Capturing the Ephemeral Joys of Dance on Film

by Gary L. Day for The Dance Journal

Dance is known primarily as a live art form, its brilliance, joys and disappointments, an experience of the moment, ephemeral, are then relegated to the chambers of precious memory. For most of history, dance shared this reality with theatre, but the advent of film changed all that in the 20th century. For many of the early years, film was a possible avenue for both expanding the audience and the permanence of theatre, that is, until film quickly evolved into its own unique art form.

Unlike theatre, dance hasn’t flirted much with film except for archival or documentary purposes. Admittedly, there have been attempts in the past to meld film and dance, but they’ve been few and far between. This has begun to change, as alternative media now saturates our culture, making it easier for young artists to experiment with, record and disseminate new visual experiments.

Some examples of the relatively new and expanding field of dance on film were on display at the 2017 Philadelphia Screendance Festival, which played this past weekend on March 3 & 4.  A collection of short films, most no longer than a traditional music video, ranged from exquisitely exciting to yawn-inducing.

The festival was split into two separate programs, one early and one late, which played for two evenings. I only viewed one of the early programs, but if those selections were any indication, the field of filmed dance is rife with potential.

As anyone familiar with film can tell you, there is much more to making a movie than pointing a camera at your subject and shooting. However, with the right subject and the right setting, you don’t have to do much more. In the piece titled “Bhairavi Sky,” director John Bush and choreographer Nadine Helstroffer journey to various locations in India to record an older and a younger woman dancing classic Indian-style dance movement, making lovely use of an ancient place and an ancient fortress.

Shorter films are also a way for auteurs to wear many creative hats without being overwhelmed by the scale of the project. Mike Esperanza created “Match,” which he directed, choreographed, edited and wrote the music for. He used certain tricks of the film trade to enable his dancer, Katrina Muffley, to dance with herself. Esperanza thus moved somewhat beyond a purely documentary approach to meld the two art forms into something new.

Director Brian Johnson takes matters several levels beyond Esperanza in the piece called “Inheritor Recordings.“In this piece (which I considered the high point of the program), Johnson used a variety of filmmaker’s tools and integrated them with 605 Collective’s choreography in such a way that the camera, the editing and other tools becomes part of the choreography itself. It’s a very sophisticated piece of work, in which the elements of film making and dance have formed a cohesive whole.

I don’t know what sort of market or audience there may be for dance film, outside of festivals like Screendance, or an occasional PBS special. A substantial audience for it my be developed by YouTube, where I have discovered on my own high quality dance films. The individual pieces at Screendance deserve to be seen outside the limitations of a short, nevertheless worthy, two night film festival.

The 2017 Philadelphia Screendaance Festival played March 3 & 4 at the Performance Garage, 1515 Brandywine St. For further information, visit noragibsoncontemporaryballet.com