Hollywood and MTV’ style product, it exerts a continuing influence on the form’s artistic development.

Two works in particular, created by Brighton-based artist Billy Cowie and long-term Scottish-based working partnership Katrina McPherson and Simon Fildes, clearly drew on many years of respective experience in their accomplished articulation of personalised visions. Gabriela Alcofra and Cowie’s Tango Brasileiro (2014) achieved a poetic economy of means, inserting contemporary imagery to archive footage, situated within the bleached out, formal elegance of a public square. A lower leg flick, a head turn, nodded to the vernacular of tango form, as sophisticated conventions were set up for viewer identification, using the notion of freeze frame as a means of fixing in time an ever-escaping present moment. In McPherson and Fildes’ The Time It Takes (2013), three performers – in grey, yellow, blue, peat brown and a flash of roof-red – inhabit a pared down natural landscape of water, beach, fields and the curving pathway of a single track road, intermittently glimpsed by the even gaze of a steadily moving camera. The dynamics of atmosphere and motion, transmitted between dancers by means of intercutting, created a choreography of fluid edits, as the wind across a field of flowers translated into a wave action through arm and hand.

For these artists, and others like them, who have generated substantial bodies of work over the course of their careers, the standard format of one-off festival screening as part of a mixed programme can feel as though it stops short of providing the ideal viewing experience. While a basic level of contextualisation would be provided as standard for viewers within a gallery setting, it has not always been available to festival screening audiences. With this issue in mind, Wood invited an internationally-based jury panel – Claudia Kappenberg, editor of The International Journal of Screendance, Silvina Szperling, Director of the Festival Videodanza De Buenos Aires, and Marisa Hayes, Director of the International Videodance Festival of Burgundy – to provide an additional layer of written commentary to selected work, with special mention awarded to Michelle and Uri Kranot and Ponciana Almeida and Bertie. In Black Tape (2014), the Kranots conjured up a never-settled-shimmer of animated male figures – soldiers with guns and helmets, bearded combatants – connected in lock-step through a series of dance-like encounters. Accumulating in relation to underlying tango rhythms, a single soldier patrolled a recurring circuit, as foreground and background encounters played out, building to a chaos of black abstraction. Reflecting the relevance of animation as an integral strand of screendance history and practice, the jury’s comments touched on the work’s ‘choreography of images’, and the ‘experience felt on a somatic level’. Almeida’s and Bertie’s Memorias (2014), meanwhile, drew the viewer into a cumulative series of atmospheric triggers and fragmentary cues – a close-up of a hand in dust motes; shadows moving against hanging bed sheets; solitary stretches in a dance studio, set against the sensory overload of a moving camera as it captured the percussive rhythms and glimpsed details of street celebration – night-lit faces; a full-skirted turn; an explosion of fireworks. The judges summary here focussed on ‘sensitive editing’, used to ‘build a continuum of movement’, ultimately transcending the sum of its parts.

The choice of competition winner represented the most overtly conceptual of the evening’s works. Swiss-based artist Nicole Seiler constructed Amauros (2014) from layer upon layer of translation, utilising the conventions of audio-description – literal, repetitive, real-time commentary – of an unseen performance, allowing images of a ‘woman with long hair’, a physically manipulative ‘man in a jacket’, to arise directly in the viewers’ mind. Seiler also contrasted matter-of-fact vocal delivery with the highly charged emotional content and extreme physicality of the work described, effectively foregrounding vocal rhythms and the escalating pace of ambient sound within a tightly controlled timescale, and all set against a sub-titled black screen. While the judges acknowledged the stage origins of the work’s source material – a production of Pina Bausch’s Cafe Muller – they highlighted the screen iteration as ‘a work which mines both the potential and conventions of screendance making’ as a ‘visualization of a dance in detail without ever featuring a moving body on screen.’

The question for all new festival initiatives remains, how to build on a one-off, single evening’s screening?

