On Teaching Screendance: Two-Way Traffic and Maya Deren’s Theory of Vertical Narrative Progression

Text of a paper presented at Exploring the The Screen as Site for Choreography, University of Bristol, in April 2009

By way of contextualisation, I’m going to talk a little about how this paper evolved, and about my own background in screendance. I studied the field for three years as part of a programme of academic research, and this involved making work, having it shown, attending festivals in Britain and elsewhere, and writing about the whole process within academic and review-based contexts. As a natural progression from all of this activity, I was asked last year to give a series of lectures as part of the Dance Performance course at Middlesex University and this gave me the opportunity to stand back, take stock and question what I wanted to present on a critical and conceptual level.

Within a professional context, opportunities to make work conforming to traditional, film and television industry-led models are scarce. However, within the sector, a range of highly screen-literate artists can be seen to adapt their creativity to developing work outside of the margins of traditional funding and production structures. Within the festival circuit, there is a sense of the genre opening out to look beyond its own borders, as categorisation and boundaries increasingly shift and blur. Reciprocity of influence – the two-way traffic of the title – is an area which has often been marginalised or overlooked, as the artform acknowledges its developmental debt to other traditions and methods of practice, but is only beginning to find a language capable of articulating the legacy that a dance trained artist brings to the creation of work for screen.

The work that I chose to present exists within the margin of overlap between choreographic orientation and aspects of screen-related history and practice. Each of the pieces charts the migration of choreographic function beyond traditional notions, widening parameters and inviting context-specific definitions, and, significantly, each fits across cracks within the artform’s categorisation modes. I specifically did not want to present the students with work conforming to an overfamiliar set of screendance tropes, with pre-choreographed material translated to a screen context. This paper has developed in part from post-viewing discussions, with student views touching on a number of highly relevant issues, including the role of the Director and the process of direction; the importance of intentionality and produced an enquiry which could stand as an alternative title for this paper, ‘Who decides what’s dance?

I also want to contextualise by talking about my own involvement within the process of writing. Screendance is a sparsely-populated community, whose members – like the inhabitants of a small island – fulfil multiple and often overlapping roles which can include maker, lecturer, spectator, researcher, workshop leader, reviewer, curator, festival or conference organiser at any given time. My own activities place me within a number of interlinked categories, often writing about the work of people who are a part of my professional world, and who I have known over long timespans. While I have no pretensions towards framing myself as a disinterested ‘outside eye’, I do like to think that I can stand sufficiently to one side to discern patterns, create groupings and add a highly-personalised commentary, as one voice and viewpoint among many, to the work I see developing around me.

As this is a paper dealing in part with narrative forms, I’m going to begin with a story. In 1953, avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren presented a paper in New York at a symposium on poetry and film. Fellow panellists included the playwright Arthur Miller and the poet Dylan Thomas. At this event, Deren put forward a model for evaluating screenbased narrative progression, contrasting a notion of horizontal movement, shifting from one action-oriented event to another, with that 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 (in Jackson in Nichols, 2001, p.64). While not initially well received, Deren’s theorising 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 (in Jackson in Nichols, 2001, p.65). Erin Brannigan has also identified parallels between Deren’s model of vertical progression and the Deleuzean notion of the time-image (Brannigan, 2002, contents/02/22/deren.htm.

Within the context of this paper, Deren’s notion is presented as central to an understanding of the work of three contemporary makers of moving image. While the work does not concern itself with the performance of codified movement content, it will be argued that dance-derived practices, mutating within context-specific forms, influence the highly personalised set of compositional strategies used by each practitioner. The work will also be located within a contemporary ecology of dance work for screen, drawing on practitioner writing in addition to a range of cultural and historical influences.Reflecting the array of options open to contemporary practitioners, film maker Stan Brakhage has written of the shifting status and perception of his own roles within the context of film production, by stating that

I have contributed to many commercial films as ‘director’ , ‘photographer’, ‘editor’, ‘writer’, ‘actor’ even ‘grip’, etcetera, and sometimes in combination of all of these. But mostly I have worked at home and alone on films of seemingly no commercial value

