Keep the Reels Rolling; Why the Bay Area Should Fight to Keep Dance/Screen

By Michael Wade Simpson


San Francisco Performances has pulled the plug on its Dance/Screen series of film and video presentations, curated for the last 9 years by Charlotte Shoemaker. “It was a matter of budget cuts,” said Shoemaker, who designed programs around the dance companies that SFP brought into town, from Paul Taylor to Inbal Pinto, but also organized a one night mini-festival each year, called Innovative International Dance Films. Despite the loss of a presenter, (and a job), Shoemaker, a sculptor who is a self-taught dance expert and total devotee of the burgeoning dance/film form, is determined to go on, shopping around for friends and supporters. There are Dance Film Festivals in New York, LA and Seattle. Why not here?

Around the world, dance for film is a niche genre that attracts filmmakers who don’t always come out of the traditional, theatrical world of dance. A dance film may not seem to contain any “dance” in it at all. A viewing of Shoemaker’s last program confirms this. A few minutes of screen-time at the showing, on May 22, presented actual, “dancey” content, recognizable “steps,” but they were the exception. Gold was as much about the teenage gymnasts in a middle class milieu in England as it was about their movement. Augna Blik, featured gorgeous scenery in Iceland, and many close-ups of two attractive wanderers who were more slapstick/theatrical than they were graceful. Another film, by Simona da Pozzo, offered two male dancers in a warehouse marking space with masking tape and getting into a bathtub fully clothed. The highlight was a section set to pulsating techno music where the men performed extended phrases of floor-bound, contact-improvy movement, but the overall texture of the piece was provided by the black and white imagery of the setting, the sound of bathtub water, the sensuality of skin slithering against tile, and floor, and everything the camera was doing. With hand-held photography, the camera-person become a dancer. Along with editing, sound, and the setting, this adds up to a new definition of “choreography.”

In her own writing about dance films, Shoemaker has said that these works offer “new meanings and understandings of our relationship to reality.” Like any avant-garde film, they challenge existing conventions, and “often do not draw any specific conclusions. The structure of a beginning, middle and end is not considered necessary.” Films she has shown over the years have include bar fights as dance and a piece in which “raising a glass of milk to [a] mouth over and over becomes a duet paired with [a] woman who repeatedly lifts a teacup to her lips.” What is gained, according to Shoemaker is “another way of seeing and creating dance.”

Shoemaker’s fascination with dance films began with her desire to see more of the work of one of her favorite choreographers, Pina Bausch (who will be appearing at Zellerbach Hall next season). This led her to the Goethe Institute, where she was introduced to a series of dance films by and about Bausch. Like her choreography for the stage, (the films are) a collage of images involving dance, theater, performance art, music and visual images. Shoemaker was immediately fascinated with the ways the film medium could expand the possibilities of the work itself. “On film her images can be more tightly woven and can change more rapidly than would be possible on stage…film also enables Bausch to include the outdoors as an integral part of the dance, not simply as a backdrop,” explained Shoemaker. “In one scene a dancer wearing a sheer flowered summer dress smiles and dances on a bridge over leadened water in the midst of a snowstorm. Identifying with her real coldness, juxtaposed with her lyrical movements gives this dance an edge that couldn’t be faked with stagecraft.”

With this initial exposure to the Bausch films, a desire was born in Shoemaker to find other dance films, to see what was out there. This appetite has so far only become more pronounced. Shoemaker discovered journals and websites and international festivals, like IMZ Dance Screen, held in Monte Carlo, where 250 new dance films might be introduced in a week. It’s all about “stretching the viewer’s perceptions,” according to Shoemaker, “shooting and editing to deconstruct and then recreate how we see and experience dance.”

“I like having boundaries stretched,” she said in a recent interview. She is the kind of person who will visit New York City and head directly to the library. There, at the Performing Arts Library, she describes herself sitting for ten hours on a bad chair under fluorescent light, watching films, moved to tears.

What would a “San Francisco Dance/Screen Festival” look like if Shoemaker has her way? “I’d love to have multiple venues,” she said. “East Bay, the Mission, Yerba Buena.” What kind of programming could these audiences expect? “There are things I’d love to show,” she said. “Wagner used a term, ‘gesamtkunstwerk. He was describing a ‘synthesis of the arts’ in opera, where music, theatre and the visual arts were equally important. Dance films are like that, all things strong and good in their own right. That’s what’s wonderful.”

Please e-mail Charlotte Shoemaker if you are interested in finding about future Dance/Screen events at

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

Michael Wade Simpson is editor of and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. He holds an MFA in dance from Smith College, founded “Small City Dance Project” in Massachusetts, and was an NEA Fellow at the Dance Critics Institute, American Dance Festival, in 2004.