Selective Histories: moving image from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first

Chapter 3, The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies (2016) Ed. Douglas Rosenberg. Oxford University Press

There are wonderful inner things hidden within dancing.

–William Forsythe, Improvisation Technologies (p. 22)

HIGH-SPEED flicking through a series of images in a flip book leads the visual cortex into perceiving sequential motion. Flicking forward through a history of moving image can also highlight intersection points between dance and screen practice. Jump cutting between pivotal developmental stages–such as the late nineteenth-century photographic innovations of Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey; the filmic experimentation of visual artists in the early twentieth century; the dance-infused, mid-twentieth-century legacy of Maya Deren, Shirley Clarke, and others; the emergence of screendance as a recognized form; the rise of hybrid practice, and the creative potential of early twenty-first century mobile technologies–can provide a series of snapshots of an art form responding to the dizzying pace of societal, technological, and creative change.

MOTION STUDIES

An example of perceptual shift as a byproduct of industrialization has been highlighted by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, writing on “panoramic seeing” which, he asserts, emerged during the early to mid-nineteenth century as a direct consequence of the new social phenomenon of the railway journey. Andrew Pickering has commented on this railway-mediated characterization of visual perception by observing that, in contrast to previously available modes of transport, such as walking or carriage travel, “the immediate foreground vanishes… and the background is seen synthetically…. It is as though the landscape appears as a movie projected on to the screen of the window.”1

Against such a background of rapid industrial development, introducing railway travel and telegraphic communication to the American west, English migrant Eadweard Muybridge famously produced a series of photographs in Palo Alto, California, in 1878, revealing the stride-action of a galloping racehorse. Prior to Muybridge’s technological innovation in relation to the mechanics of shutter-release, precise details of high-speed movement had been imperceptible to the human eye. During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Muybridge and his contemporaries such as medically trained Étienne-Jules Marey produced studies of human and animal movement patterning as a series of stills, with vaulting gymnasts, birds in flight, and young women in classically styled drapery captured in units of sequential motion. These images prefigured not only the emergence of cinematography as a nascent form, but also fed into the emerging management fields of time-and-motion studies, such as Taylorism, of the early twentieth century. Imagery from this era characteristically renders sequential movement progression as a monochromatic pathway, picked out in points of light. Mary Ann Doane has described the working process of Taylorism adherent Frank B. Gilbreath, creating in 1914 what he termed a “cyclograph.” Doane states that Gilbreath “attached a small electric light to the limb of a worker and used a time exposure to photograph the movement as a continuous line in space.”2 To the contemporary reader, this description can bring to mind parallels with the practice of motion capture, and its centrality to the early twenty-first-century animated computer gaming industry, demanding ever more realistically life-like movement simulation.

THE ARTISTS’ FILM

Much has been written on the development of narrative film conventions during the early to mid-twentieth century. In parallel to these initiatives, during the century’s early decades, visual artists were also exploring the compositional potential of moving images, using the emerging conventions of montage editing to produce what could be called the selective prehistory of screendance-as-experimental-film practice. Providing a contemporary commentary on these developments, Hungarian-born theorist Béla Balázs viewed montage as an art form in itself, capable of the highest levels of creative expression, and characterized it as “the mobile architecture of the film’s picture-material.”3 Balázs elaborates on this image in his description of the function of a “good” director, who “does not permit the spectator to look at a scene at random. He leads our eye inexorably from detail to detail along the line of his montage.”4

Emerging from this era, Rene Clair’s Entr’acte, created in Paris in 1924 as intermission entertainment for the Ballets Suédois, features an original score by Erik Satie and makes use of the narrative drive of dream logic. Recurring images thread through a developing scenario: the seam of a stocking visible across the sole of a foot, as a ballet-skirted dancer, petal-fringed from the waist-down, jumps in slow motion on a glass surface, filmed from beneath; and the zero-gravity like slow-motion bounce action of a funeral procession, chasing a camel-driven runaway hearse.

From the same year, Fernand Léger’s Futurist-tinged Ballet Méchanique, with cinematography by Dudley Murphy and Man Ray, builds an accretive montage of dislocated images, suggesting an era of increasing industrialization. George Antheil’s original score features staccato keyboard and factory-style sirens as shots of eyes, mouths, and faces, as well as the crown of a straw boater and the disembodied prosthetic legs of a shop-window dummy, are intercut with close-in framing of mechanical motion studies. Cylinders, pistons, and levers engage in kaleidoscopically arranged, apparently endlessly repeatable, optimally efficient movement, carrying out only the action for which they have been specifically designed. An older woman, in a long dark skirt, walks up stone steps toward the camera, with a sack slung across one shoulder, gesturing with her free arm and silently mouthing a verbal aside, cut off midstream in a repeating loop, and a ground-level sea of military-issue boots march past the camera.