Tackling this issue head-on, a number of formal devices, including a written audience rating system for each work, were included as part of LIFF’s event, with comment on the judges’ choices spilling out and over into social media formats. This more spontaneous eruption of ‘after hours’ debate undoubtedly provided an outlet for self-selected personal views, with calls for the instigation of an annual event, and probing the perceptions of what may or may not constitute a ‘real dance film’. These responses, taken together with the healthy numbers in attendance, can be seen as positive engagement from a cross-section of both highly informed and first-time viewers. They also highlight the importance of combining the screening conventions of the entertainment industry with access points to the experimental ambitions of artists, curators and commentators.

New events and festival strands take time to grow. For the Competition’s second iteration, again presented in partnership with Yorkshire Dance, ten works – reflecting a healthily widening global spread – were selected. Jury members also rotated to reflect the breadth of views represented within the wider screendance community, with Leonel Brum, Director of the Danca Em Foço Festival in Brazil, and internationally established British-based artist Professor Liz Aggiss, joining Hayes on the judging panel. On the screening night itself, a doubling of audience numbers meant that the evening achieved ‘sold out’ status, and the introduction of an after-show discussion panel, involving film makers and commentators, provided an important entry point – and an immediate audience discussion forum – for less obviously accessible work.

Further development of on-the-spot viewer polling saw the introduction of an official Audience Award, won by a clear margin by U.K. based filmmaker Graham Clayton-Chance. Clayton-Chance’s film You  provided minimal screenic translation to a spoken-word and gesture-based monologue, here performed by Dan Watson. Establishing close-ups of fingers to forehead, a hand, a beard, gave way to live performance perspective, with content representing the cumulative manic vulnerability of the late dance and theatre-maker Nigel Charnock’s first-person confessional/confrontational style. A similar approach was evident in Andrew Margetson’s pared-down monochrome Reborn, with use of first person voice-over and close-up providing a studio-based context for Royal Ballet principal Lauren Cuthbertson’s laser-limbed movement journey from floor-based grounding to apparently endlessly sustained balance point. In contrast, Özgür Con Alkan’s Circle moved beyond representation of pre-made choreographic material. A static overhead camera position transformed a single male dancer’s movement vocabulary of runs, rolls and continuous turns, while post-production technical manipulation engineered time-lapsed after-images of trailing black limbs, and the addition of cape-like scarlet fabric shifted the movement patterning into an abstracted whirl of poppy-like circular forms.

Elsewhere, Nellie Carrier’s Néants skilfully incorporated tropes from the conventions of horror film to examine moments of rupture in the inner lives of four performers. As the camera slowly moved in on each, isolated and immobile within a recognisable night-set environment, a sound score incorporated the subtle ambient cues of a ticking clock and chirruping insects. A gradual shift into everyday naturalistic movement – the slow turn of a head, a sinking to ground level – built over time into differing dance-specific vocabularies, intercut between each character to suggest a series of bodies in extremis, before each quietened to resume opening positions, and the camera pulled back and away. Meanwhile Ingo Putze’s colour graded gothic fantasy, Solo Finale, made use of the echoing rectangular patterning of multi-stacked high rise windows and the empty terracing of an abandoned opera house auditorium. Reverse motion, inversion, and other technical wizardry conjured an involuntary ceiling-set movement vocabulary of sudden extravagantly-costumed shifts and starts.

A further range of work represented a tradition within screendance of much smaller scale production models – an approach championed by a range of artists from the lineage of experimental film. These include highly influential filmmaker Maya Deren, who stated that ‘economy of means is of the essence’ within the creative process, and that this conscious limitation can be a means to access a greater level of innovation, requiring ‘a real examination…of the inherent properties of the camera, the cutting and the film medium’. In the era of HD and CGI, two works, created by Florence Freitag and Nicola Balhuizen Hepp, demonstrated that the strength of an idea and overall artistic vision need not be compromised by lack of larger-scale production elements, and in fact well be enhanced by a concentration on first principles. Freitag’s greyscale Hydra set a single male performer within a partially glimpsed environment of wooden sleeper rails, graffiti covered iron bridge struts and distant cityscape. Revealed in incremental details, and punctuated by intermittent blackscreen, movement vocabulary was accompanied by a soundscape setting the otherworldly beauty of choral-based vocals against the grounding intimacy of breath effort. In Echo, Balhuizen Hepp packed deceptively sophisticated content into a 60 second time-frame, beginning with a slowly circling camera within a darkened space, revealing the figure of an elderly male performer, using a gesturally based movement vocabulary of hand clasps and arms stretches, as though gently exploring the limits of his own identity. The wheeling camera later reveals an identically-dressed young boy, and the work ends as both figures turn to face one another, taking a single step forward, while a minimal musical score recalled the viewer-activated soundtrack to the tirelessly rotating, place-rooted plastic ballerina of a traditional musical box.

