Dance and Cinema Will Converge in Philly’s Inaugural Screendance Festival


by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

Philadelphia is set to kick off it’s first ever dance film festival, featuring a fusion of choreography and the moving image to create a new kind of art that pushes beyond the boundaries of either form on its own.   The Philadelphia Screendance Festival will take place over six days from February 16 through February 21 at the Christ Church Neighborhood House Theater in Olde City. While some types of dance films are intended as documentaries or as straightforward documentation of performances, the Screendance Festival will present more experimental kinds of films, “where the camera is used as a choreographic tool.”

The genre of screen dance or dance for camera is an aesthetic form where new dances become possible. In a dance film, the camera itself can move – not just the dancers. The lens can reframe the field of view so that a close-up shot of a hand wriggling its fingers can have the impact of a soloist on a stage. Editing and repeated images can give the illusion of a jump that soars on forever.

Nora Gibson Contemporary Ballet is presenting the film festival, and Gibson said of her motivation for organizing the event, “I like to think of my company as being a progressive voice in ballet. This is something in keeping with what my company would do – starting something new, reaching out to other people, presenting dance in a way that maybe a lot of people aren’t used to seeing it.”

Gibson became involved with dance for camera when Philadelphia filmmaker Joseph Carlin reached out to her about his interest in working with dancers. “He had a preference for a more classical, formal look, and he asked me to work with him on a single project. It seemed like ‘why not?'” The resulting dance film, Dark White, will appear as part of the festival. Working with Carlin afforded Gibson a deeper appreciation for the genre, reinforcing her approach to dance as a visual art form.

Allowing the transformation of her choreography into another medium required a loosening of artistic control, but Gibson explained, “I felt confident with my material, and like the piece exists as a stage piece in one context, and that the filmmaker has their own way of telling stories or presenting an idea through this really visual, two-dimensional, medium, and they have their own decisions to make. I’m very comfortable working like that.”

A number of Philadelphia area artists take the spotlight in this year’s inaugural Screendance Festival. Zornitsa Stoyanova’s chrysalis captures the dynamics between a woman and the Mylar material that engulfs and remakes her. Jennifer Jessum and Jillian Harris’s Red Earth Calling features Harris in a sensuous duet amid the colorful rock formations of Arches National Park. Liz Staruch and Mark O’Maley’s The Camera Betrays You utilizes stop-motion editing to mesmerizing effect as dancers navigate the crowds of NYC’s High Line park. Niki and Jorge Cousineau’s Skeleton Skin follows a dancer wearing a red dress through shifting indoor and outdoor locales. Catie Leasca’s I wanted to know the walls, and for them to know me asks the question “What if she forgets but the walls remember?”

“It was always my intention to have the film festival be a forum for Philadelphia artists,” said Gibson. “I really do love the Philadelphia dance community and I thought this would be a lovely and fitting way to give back to the community. I want to keep encouraging Philadelphia filmmakers to apply because they will absolutely be represented every single year.”

When Gibson planned the festival, she advertised online to various arts organizations both in Philadelphia and New York, and didn’t really know how widely the festival would reach. It turned out that interest in the festival reached far and wide indeed, as Gibson received submissions from all over the globe. “Some of this might be kind of a mystery, I’m not sure how the word got out as far as it did. So much stuff happens online, and I think people just sent links to each other. I was pleasantly surprised, because it kind of blew up.”

Montreal, Santa Barbara, Greece, Iran, San Francisco, New York and London will all be represented in three separate programs that are notable for their emphasis on variety. One of the entries, 219 Gates, is a bona fide horror film in which four guests arrive to a dinner party unaware of what their hosts have in store. Another film, Dance of the Neurons, features twenty-four dancers who embody the birth of neurons, activating the brain and body.  A submission from Iran, Beyond the Frames, offers a unique point of view from a very different place in the world – a place where female dancer/filmmaker Tanin Torabi is taking a real risk to make her art. What stands out amidst the variety of films in the festival is that the use of dance as a non-verbal art form to tell stories that words cannot, combined with the intimacy of the camera, is proving to be a powerful tool in filmmaking.

Dance is often considered to be a temporary art form, one that takes place in a moment in time and then disappears. Film, however, is a medium of fixed images and thus a potentially eternal document of an ephemeral experience. Film is also a medium in which a dancemaker can keep working on her creative ideas without requiring funds to rent studio time or pay dancers. Gibson says she had been experimenting with dance videos for a few years as a response to chronic underfunding: “I am a constant worker, and if I can’t be in the studio with my dancers, my creative process just goes on and on.”

A large percentage of the dance films submitted to the festival were work from women, particularly solo work from women, and Gibson pondered whether “it was for the same reason that I was fooling around with dance and film. I wonder if there are women that are yearning to make more work than there is funding for or opportunity. I wonder if they just keep on working and creating as well?”

The 2016 Philadelphia Screendance Festival will take place February 16 – 21 and will offer three separate programs of short dance films. The screening dates are:

Program A: Tuesday & Friday (8:30 – 9:30 pm)
Program B: Wednesday & Saturday (8:30 – 9:30 pm)
Program C: Thursday & Sunday (Thurs, 8:30 – 9:30/ Sun 4:30 – 5:30)

Details about the films featured in each of the programs can be found here:

Running concurrently with the Festival, Nora Gibson Contemporary Ballet will be presenting a premiere of Ephemeral, a full-evening ballet, in collaboration with noted ambient/electronic composer, Michael McDermott, and Dutch lighting/installation artist, Katinka Marac. This program runs Friday-Sunday, (Fri/Sat 7-8pm; Sun 3-4pm) directly preceding the film screenings with a 1/2 break between the performance and film screening.

Individual or combination tickets to both events can be purchased here:

About Jane Fries

Originally from the west coast, Jane Fries pursued undergraduate studies in dance at San Diego State University, where she got her start writing about dance for the student newspaper. After an escapade as a correspondent for Dance Magazine in the south of France, she went on to earn her MA in dance from Mills College in Oakland, California. Jane's subsequent explorations in non-theatrical dance forms led her to take up the practice of yoga. She has lived in the Philadelphia area since 1996, and has had the great pleasure to study Iyengar yoga with Joan White. Jane's writing reflects her background in dance history and interest in documentation and preservation.

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