(Brakhage in McPherson, 2001, p.142

Brighton-based Marisa Zanotti’s professional history is as a performer and dance maker, currently developing screenbased work as a Director within a traditional production context. From At The End Of The Sentence , created in 2005, an initial monochromatic image of a disembodied torso foregrounds the slowed movement pathway of a whirling rope, followed by a montage sequence reducing morning-set daily preparations to a series of nine shots. As a wealth of information is contained within this sequence, it is worth examining in detail. A half-open bedroom door frames a single male character, seated on the side of a bed. Compositionally reminiscent of the work of figurative painter Edward Hopper, the angularity of the door frame is balanced by the vertical patterning of a stairway, partially visible by the outer edge of the frame. Sound intrudes on solitude, as the electronic harshness of a clock radio alarm initiates the underlying rhythmic urgency of a continuously ticking clock. A top shot of a dresser and chair discloses the trappings of an ordered masculine world: a neatly folded shirt; an arrangement of coins, keys and comb. A back view of a kitchen-set head follows, as an egg is loudly cracked, and a textual countdown begins with a minimal call of ‘fifteen minutes’. Two bathroom-set shots disclose the back of a head, the sound of water, the reflection of a face, as the countdown reaches ‘eight minutes’. A disembodied kitchen-set hand measures a serving of oats; a kettle whistles in the foreground, and a figure calls ‘five minutes’ before leaving shot. A table-top view as porridge is poured, and the count reaches ‘one minute’.Zanotti’s directorial input can be read from a choreographic perspective in relation to the parallel processes of framing and edit. The role of the latter has been specifically addressed by Karen Pearlman in an outlining of the overlap in function between the professional roles of the dance trained artist and the film editor. Pearlman has expanded on the physiologically-oriented correspondences inherent within the editing process, which she describes as ‘tuning one’s own physical rhythms to the rhythms being perceived in the filmed material’ (undated, dancefilms.org/Abouteduaction.html, p.3). Stan Brakhage has also made reference to the process of art-making as a physiological phenomenon, asserting that an artist’s input reflects an externalisation of ‘the individual expression that can be attended by a person hearing himself sing and hearing his heart beat’ (in McPherson, 2001, p.124). As Director, Zanotti moves the viewer through the particulars of domestic habitation, touring bedroom, bathroom and kitchen in thin-sliced micro-segments as a cumulative gathering of detail, while isolated instances of gestural movement are interwoven with rhythmically precise sonic counterpoint. Information on the specifics of emotional shading is amassed at high speed, in a close-knit fusion of constituent elements, heavily weighted towards the non-verbal. Characters are glimpsed in physically fragmented, temporally isolated moments, and this compositional fluency can be attributed to Zanotti’s professional lineage, approached through the framework of a highly personalised, choreographically-derived skillset, and manifest within the arena of short film.

Fellow Brighton-based artist Becky Edmunds’ professional background lies within the fields of improvised dance and live art, with a substantial body of experience developed within the highly specialist practice of dance videography. Recent screenbased work has been created in partnership with sound artist Scott Smith and dance artist Gill Clarke, and This Place, dating from 2008, makes use of a range of readily-identifiable compositional strategies in a diffuse and non-linear exploration of location. The work begins with a minimal soundscape of sporadic, industrial noise. Set against a darkened screen, this device provides a recurring baseline of visual referencing. A contrasting white screen state, used as counterpoint, forms a basis for the appearance of flickering, architectural detail, initially disclosed in part. The viewing eye is guided through a scaffolded cross-hatching of wood and metal, while the seemingly solid man-made verticals of brick-built towers and grooved metallic tracking appear to shimmer and undulate in the camera’s gaze. The screenspace contracts to accommodate the sharp angles of signage, and the piece ends in a shot series on the greyscaled textural detail of blocked stone

Video artist Bill Viola has articulated the notion of embodied knowledge, deriving from professionally-related practices, stating

I first started using a video camera when I was 21. I had to think about where I was pointing it, how I was using it, what the light was, and so on. And this process was not only technical, it had a direct effect on the content of my work. Then I used that camera for twenty years, and that 21-year old part of me who was struggling with composition and lighting is now something deeper, and has migrated to my hand, so that the center (sic) of consciousness has moved from my conscious mind to my hand. My hand now ‘knows’ where to put the camera, which I do quite naturally, when I encounter a new location

(Viola, 1998, p.272)

This sentiment is echoed by Edmunds in a description of her own practice, where she states that the decisions made, involving the siting of the camera in relation to her subjects, ‘feel instinctive, but they come from years of practising placing my body in space as a dancer’ (2006, email). 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’ (in McPherson, 2001, p.132). Edmunds’ camera practice provides a clear example of kinaesthetically aware engagement with the act of filming, translating into a strongly physiologically-based viewing response. Within the work, the eye is led along a trail of textural minutiae and visual information is disclosed within carefully controlled increments, woven within a tightly regulated framework. Atmospheric tone is generated within an angular matrix of visual patterning, ultimately disrupted and mobilised by camera effect. Extreme selectivity of focus and distortion of scale feature as aspects of Edmunds’ compositional strategizing. Elements traceable from improvised performance and dance documentation synergistically combine, finding a fit within the screening contexts of documentary and artists film.