In their official statement, the jury took the opportunity to comment on the existence of ‘two distinct approaches to screendance’, characterised in the first instance as ‘works of choreography for human dancers in partnership with the camera and a site-specific environment’, and two of the works granted Special Mention conformed to this formula. Described by the jury members as ‘a delightful experience for the audience’ Sebastian Gimmel’s Approaching the Puddle wore its technical accomplishments lightly, with frame-choice, edit and sound subtly working to support the overall mood of whimsical magic realism. Here, a single female performer interacted with her immediate landscape of gravel, iron railings and grey/brown puddles, echoed in a muted costume colour palette of yellow hooded top, and wellingtons, while a movement vocabulary of finger pointing, foot flexion and turn-in suggested a child-like simplicity of engagement, reinforced in the performers’ final magic-show style ‘disappearance’ from shot. In Kenichi Sasaki’sYasuki Shoji, described by the jury as ‘a cohesive and thoughtful film’, which ‘addresses the memory of place’, a fleetingly-seen series of tightly framed close-ups – a wall-mounted clock; a basket-ball hoop; natural wood panelling and sheet metal – constructed an atmospheric sense of abandoned space, inhabited only by a single – though at times apparently cloned – dance-trained male performer, clad in monochrome, loose-fitting linen, with subtle currents of movement shifting like pathways of chi throughout the body.

The additional approach to screendance highlighted by the jury statement could be described as ‘screen choreography by other means’, or what academic, filmmaker and writer Douglas Rosenberg has described as ‘not dance for the camera, but dance by the camera’. This strategy was evident in Mariam Eqbal’s first prize winning Choreography for the Scanner, and Eqbal capitalised on the potentials of technical innovation, using monochrome stills – manipulated by visual noise patterning, glitches, and jumps – as the works’ raw material. An initial image of an ever-smiling young female in a cinch-waisted, off-the-shoulder gown, transformed into a grotesquely distorted elongation of arms, hands and fingers, before proliferating into a mirror-matching row of two-headed cut-out paper doll-style figures. A triptych of another young female, posing for camera with balletically stylised hand positioning, head inclined at an angle and pointe shoe-clad feet, fluctuated skirt length as though in response to the distant, Hawaiian-tinged guitar accompaniment. The Jury statements noted that the work raised ‘important questions related to memory and perceptions of dance, how dance is created, and who or what is dancing’ and concluded that Eqbal had succeeded in creating ‘a work engaged with the multiple histories of film, dance and visual practices upon which screendance is built’.

Finding the balance between access, education and entertainment is a difficult task. LIFF’s event has an undeniably ambitious agenda, combining screendance programming and audience building with the award of an individual prize. Both academically-oriented discourse and less formally-worded debate can be seen as positive engagement with a rapidly forward-moving artform, and forthcoming coverage by the International Journal of Screendance represents an important milestone, highlighting the competition’s significance within the wider screendance sector. In the event’s immediate aftermath, discussion on Social Media forums again provided a platform for a range of audience views, and as part of this ongoing dialogue, Marisa Hayes summed up the achievement of the events’ first two years of existence, outlining the judges criteria and stating that the prize should be awarded in response to ‘quality research that synthesizes strong images, movement and sound, but that it might also be awarded for its innovation and willingness to inspire dialogues in the screendance community. In that sense, I can see the prize is doing its job.’