Man Ray’s own work, Emak-Bakia, from 1926, continues experimentation with nontraditional narrative progression, exploring the abstracted play of light against surface; the close-up swivel action of lower legs and feet in a Charleston step; the silhouetted profile of a jumping gymnast, retracing the coordinates of his Marey-like movement pathway across the screen; and a box of paper collars, defying time and gravity by leapIng one-by-one from the frame.

An emergent language of “handmade” film, drawing on surrealist-influenced image composition, is also apparent in the flowering of creativity by British-based artists, who made films as advertising under the auspices of the London-based General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit, active from 1933 to 1940. Inspired by the traditions of Chinese shadow-play, German-born Lotte Reiniger made use of paper-cutting techniques to create intricately detailed silhouette shapes. In her dialogue-free animation The Tocher, created for the Unit in 1938, a kilted young man travels on horseback through a landscape of fir trees. Arriving at the shores of a lake, he encounters three tutu-clad winged fairies as a sylph arises en pointe from the heart of a flower. In New Zealand-born visual artist and kinetic sculptor Len Lye’s N or NW, made in 1938, isolated facial features of two quarreling lovers, attempting to settle their differences by mail, momentarily appear through rounded-edged, abstract-shaped holes in full screen-size handwritten letters. In Scottish-born Norman McLaren’s Love on the Wing, also created for the Unit in 1938, an animated line rises from a writing tablet, folds itself into envelope form. and flies out through a window. The line morphs into a never-settled cascade of associative imagery, such as eye/lips/kiss/heart, before folding up on itself in ever decreasing increments until a final dot disappears.

Roger Copeland has written of Hans Namuth’s film from 1950 of Jackson Pollock executing an action painting on to a glass surface while filmed from beneath. Copeland refers to the unintentional outcome of this collaborative experiment as “one of the world’s most significant dance films.”5 From the 1930s onward, both Lye and McLaren had pioneered entirely physicalized techniques for painting, drawing, and scratching on to celluloid, as so-called “direct film” In Colour Cry, created in 1952, Lye contrasts blocks of vivid color with floating spheres, mutating vertical lines, and grid patterns, corresponding to the musical cadences of Sonny Terry’s accompanying harmonica. Free Radicals, made in 1958, makes use of African drum music, setting starkly monochromatic visual elements against rhythmic changes. Many of the stylistic features of Free Radicals are revisited in Particles in Space, from 1979, where an abstract soundscape, generated by Lye’s kinetic sculptures, frees the onscreen movement from the harness of preexisting musical structure. In both works, scratches, specks, and particles coalesce and disintegrate, mimicking natural processes such as flocking birds and rising bubbles. Meanwhile, rapidly evolving string-like structures generate into star formations and rotate through three hundred sixty degrees. Both pieces resonate strongly with a sense of the inherent instability of matter and of physical form, as elements cohere and reamass in constant motion.

VERTICAL FORM

In 1953, experimental filmmaker Maya Deren took part in a symposium on poetry and film, presented by Cinema 16 in New York. Fellow panelists included the playwright Arthur Miller and the poet Dylan Thomas. At this event, Deren put forward a model for characterizing screen-based narrative progression, contrasting a notion of horizontal movement–shifting from one action-oriented event to another–with one of vertical progress. This, she asserted, represented an associative, poetically oriented exploration, where meanings inherent within “the ramifications of the moment” were subject to in-depth examination.6 While not initially well received, Deren’s theorizing has been more recently reappraised. Annette Michelson has read Deren’s model in relation to aspects of Roman Jakobson’s writing in the field of linguistic theory.7 Erin Brannigan has also identified parallels between Deren’s model of vertical progression and the Deleuzean notion of the time-image.8

With the benefit of hindsight, Deren’s model can be applied to image-based work situated outside of the twentieth century’s culturally dominant tradition of linear narrative, such as avant-garde dance/film pioneer Sara Kathryn Arledge’s fragmented, dance-form-based Introspection. Filmed in 1941/1946, a rotating head appears as a superimposed, triple-faced image, and disembodied hands reach outward toward the camera, as though from within a rotating circular structure. Both Deren and Arledge can be placed within an arguably overshadowed tradition of dance-informed independent screen practice, traceable through the output of artists including Doris Chase, Elaine Summers, Yvonne Rainer, and Amy Greenfield, all of whom were or are active within the North American avant-garde film movement of the mid- to late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