Brakhage has also observed that the original meaning of cinematographer is ‘writer of movement’ (2003, DVD interview), and in London-based short filmmaker Christopher Steel’s Welcome to Southside from 2008, camera journey forms the basis of the work. Multiple re-exposures of footage shot from a moving vehicle interior creates an abstracted cityscape of night-lit neon. From opening darkness, white flecks converge into the overlaid markings of a central circular structure, gradually cohering and then dissipating. The outline of bridge supports festoon the screen as curving strings of brightness, and confectionary-coloured specks cloud like fireflies against the steady peripheral motion of passing lights. Shown in silence, and as a continuous, unedited take, the visuality of the work is heightened and removed from the constraints of linear time, with a quality of atmospheric otherness, reminiscent of the photographic travel studies of Oscar Marzaroli, blurring specificity of detail into an etheric residue of city-based transience.

Brakhage has written with specific reference to the movement of the natural elements in Deren’s A Study in Choreography for Camera from 1945, asserting that,

when she pans across the trees in the beginning, they ‘strobe’ because she was shooting at the wrong speed. The effect is magical. They are in a state of dance.

(Brakhage, 1989, p.98)

Steel’s use of camera motion transforms the non-natural aspects of his surroundings, with composite elements arguably attaining Brakhage’s notion of ‘a state of dance’. The constant motion of passage locates the viewing eye within a kinaesthetically-oriented experience, generating an internalised rhythmic response to the out-of-time negotiation of external landscape. While not located as a practitioner within a dance tradition, Steel’s work can clearly be contextualised in relation to the filmic avant-garde, where the legacy of makers such as Norman McLaren and Len Lye problematises traditional genre demarcation. Generally shown within the remit of experimental short film programming, Steel’s work crossed a contemporary threshold of categorisation by recent inclusion within the screendance festival circuit.

When viewed from within the parameters of Deren’s notion of vertical progression, all three works concern themselves with the ‘ramifications of the moment’, layered into a poetically-oriented mesh of image-states, with a sense of linear time distorted, truncated or collapsed. Zanotti’s opening montage makes accretive use of isolated detail as a means of building character and context, while Edmunds’ selective disclosure of visual patterning constructs over time an immersive viewing environment, and Steel’s conceptualisation of cityscape as overlaid amalgam transcends the particulars of location, transforming everyday experience into auric abstraction. Deren’s model of non-linear verticality can be viewed as a key characteristic of the territorial overlap between screendance and experimental film practice, and can also provide a theoretical grounding for aspects of compositional arrangement often favoured by dance trained artists. In this instance, Deren’s model also provides a unifying ground of approach to a range of work, which, when viewed together, can be seen to represent, in diversity of conceptualisation and execution, a sampling of options available to contemporary screenbased artists.

The transformation of that climate within recent memory is starkly foregrounded by referencing the limited pool of specialist writing on screendance. In 1993, the then Arts Council of Great Britain published an anthology, edited by Stephanie Jordan and Dave Allen, on the emergent genre of dance work created for screen. Reflecting a period where four terrestrial television channels were dominant, the text evokes a world where dance and screen culture represented two entirely separate fields of specialist knowledge and working practice, providing a rationale for the title of the book, Parallel Lines (p.vi). Sixteen years on from publication, the cultural and creative landscape surrounding screendance is entirely unrecognisable. A show of hands from the dance students at Middlesex revealed a daily engagement with mobile technologies, social networking sites and internet-based moving image, providing a snapshot of the ubiquity of interaction with screenbased culture for this cross-section of twenty first century youth. Many dance trained artists regard working with the software programs iMovie or Final Cut Pro as natural extensions of a computer-based culture they have grown to take for granted, rather than excursions into a realm of privileged technical expertise. Ripples from the waves of cultural change can be identified in convergence points across a range of contemporary artforms, including dance, film and video, requiring a redefinition of traditional practices in the process of adaption to changing circumstance and possibility. Artists are operating within an irrevocably altered cultural context, and Betty Redfern has noted the correspondence between artistic process and environmental influence, asserting that ‘the work of even the most highly creative artist grows out of the habits and thoughts and feelings integral to the society to which he belongs’ (1983, p.38).

