3 Seconds of Beauty: The New Wave of Bay Area Dance Film

By Selby Schwartz

October 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

“I was only going to make one film in my whole life,” says Carmen Rozenstraten, “because I had this image—this vision—that came into my head, and I knew it could only be in a film.” Carmen is a choreographer, filmmaker, dance teacher, and former LINES Ballet dancer, who now splits her time between San Francisco, her native Amsterdam, and Barcelona, where she just shot her second film. She is humming along to the whimsical, slightly melancholy Spanish music that will be the soundtrack for this second film, and watching the third hour of raw footage. This is the tenth take of a slow-motion duet in a fountain, and because her very low-budget camera could only shoot six seconds of slow-motion at a time, she is now tapping her fingers on the table and audibly urging the dancers on-screen to speed up the phrase. “This was at six o’clock in the morning, which was the only time everyone could be there,” she says. “And I had been up most of the night sewing red feathers together for another scene, and we had to get a permit from the Barcelona police, and—”

Just then, the dancers on the little screen get the phrase right, the whole sequence fits into six seconds, and there is a beautiful, dreamy scatter of water droplets at the end. It is suddenly possible to see how making one film, even though it is filled with insurmountable obstacles, could inspire you to make another film, which will bring different but equally impossible problems of its own. For example, you can ask Carmen how she created the fantastical shot that opens Breathe Me, her first film, in which a stream of sand pours out of the blue sky, swirling down over the head of a male dancer who is buried in the sand, while he looks out to sea.

“Oh,” says Carmen, nonchalantly, skipping through the next five takes of the fountain sequence, “right, well, I went over to my friend Joanna Haigood’s, since she has this huge warehouse studio, and I climbed up the ceiling rafters with a big bucket of sand, which had a hole cut in the bottom of it—you know, the two guys I brought with me to help that day were both afraid of heights—and so I just sat up there for 8 hours, gripping the beam between my knees to hold on, and first I tried pouring the sand through the hole with a tea strainer, and then I tried stirring the sand while it poured, and you know what? After 8 hours I realized that the whole bucket had to be moving in a circle while the sand poured out. And that ended up being a 3-second shot.” During the course of shooting the film, Carmen was accosted by police in the Marin Headlands, saw her dancers knocked down by enormous freezing waves, and waited two years while her main female dancer had a baby. Since it debuted in 2006, Breathe Me has been screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival, Dance on Screen, European Independent Film Festival, Dance Camera West, Winnipeg International Film Festival, ReelhArt, Aarhus International Film Festival, Brooklyn International Film Festival, Santa Cruz Film Festival, and the London International Dance Film Festival.

What inspires dance film artists in the Bay Area to undergo these kinds of trials, with no money and little time, in order to produce a film that will run less than 10 minutes? “When I saw my first dance film,” explains Katie Faulkner, whose recent film Loom was featured in the WestWave Dance Festival in August, “which was Pascal Magnin’s Reines d’un Jour, it was completely dazzling, eye-opening, and at the same time I thought: of course. This is the synthesis of all the things that most excite me about art-making: performance, visual design, movement—but I knew absolutely nothing about film or cameras.” Katie proposed to a friend with professional film experience that she would fly him up from LA if he “would just point the camera, and then give me the tapes.” With a week-long intensive film course from BAVC (the Bay Area Video Coalition) and a willingness to learn from scratch, Katie made her first film in 2006. By the time she was ready to shoot Loom, she had learned a few tricks. (“FinalCut is more visually intuitive than you think,” she confides.) This time, she gathered her materials in advance: a grey late-December sky seen from a Mission rooftop, a huge bag of red string, a “failed duet” she had started to choreograph for former ODC dancer Private Freeman, and a student volunteer “whose main job was to move the crow,” Katie says, laughing. “That crow scene was all single-frame shots, in a time-lapse effect, so Private and I would move really, really slowly, and she would come in and move the crow 3 inches, and that would be one frame.”

Both Katie and Carmen found themselves, as choreographers, naturally drawn to editing. “The choreographer’s eye sees more in the editing process than the eye of someone not trained in dance,” Carmen declares. “I would be watching raw footage with my editor, and I would say: stop! That’s different! And it would turn out to be a difference of one frame.” “Editing is the most choreographic part of filmmaking,” Katie Faulkner agrees. “For Loom, I had to edit the whole thing before I knew what the last shot would be. We actually shot the last scene two days before the screening.” Katie also mentions, a little shyly, that a wonderful aspect of editing is its solitude, its fullness of time. It sidesteps the moment when the choreographer goes into a studio full of expectant dancers, “and they all look at you, waiting to know what to do, and you don’t have any ideas?” as Katie says, in a tone that indicates she is familiar with the whole spectrum of choreographer’s anxieties.

Greta Schoenberg, another choreographer and dance filmmaker whose video Hopscotch was screened at this year’s WestWave festival, explains that, “editing takes a sense of rhythm. I’m usually editing in silence, by myself, then putting the music in later, when the piece already has a sense of music, of syncopation; then it has a pulse already, and I find music to match that pulse.” Editing, both in-camera and during post-production, is one of the qualities that most vividly distinguishes dance film from live dance performance. Even Maya Deren, whose avant-garde dance film A Study in Choreography for Camera opened up the frame of possibilities for dance film in 1945, used one of Buster Keaton’s old editing tricks, where the shots are cut perfectly for movement continuity: this is how Dunham dancer Talley Beatty can spin without interruption, as he appears in a forest, against the sky, in front of a statue, and by a fireplace. The dancer is in constant motion, and the camera and scenery tiptoe around him, showing off the wonder of dance. [For more information about the history of dance film, the book Envisioning Dance, edited Judy Mitoma and published in 2002, is an excellent introduction, and includes a DVD.]