For many of these artists, exploration of new forms took place alongside active engagement with writing, lecture tours, and screening programs, as a means of broadening understanding and access. Emerging from this process, Deren’s appropriation of the term “choreographic” to describe her own screen practice is highly significant. Deren believed that non-dance-specific content can be interrelated “both immediately and over the film as a whole, according to a choreographic concept.”9 This moves decisively beyond the notion of categorizing “dance” film by identification of a recognizable end product, and opens out possibilities for choreographically oriented choice-making at all levels of process. In the socially ritualized “greeting” sequence of time-frozen party smiles and never-connecting handshakes from Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), movement normally perceived as “everyday” is manipulated and transformed by screenic means into a formally conceived set piece sequence. Deren also believed in moving beyond a partial engagement with context, stating that choreographic practice for the screen requires a totality of engagement with screen-related possibilities, where “the camera is not an observant, recording eye in the customary fashion. The full dynamics and expressive potentials of the total medium are ardently dedicated to creating the most accurate metaphor for the meaning.”10

To this end, Deren sets continuous movement phrasing against dislocating shifts of scene, achieved entirely by means of edit, in 1945’s Study in Choreography for Camera and 1948’s Meditation on Violence. For The Very Eye of Night, created in 1958, recognizably codified classical dance provides the work’s baseline movement vocabulary. However, this is used only as one element of a multistranded screen conception, which includes apparent disengagement from a background setting of “free-floating” superimposed content.

Choreographic engagement with screen processes can be identified in the evolving practice, traceable throughout the 1950s, of dance-trained filmmaker Shirley Clarke. In 1955, Clarke collaborated with choreographer/performer Anna Sokolow in Bullfight, intercutting enclosed, studio-set footage of Sokolow’s intense, ritualistic solo dance performance with documentary-style coverage of a matador, a crowd-filled stadium, and the stages of a bullfight through to the kill. In A Moment in Love, from 1956, Sokolow again provides recognizably codified dance content, as two young lovers, dressed in white, leap, stretch, part, and embrace through a series of outdoor locations. Clarke’s screen conception provides an additional layering of possibility, allowing the performers to move in and out of shot, visible against time-lapsed clouds, and to appear as fractured, partially abstracted reflections in darkened water.

For Bridges-Go-Round, created in 1958, Clarke was engaging directly with the compositional possibilities suggested by her subject matter, this time without the formalized input of a dance-step-maker. Against an arrhythmic jazz score, titles appear as the camera moves close-in across a rippled body of blue water. The Meccano-like structures of New York City bridges appear as abstracted patterning, with diagonally angled cables and wire meshing set against vivid background color blocking in pink, green, red, and blue. The moving camera appears to animate the curving pathways of girders and cropframes metallic crosshatching, echoing the appearance of celluloid film strip. The city skyline is seen first from across the river, later from the side-on camera perspective of a moving vehicle. This subsequently appears to travel under a stone overhead archway, crossing the bridge road toward a ghostly, superimposed Manhattan.

As the ideas and influences radiated out beyond their geographical points of origin, artists elsewhere emerged to engage and explore this tradition. In the early 1970s Britain, Sally Potter trained by day as a student in the newly established London School of Contemporary Dance, with evenings taken up by hands-on, practical experience at the London Filmmakers’ Co-op. Potter’s early short film works engage directly with strategies relating to image composition, rather than any depiction of pre-choreographed dance content, and include the dislocating, inorganic image progression of a series of front-on facial stills in Jerk, created in 1969, and the slowed, split-screen repetition of Play, made in 1970, where the camera’s window-set gaze is returned by curious, street-level children.

THE CHOREOGRAPHER AND THE DIRECTOR

In 1986, the London-based festival Dance Umbrella hosted an “experimental video” workshop; designed to explore the creative potential of new working partnerships drawn from the distinct professional fields of choreography and filmmaking. This approach to dance-film making represented a significant shift beyond the conventions, already well-established throughout North America and Europe, of televising preexistlng dance works that had originally been made for live performance.11

The workshop led directly to the creation of a program of new work, broadcast on British Channel 4 television in 1987 under the title Dance Lines 1, and on to further programming strands such as the BBC’s Dance for the Camera series, established in 1992 and underpinned by funding streams such as those available from the Arts Council of Great Britain.12 This combination of initiatives provided a recognizable professional pathway–comprising discrete stages of commission, production, and broadcast–for choreographers choosing to work within a screen context.

In Britain and elsewhere, the working model adopted at this time was that of traditional film and television production, with the accompanying, clearly demarcated hierarchy of professional functioning and an adoption of the conventions of a technically oriented “shoot.” This conformed to the pervading cultural dominance, already familiar to mass audiences through the legacy of Hollywood musicals and the then newly established MTV channel, of setting choreographic input as one constituent element within a much wider, technically privileged set of processes.

