Dance Film Comes of Age

By Stephanie Linakis


Several years ago, Cynthia Pepper selected Pascal Magnin’s Queens for a Day as an introduction to dance film for her advanced dance students at UC Berkeley. They were stunned. A choreographer and filmmaker herself, Pepper remembers well how the first dance film she saw made such an impact that it changed her DNA. Her students saw live dance on a regular basis, and yet unfamiliar with the intoxicating powers of dance on screen, were strangers to the poetic and abstract thinking offered by the art form known as dance film.

A brief history. When Thomas Edison invented the motion picture camera over a hundred years ago, he enlisted dancers to test his equipment. In an early Edison-produced short, we see Annabelle Moore performing Serpentine Dance, choreographed by Loie Fuller. Dancers, therefore, were featured on the very first celluloid film ever captured. In the early 20th century dance persisted in film through silence, thanks to Charlie Chapman and Buster Keaton, and through vaudeville.

In the industrial era of the ‘30s, dance film was colored by the choreography of machines, graphics, and animation. In the 1940s, Maya Deren, American avant-garde filmmaker, film theorist, dancer, and choreographer, is credited for moving dance film “beyond machinery, plots, tricks and dance as decoration.” A student of Katherine Dunham and avid researcher of Haitian voodoo and trance, Deren sanctified the experience of her audience, and pushed dance film into a new era of experimentation. Around the same time, Margaret Mead was documenting trance and dance in Bali, and asserted the imperative of film in anthropologic fieldwork. But dance film prior to the 1940s is mostly available in collections under titles such as Unseen Cinema, a paradox that perpetuates the misconception that dance film is a new form of the last 20 years. In fact, dance film has been around since the beginning of film. Only recently it has become popularized due to increased means of viewing such as film festivals and internet technology.

A dance film, as defined by the Dance Films Association (DFA), “is one in which dance and film/video are both integral to a work…. a unique work that could only be realized in the cinematic realm.” The genre is distinguished from archival records of stage or site specific dance compositions. “Over the years,” explains Lynette Kessler, Founder and Director of the Dance Camera West (DCW) Film Festival in Los Angeles, “a new art form has emerged as a result of ongoing experimentation between choreographers and directors.”

The proscenium for dance film is the frame of the camera. Deirdre Towers, Artistic Director of DFA, explains how “context, whether psychological, historical, or locational, is something that a choreographer can easily clarify with film.” Close-ups, location changes, aerial angles, the balance of foreground/background, and montage all contribute to the individual design of each frame and, according to Towers, allow for the “appreciation of small movements, emotional bonding with the performers, and idea development.” Dance film invites the viewer to feel a part of the dance, in contrast to choreography for the stage that sets the viewer apart. The power of pathways, rhythms, shapes, patterns and forms create a more visceral, as opposed to kinesthetic, experience for the audience. Our imaginations are transported to new locations to view “princesses in their castles; soldiers in their fields; drinkers in their pubs,” explains Kelly Hargraves, cofounder of DCW.

At the intersection of media and performance, dance film is a playground for collaboration between choreographers, filmmakers, dancers, and other artists. Both choreographers and filmmakers spawn projects, with some of the best work being made by masters of both disciplines (Edouard Lock’s La La Human Steps, Wim Vandekeybus’ Ultima Vez, and Lloyd Newson’s DV8 Physical Theater, for example). DFA provides services and organizes events to foster collaborations between dancers and filmmakers including publications, artist development, fiscal sponsorship, workshops, and a database of dance film/video distributors. “Recognizing that artistic inspiration is often fueled by constant dialogue and unexpected partnerships,” says Kessler, “we have sought to provide a forum that allows this emerging body of work to experience the dynamic growth that it needs.”

The most fertile, and the most exciting, feature of dance film organizations are their festivals.

In the U.S., DFA’s annual Dance on Camera Festival provides an overview of the field and a meeting ground for artists, curators, and scholars to share ideas. After a futile search for films on Isadora Duncan, Susan Braun established DFA in 1956 and Dance on Camera in 1971. Based in New York, the festival tours nationally and internationally. This year, programs range from shorts, documentaries, screen adaptations and retrospectives, to installations. Highlights include films by and about Japanese artists Eiko and Koma choreographing for Cambodian students of painting; a classically trained Russian ballerina responding to the aesthetic demands of Bill T. Jones; and Josephine Baker making the leap from Harlem musical revues and the Broadway chorus to international fame.

