What draws a choreographer from the realm of the stage, where time and space play by predictable rules, to the screen, where the familiar fades and orientation is subject only to the imagination? For Ellen Bromberg, dance/media specialist, 2006 Guggenheim Fellow, and University of Utah professor, the answer lies in the simultaneous sense of freedom and control that film affords. The recipient of two Isadora Duncan Awards, a Bonnie Bird American Choreographer Award, a Pew National Dance/Media Fellowship and numerous grants, Bromberg’s 30-year career has taken her between Arizona, Utah and the Bay Area. This Fall, Dancers’ Group will present three films curated by Bromberg. The event will help raise money for the Parachute Fund, a program of Dancers’ Group which assists members of the dance community facing the free fall of AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses. I recently caught up with Ellen by email to learn more about her experience in the exciting and fast-growing international genre of dance film.
ID: After dancing professionally in Salt Lake City, you spent ten years as an independent choreographer in the Bay Area dance scene, during which you became interested in dance film. What drew you to the genre?
Bromberg: When I was in the Bay Area in the ‘80s I was active primarily as a choreographer who was given the opportunity to make two video dances for KQED. The first film, Still Moving, was part of a program produced by Joanne Kelly, called 4 Dances for Television. I made an absolutely dreadful piece, but loved the learning process and was intrigued by how the frame of the camera changed the way I saw dance.
The second film was co-commission by KQED and KTCA (Minneapolis/St.Paul) for PBS’ Alive From Off Center. For this project I was to re-conceive a stage work, The Black Dress, for the screen, rather than create something new. By having to translate an existing work, I was more able to understand how the camera provided experiential differences in the perception of time, space and kinesthesia, and provided 3-dimensional viewing of the dancers’ bodies. I could see something very different in the movements and forms of the piece, and this opened up a whole new realm of possibilities. It was in the editing room however, that I really began to understand the nature of this medium and I made a mental note that once I was no longer engaged with dance in the way that I had been, I would pursue dance and media.
I say media and not just video or film because at that same time in the ‘80s, I was first introduced to word processing and digital graphics. I knew that these new technologies, while transforming all aspects of communication and culture, were going to play a part in my future art-making practice, although I really didn’t know how at the time.
I proceeded to take classes at BAVC and at Video Free America. I also attended the Merce Cunningham/Elliot Caplan workshop offered through the Bay Area Dance Coalition.
So, to return to your question, what drew me to this genre were the opportunities to engage with movement and image in new ways as a choreographer, and to begin to understand this medium from the inside out.
ID: You are now an Associate Professor at the University of Utah, where, along with composition, you teach technology and media theory. How do dance films factor into your teaching?
Bromberg: When I was first invited to the University of Utah, it was to initiate a Dance/Media curriculum. This took many forms and has gone through a number of phases. Technology has been integrated into both the undergraduate and graduate curriculum in the form of basic portfolio presentation skills: Photoshop, web design, DVD authoring, and basic shooting and editing using iMovie. These have become standard tools for the business of dance.
My graduate course focuses primarily on the theory and practice of dance for the camera. What interests me most is facilitating the perceptual shift that takes place when moving from the frame of the proscenium to the frame of the camera, so in the class there is a layering of experiential exercises with the viewing of dance films. While students learn how to shoot for different purposes (for strict documentation, for marketing, etc.) the focus of this particular class is on how we see, feel and create movement through the camera.
What has been extremely gratifying to me is that as the students and faculty embrace this medium for dance making, it has become integrated into other courses. For example, a student can submit a dance film to fulfill other creative assignments in classes other than my own. And many graduate students focus on dance for the camera as their primary creative research for their MFA degrees.
ID: What qualities do you and your students discuss when evaluating dance films?
Bromberg: Of course, just as if you were asking about dance on stage, this is a huge question. There is a broad range of genres within dance on film, from Busby Berkeley to Maya Deren, from Jerome Robbins to Amy Greenfield, from the musical Chicago to the work of Charles Atlas and Elliot Caplan. Each of these artists asks different questions about movement, narrative, time and space via the camera frame. I approach my students similarly by asking questions such as:
• What are the compositional terms established in the film?
• Is there a narrative in the film and if so, how is it communicated?