Over the course of the next two decades, as the form began to globally self-identify as “screendance” this model of production remained so enshrined as standard practice as to go largely unquestioned. Arguably, a set of recognizable, self-perpetuating screendance tropes, such as elements of linear narrative and use of exterior location, also hardened into convention, overshadowing a wider range of work integral to shaping the form.

For choreographers, the necessity to comply with funding criteria that required an enforced professional pairing with a technically minded director could raise highly problematic issues of authorship. Work created under these conditions could leave choreographers feeling as though they had sacrificed creative control in order to access funding, broadcast opportunities, technical expertise, and predetermined production values. Writing of such work, Sarah Rubidge observes that “this use of the compositional devices of the television director privileges the television medium. Indeed, it is the director’s vision, rather than the choreographer’s vision, which ultimately structures works approached in this way.”13

One of the highest profile works to emerge from this period was boy, created in 1995 by Rosemary Lee and Peter Anderson, funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain, and broadcast by the BBC as part of the Dance for the Camera series. Within the work, a lone prepubescent male explores a private world of imaginative play by inhabiting a pared-down natural landscape of shoreline, scrubland, and sea. In its recreation of the state of total absorption involved in childhood exploration, the piece suggests an episode occurring outside of a linear perception of time, reinforced through intermittent use of extreme close-up and slow motion. Lee and Anderson elected to work together on the project as a creative team, and the close interrelation of performer to landscape and of physical content to filmic representation convincingly blur the boundaries of a conventionally polarized choreographer-director partnership.

HYBRID PRACTICE

From around the turn of the twenty-first century, markedly increased accessibility to digital recording devices, home computers, and editing software packages enabled dance-trained artists to experiment with the translation of a choreographic skill set to screen-based processes, such as framing choice and pace of edit. This translation has also been explored through the emergence of a body of writing, approached from within an academic context, from the field of screendance. Karen Pearlman has outlined the overlap in function between the professional roles of the dance-trained artist and the film editor by focusing on physiologically oriented correspondences. Pearlman describes this as “tuning one’s own physical rhythms to the rhythms being perceived in the filmed material.”14 The notion of art-making as a physiological phenomenon has also been highlighted by experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who asserts that an artist’s output reflects an externalization of “the individual expression that can be attended by a person hearing himself sing and hearing his heart beat.”15

Work created by a range of artists who are fluent in both dance and screen-related processes has illustrated a postmillennial rise of what has become known as “hybrid practice.” Trained initially in dance, with subsequent study of digital imaging, Katrina McPherson has been creating work for screen for over two decades, in collaboration with long-standing creative partner Simon Fildes. Sense-8 created with Manchester-based Touchdown dance in 2001, records sighted and sight-impaired performers developing material through the medium of contact improvisation. The work begins in darkness, with a threading together of voices. Short, isolated phrases are interwoven to create an aural environment, where repeated word conjunctions function as a point of entry. Movement fragments and verbal description begin to coincide, placing the viewing experience deep within the movement environment. A highly sophisticated visual coding system is constructed, by use of an additional strand of surveillance-style, black-and-white footage, filmed in long shot, with video timecode visible in a corner of the frame. Viewers are made explicitly aware that what they are watching is both a product and a record of dual, unfolding processes.

Exploring a range of movement-related approaches, visual arts-trained filmmaker Alex Reuben’s dialogue-free image composition Newsreel, created in 2011, functions as a contemporary almanac of London-set artistic activism, fluidly relating unconnected visual episodes such as the white, translucent skins of tightly packed helium balloons; rapidly spinning waist and ankle-level kinospheric pathways, set in motion by park-based hula-hoopers; and a near-imperceptible real-time melt toward earth of a cross-generational, all-male outdoor performance ensemble.16 In The Elders, created in 2006, dance-trained director Lisa May Thomas makes use of poetic documentary form to translate to the screen a community-based dance project involving members of Bristol’s long-established African-Caribbean community. Thomas interweaves formalized, minimal movement content, such as close-in framing of hands and of mouths engaged in song, within a larger framework of creative elements, including participant voiceover and footage of migrant birds in flight.

Maya Deren, writing in the mid-twentieth century, outlined her recipe for artistic integrity, proposed in response to what she characterized as the “assembly line product” of traditional film industry practice. She cites “the enormous personnel of assistant directors, cameramen, lighting men, actors, and producers” as obstructions lying in the path of the film artist in the realization of their ideas.17 Deren further asserts that artists practicing in other disciplines are able to circumvent these problems, stating that “this is an obstacle which the poet, in his direct control over words, and the painter in his direct relationship to the canvas, does not confront.”18 Deren proposed that creative integrity is achievable “only when the individual who conceives the work remains its prime mover until the end, with purely technical assistance where necessary,”19 and for many twenty-first-century, hybrid dance/screen artists, ownership of expression has been achieved by working either alone or as part of small-scale teams in order to realize highly personalized creative visions.