The Dance Camera West Dance Film Festival takes place annually in June and is a city-wide event in Los Angeles. DCW showcases modern dance, post modern dance, world dance, tap dance, and dance theater. The festival selects about 50 films of the approximately 250 submissions it receives every year. Work comes in from almost every country, from Africa to Uruguay and from London to Berlin.

Dance film festivals are proliferating and the festival format that Susan Braun started in 1971 for Dance on Screen has been copied by almost every country in Europe. DFA lists about forty dance film festivals worldwide on their website, although only a dozen or so happen consistently. The genre looks like it will continue its expansive growth as dance media programs are being adopted at several American universities, including the University of Utah, University of Ohio, and UC Irvine in California.

Although it is a rich field, in the Bay Area dance film enthusiasts constitute more of a circle than a scene. Cynthia Pepper created the FOOTAGE Dance Film Festival in 1997, the first dance film festival on the West Coast to showcase international dance films, which enjoyed seven popular years at venues throughout the Bay Area. For the past nine years, San Francisco Performances’ Dance/Screen series, curated by Charlotte Shoemaker, has presented a collection of international dance films in a one-evening program at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Unfortunately, SF Performances discontinued Dance/Screen this year and Shoemaker is currently seeking a new presenter. The San Francisco International Film Festival and Mill Valley Film Festival screen dance films. San Francisco filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine received popular, international acclaim for Ballets Russes, their documentary and archival ode to the eponymous revolutionary twentieth-century dance troupe. And a handful of dedicated local artists steadily create and submit dance films to national and international festivals. “There is a need and a want for a dance film festival in the Bay Area,” Cynthia Pepper exclaims. Even as the hub for independent filmmaking in the country, however, the dance film community in the Bay Area faces challenges similar to those of other American dance communities: inadequate funding and limited audiences.

Despite the obstacles the torchbearers of dance film see a bright future for their art. Dance on Camera and DCW routinely delight sold-out audiences. In L.A., DCW packs theaters full of techies, hipsters, producers, directors and other artists, “bringing the often underexposed form of dance to audiences in the familiar language of film. This is work, not entertainment,” clarifies Kessler on the genre of dance film. “Work that helps you think and feel…. The world is really intrigued by this work, and it’s a way of creating audiences for dance. As people watch it online or on screen, they’re more apt to see live dance and, at the same time, dance film is morphing into a new art form.”

In recent years, the Internet, Final Cut Pro, and iMovie have ushered in a boom of new dance film and video, detonating dance technology in countless new directions. It is hard to find a commercial on American television these days that is not choreographed. During the month of May, Voice of Dance held an online dance contest in response to the growing interest in dance video online. “This new visual language is exploding exponentially due to affordable access to new technology and the deft aesthetics of today’s artist,” Kessler rejoices. The mastery of location, music, and lighting in seminal dance films such as The Cost of Living, Rosas Danst Rosas, and Amelia demonstrate that the art requires more than good technology. Cynthia Pepper cautions the self-producing choreographer to “hire a director.” Dance film is inexpensive to project, but expensive to produce. Having just spent 17 months on a five-minute film, Pepper’s experience is that dance film is “mind-boggling and grueling, wonderful work, requiring all of one’s time and money.”

Whether referred to as “chorecinema” (as in the ‘30s and ‘40s), dance video in the ‘70s and ‘80s, or — more recently — dance on camera, screen dance, and dance media, this filmic, moving picture media, “not only informs us about all kinds of dance, it provides another lens that enables us to appreciate rhythms in nature and all walks of life,” as declared by the Dance Films Association mission statement. Deirdre Towers, who inherited half a century of dance film when she assumed leadership of the DFA, believes that the genre is still in its infancy. As the model of touring for dance companies changes, dance film continues to evolve, freeing itself from the conventions of its predecessors, and shaping the state of the art in movement and media.

This article appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of In Dance.