A brief historical exploration reveals parallels within the pace of twenty-first century technical development and the industrial innovations, arguably facilitating the emergence of moving image, of the nineteenth. Wolfgang Schivelbusch has written of the phenomenon of ‘panoramic seeing’, which, he asserts, emerged during the nineteenth century as a direct consequence of the new social phenomenon of the railway journey. Andrew Pickering has commented on this railway-mediated characterisation 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’ (Pickering in Schatzki, Knorr Cetina and von Savigny, 2001, p.67/8). Against such a backdrop of rapid industrial development, introducing railway travel and telegraphic communication to the American west, Eadweard Muybridge famously produced a series of photographs in California in 1872 revealing the stride-action of a race-horse. Without Muybridge’s technological innovation in relation to the mechanics of shutter-release, precise details of high-speed movement had previously been imperceptible to the human eye, and Rebecca Solnit has commented that this experimentation began a process ’revealing the secret world of motion’ (Solnit, 2003, p.83). Dance filmmaker Douglas Rosenberg has also commented that Muybridge’s motion studies ‘anticipated what we have come to call video dance by some one hundred years’ (undated, http://www.dvpg.net/essays.html.p.9).

Within a contemporary context, Rosenberg has also argued for the need for a radical rethinking of traditional screen-related choreographic process, observing that

in order for the video or cine-dance to live, its original (the ‘choreography’) must be effaced or sacrificed in favour of a new creature.

(Rosenberg, undated, http://www.dvpg.net/essays.html, p.10/11)

It can be argued that choreographic practice for 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 which are wholly inseparable from context, and that this evolutionary progression is currently manifesting in a diverse array of genre-crossing creatures as artists and viewers, not confined within the linearity of parallel tracks, but inhabiting areas of non-linear, multidirectional intersection.

The task of articulating the kinaesthetic engagement of artists with the processes of filming and editing, and of how that engagement can transmit to viewers, appears entirely appropriate to makers of, and commentators on, the genre of screendance. Read in this way, the ‘state of dance’, as explored within twentieth-century avant-garde film by Deren, Brakhage, McLaren, can provide both raw material and method of approach relevant to contemporary screenbased practitioners such as Zanotti, Edmunds and Steel, mediated through a range of twenty-first century production options.

I’m going to leave the last word to the students, and to providing at least in part an answer to their question which began the paper. Reading a screenbased image, including the procedures involved in its construction and it’s many possible interpretations, from a choreographic perspective requires an underlying affirmation of the validity of such an undertaking. This event seems to me to highlight the timeliness and importance of this ongoing process, with all of us here to engage for ourselves, both individually and collectively, in the ongoing task of deciding what can be read as dance within a screen context, and how that task might be achieved.

Bibliography:

Brakhage, S. 1989 Film at Wit’s End: Essays on American Independent Filmmakers Edinburgh, Polygon
Brannigan, E. undated Maya Deren, Dance, and Gestural Encounters in Ritual in Transfigured Time http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/02/22/deren.html – accessed 13.11.06
Jordan, S. and Allen, D. (eds.) 1993 Parallel Lines: Media Representation of DanceLondon, The Arts Council of Great Britain
McPherson, B. (ed.) 2001 Essential Brakhage New York, McPherson & Company
Nichols, B. (ed.) 2001 Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde Berkeley, University of California Press
Pearlman, K. undated Editing Rhythms http://www.dancefilms.org/Abouteducation.html – accessed – 21.2.07
Redfern, B. 1983, Dance, Art & Aesthetics London Dance Books Ltd
Rosenberg, D. undated Video Space: A Site for Choreographywww.dvpg.net/essays.html – accessed – 19.11.06

Schatzki, C, Knorr Cetina, K, von Savigny, E. (eds.) 2001 The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory London, Routledge

Solnit, R. 2003 Motion Studies London, BloomsburyViola, B. 1998 Reasons for Knocking At An Empty House Cambridge, MIT Press

Videography:

Brakhage, S. 2003 by Brakhage: an anthology The Criterion Collection
Edmunds, B. 2008 This Place Field Production
Steel, C. 2008 Welcome to Southside
Zanotti, M. (Dir.) 2005 At The End of The Sentence Oxygen Films