Deren also asserted that production models should ideally be “scaled modestly enough to ‘afford’ failure,”20 and within the field of twenty-first-century screendance, the shift away from film and television industry production models and the re-embrace of small-scale, experimental production has coincided with a general decline in specialist funding schemes and broadcasting opportunities. However, significant global growth within the festival screening circuit has allowed for a wide range of new work to find exposure. Much of this has been necessarily less reliant on the high-gloss finish of film and television production, making greater use instead of ambient sound, studio settings, everyday clothing, and a consciously chosen range of image qualities, conforming to Deren’s assertion that “economy of means” should not be taken as “an unfortunate limitation on creativity or profundity.”21 Deren in fact viewed these limitations as a means to expand creativity, necessitating “a real examination and exploitation of the inherent possibilities of the camera, the cutting, and the film medium.”22

Set against this rapidly shifting landscape of funding, production, and screening opportunities, a renewed need for grassroots-level activism has seen a number of artists engaged in a much wider field of activity than the making of films, such as the interrelated areas of lecturing, writing, and conference organization. The practice of artists Lucy Cash and Becky Edmunds, working together under the name “straybird” has included a number of significant curatorial initiatives, such as the What if… 23 and What Matters Festivals, held in 2010 and 2012 at the Siobhan Davies Studios in London. For these events, work was installed throughout the building in order to question the conventions–often imported wholesale from the traditions of commercially oriented cinema screenings–of the sequentially ordered, ninety-minute, sit-down single-screen program. This model, which has often been used as the standard template for specialist screendance festivals, can induce a sense of overload in audiences presented with a tightly packed roster of carefully crafted, independent image worlds, more suited to the individually determined pathways of gallery-based viewing. Such alternative events have also focused on showcasing work which moves beyond a notion of translating prechoreographed material to a screen context, with inclusion of differing strands of contemporary practice, such as use of animation techniques and movement of the camera itself.

Recent work made within this expanded, hybridized field includes Magali Charrier’s Constellations of Things Learnt and Forgotten, created in 2012 as part of a residency for London Contemporary Dance School. The work maps out the geographical and emotional territory of a dance student’s everyday studio experience by use of ambient sound, collage, and penciled-in floor patterning. Lucy Cash’s use of voiceover, stop motion, and still image in 2008’s Requiem for the Redhead? constructs a clearly realized world of cartoon-like hyperreality, punctuated by bursts of pop culture pacing. Miranda Pennell’s You Made Me Love You, created in 2005, generates real-time flockIng behavior in a group of teenaged dance students, visually locked on to the cameras gaze and entirely and unselfconsciously immersed in task as they attempt to match the camera’s minimal, cat-and-mouse movement journey. In Skate, created by dance-trained videographer Becky Edmunds in 2009, a camera is placed in high-speed motion on ice-covered ground, anchoring viewing perspective within its spin-the-bottle rhythm, and revealing partially seen elements of surrounding snow-covered environment only as it intermittently comes to rest. Edmunds, describing her own practice, states that the decisions concerning the siting of the camera “feel instinctive, but they come from years of practicing placing my body in space as a dancer.”24 This approach also strongly resonates with Brakhage’s assertion that “cinematic dancing might be said to occur as any filmmaker is moved to include his whole physiological awareness in any film movement.”25

The smallness of scale and potential for creative immediacy evident within this range of work can resonate as an antidote to Deren’s perception of the “operational gigantism” of conventional industry-oriented production.26 In Nic Sandiland and Simon Aeppli’s Exosphere, created in 2002, a lightweight camera, attached to a line, is manipulated by a lone performer, enabling the viewer to experience its single-take physical journey. Varying proximity to the performer’s body and the landscape around it allows for a range of constantly shifting aleatory perspectives. As the lens moves past, close-in fragments of arm, face, and crown of a head are revealed. Later seen from the wide expanse of an overhead view, the performers’ movement vocabulary is entirely functional, combining walking with winding and circling of the camera’s line. In its physiologically oriented engagement, the piece echoes Brakhage’s assertion that “as the eye moves, the body is in movement.”27 Deren noted that “the camera can create dance, movement and action which transcends geography and takes place anywhere and everywhere,”28 and in Christopher Steel’s Welcome to Southside from 2008, the camera’s journey also forms the basis of the work. Multiple re-exposures of a single roll of film, shot from a moving vehicle’s interior, reconstitute a fragmentary, abstracted cityscape of night-lit neon, with viewing perspective located as though from within the immersive silence of a luminously technicolored snow globe interior.