In the earliest dance film—and it is worth noting that early film, as a medium, was very often dance film—the situation is exactly reversed. The camera is stationary, the focus is unchanging, and the dancer carefully keeps herself in its eye while she moves. Thomas Edison shot two minutes of Ruth St. Denis (in 1894, when she was still Ruth Dennis) doing a skirt dance in the sunlight; the first exhibition of Edison’s Vitascope showed the Leigh sisters doing their umbrella dance. By the time motion pictures were sweeping American audiences into movie theaters, dancers and choreographers were ready to insist on the kinetic possibilities of the camera. Fred Astaire (whom Balanchine called “America’s finest dancer”) required that his dance sequences be shot full-frame, in uninterrupted long takes. “Either the camera will dance or I will,” he declared. Busby Berkeley, with his background in WWI military drills, made the geometric abstraction of mass choreography a high cinematic art in his 1930s musicals, and dance has continued to flourish in American film musicals, with the extraordinarily mobile camera-dancer duets of Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain and Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story. Balanchine himself learned cinematic skills from Gregg Toland, the Oscar-winning cinematographer, and used to call up his personal assistant Barbara Hogan, “in the middle of dinner,” as she recalls in an interview with Robert Greskovic, to demand that she “turn to Channel 7. And it would be Charlie’s Angels. And Wonder Woman.”

Over the course of the 20th century, a major categorical difference has emerged: there are dance films made primarily for documentary and archival purposes, and there are those created as artworks, in “a poetic merging of visual, sound, and kinetic composition,” in the words of Eiko Otake of Eiko & Koma, in an essay titled “A Dancer Behind the Lens.” In fact, Eiko writes, “We do not care to see our performance footage; it depresses us. Recorded on video, our dance generally looks dull because it is so slow.” Gene Kelly voiced the same concern, citing the “three-dimensional” quality of dance, in contrast to the “two-dimensional” capacity of motion pictures. Because, as he asserted in a lecture in San Francisco in 1956, dance is like sculpture, whereas film is like painting, what can be lost in the transfer is the real kinetic impact of dance, as well as its empathetic connection to a live audience.

Another problem with film and digital media, in the 21st century, is that the use of special effects to achieve feats of hyper-intensified physicality has dimmed our collective sense of awe. Dance used to utilize film as a document—a sign of a performance’s authenticity as a singular event—and that give it a historical authority, something that philosopher Walter Benjamin identified as an “aura.” Benjamin was mostly concerned with the unsettling questions that the advent of technologies like photography and film posed for visual arts like painting and architecture, but dance film is the perfect case study for issues of authenticity, technical virtuosity, and suspicions of manipulation. Dance on stage has to be honest—it’s happening live, in front of a live audience, like a trapeze act with no safety net. When people in the audience are holding their breath, dancers can hear it. Dance film (or cinedance, or video dance, or dance on camera) is no less risky, but it is fascinatingly airless: Merce Cunningham made a piece for the BBC in 1986 called Points in Space, derived from Albert Einstein’s declaration, “there are no fixed points in space,” which seemed to Cunningham the quintessential perspective of dance film.

This may explain, in part, why Carmen Rozenstraten, Katie Faulkner, and Greta Schoenberg all began making dance films only in the past few years. The field is wide open, especially in the Bay Area. As Greta said, remembering her first brief experiments with dance film: “What if I use my own little home video-camera to make a piece? What if I wouldn’t need a theater, or a month of rehearsal, or all my dancers’ schedules to coincide? What if I could make a piece I could keep, a piece that was portable, a piece that my grandmother could see?” Greta has recently begun to coordinate a much-needed forum for Bay Area dance filmmakers, called Motion Pictures. Dancers’ Group, filling a void left when San Francisco Performances discontinued the Dance/Screen series last summer, featured films for the first time this year during the WestWave festival in August.

There still isn’t much readily-available funding for dance films, but dancers and choreographers are certainly accustomed to working with shoestring budgets and communal goodwill. Greta encourages local dancers and choreographers to see more dance films, and to try creating their own works. “I’m not a technical person,” she vows, but she dove boldly into doing her own camera-work for Hopscotch. “I am actually using my skills as a dancer—I was so close to Nol [Simonse, who improvises in the film, against a backdrop of Mission murals] while filming, feeling his weight shift, improvising with the camera. It is a sort of dance on the spot.”

“Film by nature is a choreographic art,” Katie says. “The way you put bodies in front of the camera, how you modulate tone, how the camera steers the eye; then imposing a structure afterwards, through editing—and you’re using the camera itself as another moving body.” She advises potential dance filmmakers to “surround yourself with people you trust, shoot more footage than you think you need, and look for the same things you look for in the studio.” “Choose dancers who are able to be very present to themselves, so its shows on film,” adds Greta. She recommends Apple software like iMovie, and the books Envisioning Dance as well as Making Video Dance (by Katrina McPherson, 1996). “I wish I had learned about editing before I made the first film,” Carmen says, with a rueful smile. “But I was too busy with the sand! Every two weeks, that summer, I would call up Robert [Rosenwasser, Associate Artistic Director of LINES Ballet] with a new idea, you know: ‘Robert! What if we had a giant vacuum cleaner that could shoot the sand out in reverse?’ That vision, that image, was just so present to me; it was like a dream. And after that day in Joanna’s rafters, I couldn’t get out of bed for a week—I had such bad spasms in my back. But you know what? I think it’s a beautiful 3-second shot.”

This article appeared in the October 2008 issue of In Dance.

Selby Wynn Schwartz is the International Tour Manager/ Project Manager at Alonzo King LINES Ballet, a Lecturer at UC Berkeley, and a member of the LEAP faculty. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley, and is currently working on a book about drag and dance.