History in the Taping: Confessions of an Accidental Dance Videographer

By Austin Forbord

January 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

As I was preparing to write this article about dance documentation, it occurred to me that it has been exactly ten years since Shelley Trott and I started the interviews that eventually led to our documentary film Artists In Exile: A Story of Modern Dance in San Francisco. The film is the reason one can find me three or four, and sometimes more, nights a week videotaping dance. This was never the plan. It also wasn’t our strategy to create a Bay Area dance history; we made the movie for ulterior motives. Let me explain.

Most people probably know me as the dance video guy, but it wasn’t always that way. I used to make dances. In 1997, AWD, my first dance company, had its first show reviewed in the Bay Guardian. It was compared to the first work of another local dance company called Contraband that I had never seen and only recently heard about. I was at a Core show when I overheard someone mention that Core was a group made up of some of the core members of Contraband. The show kicked ass with live music, dance and politics. It ended with at least one of the dancers naked swimming in the Bay, which was right next to the warehouse performance space. Needless to say I was intrigued by the comparison, but had no way of seeing a Contraband show. I didn’t know anyone with videotape of Contraband, even the SF Performing Arts Library didn’t have any. So I couldn’t see the piece that reminded the critic of our work. It occurred to me that I was making work in a historical vacuum. I came to the Bay Area with what I thought was a relatively good understanding of modern or contemporary dance as it existed. What I really had was a New York or European centric notion of the Bay Area’s history. I arrived in San Francisco and decided to make work in a community I knew nothing about. I knew (or thought I knew) about Joe Goode, Margaret Jenkins, and Anna Halprin, but did not know anything about what made them or more importantly made someone get naked in the bay in the middle of February.

Making Artists In Exile was our attempt to contextualize ourselves as dance artists working in San Francisco in 1997. In the end we helped to create a filmic snapshot of a diverse artistic community that sits in libraries and is presented in University dance programs globally. Seven years after we finished the film, I now have a far more visceral sense of the history of Bay Area dance, at least the history of the last ten years. This is because, although we finished our documentary film in 2000, apparently I haven’t realized that this process was over. I’m still out there every weekend collecting more footage. I’ve realized, however, that I’m accumulating a collection of dance performances as thorough, vast and diverse as the Bay Area. Maybe in ten more years I will make another documentary that distills the issues facing Bay Area dance artists today. I suspect that they will share many of the same challenges, concerns, and goals of the artists that preceded them. Most importantly for me, I won’t need to spend three years collecting footage, and hoping I find what I need to illustrate the story, because it is almost entirely on my shelves and hard drives in my office.

Beginning in January 2008, I will put two to three minute clips of performances I have videotaped over the years, as well as clips from current work, online. There will be monthly updates of shows that I shoot in the preceding month to foster dialogue about and increase exposure to each other’s work. If you miss a show, my goal is that you can see some of it online within a month of the performance. I will encourage all of my clients as well as anyone in the dance community to select clips to be placed on my website www.raptproductions.com. I hope this will contribute to a better understanding of how we all fit into a wider context both currently and historically. It will be a virtual representation of us; where the juxtaposition of all the work may actually contribute to a very real sense of how large, diverse, and interesting our community is. For those of you who were not here in 1997, you may even get to see some footage of Core or Contraband so you know what I am talking about.

I’ve stated that I never intended to become the documentarian of the Bay Area dance community. It happened by accident. During the filming for Artists in Exile, we videotaped over 50 shows for free in exchange for use of the footage for the film. It turns out that I was pretty good at shooting dance, so the artists that had seen my work started hiring me to shoot their shows. At first it seemed like a good way to pay my bills while I was dancing. For a long time, I really resisted the idea that I was a dance videographer. I’m a dancer or filmmaker was my usual response to the “what do you do?” question. I have come to realize that videotaping dance is what I do. I may make more films and more dances, but dance videography is where my focus, energy, and passion are consumed. I have now completely resigned myself to this vocation, and I see it as very important. I recognize that I am holding and constantly adding to a collection of footage that represents the history of Bay Area dance. Frank Shawl, the co-founder of Shawl-Anderson, has a line at the end of Artists in Exile in which he says about a life in the arts, “This is what I do, I am a dancer.” Well this is what I do. I am a dance videographer and so fortunate that I can spend my life in dance.

When Austin Forbord is not videotaping, editing, or otherwise immersing himself in dance, he tries to spend as much time as possible with his wife and two children Shelley, Jack and Leila.