Douglas Rosenberg has argued for the need for a radical rethinking of traditional screen-related choreographic process, observing that “in order for the video or cinedance to live, its original (the ‘choreography’) must be effaced or sacrificed in favor of a new creature.”29 It can he argued that choreographic practice for the screen has, in certain instances, reached a point of sufficient maturity to bypass Rosenberg’s notion of original choreographic content altogether, engaging directly with screen-related processes in ways that are wholly inseparable from context. It can also be argued that this evolutionary progression is currently manifesting in a diverse array of genre-crossing creatures in the form of artists engaged in hybrid practice. These artists, unconfined by the linearity of parallel tracks, inhabit instead areas of nonlinear, multidirectional intersection. Within these porous boundary zones, end-product-governed dance on screen transforms into an integrative, process-led notion of dance and screen, shaped by a skill set attuned to the somatic and identifiable as a specific, dance-inflected dialect within the many distinct languages of screen composition.

MOBILE AESTHETICS

The cultural landscape surrounding screendance has been transformed over the last two decades. A recent show of hands from a roomful of dance students at a North London university revealed a daily engagement with mobile technologies, social networking sites, and Internet-based moving images, providing a snapshot of the ubiquity of interaction with screen-based culture within this cross section of developed-world, twenty-first-century youth. Many dance-trained artists regard working with editing software programs as natural extensions of a domestic computer-based experience they have grown to take for granted, rather than excursions into a realm of privileged technical expertise.

Film editor Walter Murch has recently acknowledged the potential impact of digital technology, stating that “there are lots of other kinds of filmmaking possibilities opening up in the wide spectrum between home movies and feature films.”30 One such avenue can be tracked by examining the history of mobile filmmaking, dating from 2005, when cameras creating low-resolution, highly pixilated images were first incorporated into cell phones. Caridad Botella Lorenzo, outlining the development of this rapidly evolving field, notes the prosthetic properties of mobile cameras, stating that “they ‘insert’ a lens in everybody’s hand: capturing reality at any moment and place of the day has never been so accessible.”31 Botella Lorenzo also notes that “the aesthetics of mobile movie-making are ‘mobile’ not only due to the mobility of the devices but also due to their changing characteristics and constant state of evolution.”32 This analysis fits with the notion of the emergence of new potential for practice, enabling an immediate response to surroundings and circumstance, captured as a series of fragments or studies which may be complete in themselves or develop further into larger-scale projects. Botella Lorenzo characterizes these as “simple and spontaneous films shot from the hip, almost like a sketch or a memo.”33 While such work may be screened within the traditional physical spaces of the cinema or gallery, it also lends itself to more immediate, informal possibilities such as uploading for online viewing or file sharing.

Two contemporary image-makers exploring the potential of mobile devices are British-based Daniel Hopkins and Swedish artist Anders Weberg. Hopkins’ Movement #1, created in 2009, was shown in Liverpool as part of Moves Festival of Movement on Screen in 2010, and sets tripled horizontal stripes of blue-green motion blur, filmed from the window of a New York subway train, across the pathway of the screenspace. In Weberg’s Elsewhereness–Yokohama, created in 2008 with Robert Willim, layers of moving camera footage are superimposed to create a color-saturated blur of highrise skyline, city signage, and street level passersby. Meanwhile, in Nothingness/Three (2012), a static camera position captures the interior of a single domestic room, sparsely furnished by wooden chairs, as time-lapsed, diagonally slanted patternings of sunlight and shadow alternately lighten and darken as they pass across the space.

For dance-trained artists, the full potential for exploring the enhanced levels of mobility, immediacy, and accessibility presented by filming with mobile cameras has yet to be realized. Engagement with mobile technologies, however, is advancing within the form by other means. In 2013, British-based artists Ruth Gibson and Bruno Martelli, working under the joint title of “igloo,” developed a resource for use with mobile devices, tilted Mocapp, allowing end-user mapping of movement content onto a white, gap-jointed stick figure, as a preview facility for motion capture data. In addition, Passing Strange and Wonderful, originally created as a live duet work by Ben Wright, set a movement vocabulary of breath-rhythm-governed shifts, feints, and passes around the alternating axis of a central, upright figure. Translated to screen in 2011 by dance-trained director Marisa Zanotti, the informal rehearsal footage, lit by natural daylight, is intercut with close-in framing of the same material, filmed in black-box studio conditions and selectively illuminated by tightly focused shafts of light. In 2012, the screen work developed further into a Web-based educational resource. The app, specifically coded for use by smartphones and tablet devices, includes samples of raw, unedited footage, captured by a moving camera, with suggested practical tasks for studio-set exploration.34