• What is the location and how does that effect how you read the piece? Why is the piece in this location?
• What is the movement language and how does the camera reveal it? How does that movement relate to the location?
• How is space used within the shooting of movement (the space of the frame as well as the space of the location)?
• Is the camera still or moving and how does this effect the sensation of the movement? How is kinesthesis re-presented in this medium?
• How is time crafted through editing?
These are some of the general questions we discuss, but each film will generate more specific inquiry.
ID: How did you choose the three films picked for Dancers’ Group’s International Dance Film Screening coming up in the fall?
Bromberg: I have screened two of these films (Dom Svobode and The Cost of Living) in numerous festivals and they have been very well received. This is the first time I’m screening One Flat Thing, Reproduced. Each film represents a different approach and I wanted to show a broad range of what dance film is. Dom Svobode brings what I consider to be a developed movement language into unusual locations, creating mini-site-specific pieces within a larger framework of a loose social commentary (the post-war reconstruction of cultural identity). One Flat Thing, Reproduced combines the virtuosic movement of William Forsythe with the equally virtuosic filmmaking of Thierry De Mey (who also edited the final breathtaking scene of Dom Svobode). And, The Cost of Living presents a multi-layered deeply moving narrative that integrates movement and social commentary, choreographed and directed by DV8’s Lloyd Newson. I considered screening numerous shorts, but because the location is in a formal theater, I thought I’d focus on longer films. I was interested in presenting a diverse range of works that I thought Bay Area audiences would appreciate.
ID: Dance films are enjoying a growing popularity around the globe — in fact all three of the films you’ve picked for the Dancers’ Group event are international. What factors do you see contributing to the growth of the genre? Do you feel there are defining characteristics that distinguish dance films from certain countries?
Bromberg: Yes, dance film is burgeoning around the world with new festivals and workshops appearing annually. I would attribute this to the proliferation of digital technology and the fact that, for better or for worse, we are living more of our lives on the screen. From low-cost digital cameras and user-friendly editing programs such as iMovie, to the massively successful grass roots broadcast/distribution vehicle YouTube, the field has completely transformed in the few years (and it does seem only like a few) since my first experiences. I also feel that in recent years, dance for the stage has hit a plateau of sorts. Dance media in all of its permutations has challenged ways of thinking about dance, challenges that have usually arisen from within the art form itself. Along with practices of integrating media in live performance, telematics, hyperdance, and interactivity, it has also been interesting to see how choreographers quote from cinematic concepts in the creation of works for the stage; shifting points of view, jump cut transitions, etc. While I’m hesitant to generalize, there are defining characteristics that distinguish dance films from different countries. Unfortunately, the exportation of western culture tends to eradicate difference in this field as in all others, however there are essential qualities that are still present. In many countries the arts are more integrally woven into the social fabric and yet in others, artistic expression is suppressed. However, aside from cultural differences, this is a much longer conversation that includes economic concerns, broadcasting practices and trends, access to equipment and general support for the arts in different regions. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to go into this in more detail another time.
ID: In what ways do you feel dance films engage audiences and artists that other art forms, including live performance, cannot?
Bromberg: It is a different way of seeing and feeling. For dance artists it provides a way to engage the details of the body not perceivable in a proscenium setting. It allows dance to be brought into different locations providing new opportunities to interrogate the nature and necessity of movement language. It frees dance from the architectural, historical, and social constructs of the proscenium stage. It allows us to literally frame experience (time and space) in a different way and it provides other opportunities for the exploration of kinesthesis, visual composition and the construction of narrative.
ID: In addition to curating for the Dancers’ Group event, you created the first annual (now bi-annual) Dance for Camera event at an American University, and you curate at dance film festivals with themes ranging from human rights to women dance filmmakers. What do you enjoy about curating for dance film events?
Bromberg: Curation is a creative endeavor. As artists, the work we make is the by-product of our inquiry, our grappling, whatever our medium may be. And while we make work to be seen, we make it for ourselves. I enjoy curation because it stems from a feeling of generosity. I love to share what I find interesting, compelling, moving, of value. And I have loved watching audiences get excited about the films I screen and about the sense of new possibilities that these films inspire. My sincere hope is that the Bay Area audience will find this screening to be of value.