Walter Murch has also observed, in relation to the shifting of practice-base currently being experienced by makers of moving image, that “celluloid right now is at the end …. of its developmental curve… but digital is at the start.”35 This new curve of creative possibility can allow for many of the conventions associated with twentieth-century, industry-focused filmmaking to be bypassed, presenting instead a new range of potential, corresponding more obviously to the pioneering spirit of late nineteenth-century innovation. Twenty-first century motion studies must address the range of ethical, practical, and creative implications presented by the emergence of new resources, such as hands-free wearable camera devices. Any attempt to predict how such technological potential will feed into the ongoing interrelationship of dance and screen could do worse than revisit the forward-facing observations of Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage, which resonate strongly for both fields:

Cameras do not make films; filmmakers 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.36

–Maya Deren

I do not think there is, as of now, any cine-dance worth mentioning as such; I do imagine there might be some day, through some dancer’s necessity, be something of some such; and I imagine the means of cinematography will be as simply taken as music now is and that the work of the dancer will, therefore, simply be called: Dance.37

–Stan Brakhage

NOTES

1. Andrew Pickering, “Practice and Posthumanism: Social Theory and a History of Agency,” in The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, ed. Theodore R Schatzki, Karin Knorr Cetina, and Eike Von Savigny (London: Routledge, 2001), 167/168.

2.  Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2002), 6.

3.  Béla Balázs, Theory of the Film Character and Growth of a New Art (London: Dennis Dobson Ltd., 1952), 47.

4. Ibid., 31.

5.  Roger Copeland. “Merce Cunningham and the politics of Perception,” in What is Dance?, ed. Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 308.

6.  Renata Jackson. “The Modernist Poetics of Maya Deren,” in Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 64.

7. Ibid., 65.

8.  Erin Brannigan, “Maya Deren, Dance, and Gestural Encounters in Ritual in Transfigured Time,” Senses of Cinema, October 2002, http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/22/deren/.

9.  Maya Deren, in Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren, ed. Bruce McPherson (New York: McPherson & Company, 2005), 225.

10.  Ibid., 255.

11.  Robert Penman, “Ballet and Contemporary Dance on British Television,” in Parallel Lines: Media Representation of Dance, ed. Stephanie Jordan and Dave Allen (London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1993), 120.

12.  The Arts Council of Great Britain is now called Arts Council England.

13.  Sarah Rubidge, “Recent Dance Made For Television,” in Parallel Lines: Media Representation of Dance, ed. Stephanie Jordan and Dave Allen (London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1993), 197.

14.  Karen Pearlman, “Cutting Rhythms,” quoted in Deidre Towers “Overview on Dance on Camera,” dance-tech.net, April 2011, http://www.dance-tech.net/profiles/blogs/background-articles-on-dance.

15.  Stan Brakhage in Essential Brakhage, ed. Bruce McPherson (New York: McPherson & Company, 2001), 124.

16.  Footage of Rosemary Lee’s Square Dances, 2011.

17.  Maya Deren, Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren, ed. Bruce McPherson, (New York: McPherson & Company, 2005), 20.

18. Ibid.

19.  Ibid., 23.

20.  Ibid., 156.

21.  Ibid., 243.

22.  Ibid., 158.

23.  Co-curated by Claudia Kappenberg, and Gill Clarke of Independent Dance.

24.  Becky Edmunds, e-mail message to author, May 9, 2006.

25.  Brakhage, Essential Brakhage, 132.

26.  Maya Deren, Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren, ed. Bruce McPherson (New York: McPherson & Company, 2005), 23.

27.  Stan Brakhage, Essential Brakhage, ed. Bruce McPherson (New York: McPherson & Company, 2001), 131.

28.  Maya Deren, Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren, ed. Bruce McPherson, 2005 (New York: McPherson & Company, 2005), 252.

29.  Douglas Rosenberg, “Videospace: A Site for Choreography,” http://www.dvpg.net, accessed 27 March 2013, http://www.dvpg.net/docs/videospace.pdf, 10/11.

30.  Walter Murch, quoted in Charles Koppelman, Behind The Seen (Berkeley: New Riders, 2005), 334.

31.  Caridad Botella Lorenzo, “The Mobile Aesthetics of Cell Phone Made Films: a Short History,” Cinemascope Independent Film Journal, July 2012, accessed 27 March 2013, http://cinemiz.net/cifj/?p=1385.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

34.  “Passing Strange and Wonderful” web app, http://www.p-s-w.co.uk.

35.  Walter Murch, quoted in Charles Koppelman, Behind The Seen (Berkeley: New Riders, 2005), 328.

36.  Maya Deren, Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren, ed. Bruce McPherson (New York: McPherson & Company, 2005), 18.

37.  Stan Brakhage, Essential Brakhage, ed. Bruce McPherson (New York: McPherson & Company, 2001), 132.

References

Balázs, Béla. Theory of the Film Character and Growth of a New Art. London: Dennis Dobson Ltd., 1952.

Botella Lorenzo, Caridad. “The Mobile Aesthetics of Cell Phone Made Films: a Short History.” Cinemascope Independent Film Journal. July 2012, accessed 27 March 2013. http://cinemiz.net/cifj/?p=1385.

Brakhage, Stan. Essential Brakhage, edited by Bruce McPherson. New York: McPherson & Company, 2001.

Brannigan, Erin. “Maya Deren, Dance, and Gestural Encounters in Ritual in Transfigured Time.” Senses of Cinema. October 2002. http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/22/deren/.

Copeland, Roger. “Merce Cunningham and the Politics of Perception.” In What is Dance?, edited by Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen, 307-325. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Deren, Maya. Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren, edited by Bruce McPherson. New York: McPherson & Company, 2005.

Doane, Mary Ann. The Emergence of Cinematic Time. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Forsythe, William. Improvisation Technologies. Karlsruhe: ZKM, 1999.

Jackson, Renata. “The Modernist Poetics of Maya Deren.” In Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, edited by Bill Nichols, 47-77. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Koppelman, Charles. Behind The Seen. Berkeley: New Riders, 2005.

Pearlman, Karen. “Cutting Rhythms.” In Towers, Deidre. “Overview on Dance on Camera.” dance-tech.net. April 2011. http://www.dance-tech.net/profiles/blogs/background-articles-on-dance.

Penman, Robert. “Ballet and Contemporary Dance on British Television.” In Parallel Lines: Media Representation of Dance, edited by Stephanie Jordan and Dave Allen, 101-127. London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1993.

Pickering, Andrew. “Practice and Posthumanism: Social Theory and a History of Agency.” In The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, edited by Theodore R Schatzki, Karin Knorr Cetina, Eike Von Savigny, 163-175. London: Routledge, 2001.

Rosenberg, Douglas. “Videospace: A Site for Choreography.” http://www.dvpg.net. Accessed 27 March 2013. http://www.dvpg.net/docs/videospace.pdf.

Rubidge, Sarah. “Recent Dance Made For Television.” In Parallel Lines: Media Representation of Dance, edited by Stephanie Jordan and Dave Allen, 185-217. London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1993.

Media

A Moment in Love (1956). Dir. Shirley Clarke.

Ballet Méchanique (1924). Dir. Fernand Leger.

Boy (1995). Dir. Rosemary Lee and Peter Anderson.

Bridges-Go-Round (1958). Dir. Shirley Clarke.

Bullfight (1955). Dir. Shirley Clarke.

Colour Cry (1952). Dir. Len Lye.

Constellation of Things Learnt and Forgotten (2012). Dir. Magali Charrier.

Elsewhereness – Yokohama (2008). Dir. Anders Weberg and Robert Willim.

Emak Bakia (1926). Dir. Man Ray.

Entr’acte (1924). Dir. Rene Clair.

Exosphere (2002). Dir. Nic Sandiland and Simon Aeppli.

Free Radicals (1958). Dir. Len Lye.

Introspection (1941, 1946). Dir. Sara Kathryn Arledge.

Jerk (1969). Dir. Sally Potter.

Love on the Wing (1938). Dir. Norman McLaren.

Meditation on Violence (1948). Dir. Maya Deren.

Movement #1 (2009). Dir. Daniel Hopkins.

N or NW (1938). Dir. Len Lye.

Newsreel (2011). Dir. Alex Reuben.

Nothingness/Three (2012). Dir. Anders Weberg.

Particles in Space (1979). Dir. Len Lye.

Passing Strange and Wonderful (2011). Dir. Marisa Zanotti.

Play (1970). Dir. Sally Potter.

Requiem for the Redhead? (2008). Dir. Lucy Cash. https://vimeo.com/32275524.

Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946). Dir. Maya Deren.

Sense-8 (2001). Dir. Katrina McPherson.

Skate (2009). Dir. Becky Edmunds. https://vimeo.com/61021114.

Study in Choreography for Camera (1945). Dir. Maya Deren.

The Elders (2006). Dir. Lisa May Thomas.

The Tocher (1938). Dir. Lotte Reiniger.

The Very Eye of Night (1958). Dir. Maya Deren.

Welcome to Southside (2008). Dir. Christopher Steel. https://vimeo.com/61720520.

You Made Me Love You (2005). Dir. Miranda Pennell.

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

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

https://www.facebook.com/LIFFscreendance/

http://www.leedsfilm.com/films/screendance-competition/

 

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.’

Motion Studies: Teaching Twenty-First Century Screendance

Article originally appeared in Bellyflop Magazine, March 2014

Lucy_Loughlin

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