Photo credit Lisa Iancin
Photo credit Lisa Iancin

Artist Spotlight: Dance-filmmaker Daniel Madoff

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

In an interview from his stylish studio office in South Philadelphia earlier this month, Daniel Madoff talked about his unplanned leap from dance stages worldwide to a successful filmmaker career.

Daniel Madoff was a new member of the Martha Graham Dance Company and had no intention of becoming a “ Cunningham dancer.”  Things didn’t work out as planned, and he was advised to audition for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC). The reluctant Madoff thought Cunningham’s choreography would be “just too hard.”  Eventually, “I eased my way in,” Madoff said, first as an understudy, and in 2007 becoming a full member of the company”. He soon was performing many of the demanding roles that Merce had originally danced. The company disbanded in 2011, two years after Cunningham’s death.

Madoff “got back in shape,” returning with his fellow MCDC alums to reconstruct repertory pieces for Alla Kovgan’s 2019 3D documentary “Cunningham.”  At that time, he had no thoughts of being behind the camera directing promotional films, content for the New York Times and BBC America. Nor did he know he would soon be picking up festival awards for his independent film projects, many of them exhibiting his unique skills for filming dance. Now based in Philadelphia, he has produced three premiere videos for BalletX Films, a virtual series that ran during the industry lockdown from Covid over the past year.

Transitions & Translations

In his office/studio in South Philadelphia, Madoff still looks dancer/performance ready, sitting bolt upright at his desk, in front of a fine collection of books, from E.E. Cummings to Shakespeare and Tolstoy, not to mention a shelf full of international dictionaries. In fact, while Madoff was a Cunningham dancer, he had been learning more languages and had his sights on being a translator for the United Nations. He is fluent in French and Spanish, less so in German and Italian, ready with “some Hebrew,” and is currently learning Russian.

After Cunningham disbanded, he thought he might audition for other dance troupes, but injuries kept him on the sidelines. “I had just finished this amazing career with Cunningham, and I felt like I accomplished something in my life,” but he was at a crossroads. Uncertain what he was going to do next, a friend asked if he’d be interested in being a production assistant on a film crew, and he said yes,

 Gofer more than Gruntwork

“On my first day as a production assistant, a person on set shoves a coffee at me and barks ‘Hold This!” Madoff recalled. “So, yes, I was carrying stuff, doing whatever, being the grunt. Then I found out that the director didn’t have an editor, so I volunteered to do it for free, and that opened up this whole community of filmmakers who started hiring me.” He also started to create a series of his own independent films, one The Avant-Gardener played at 50 film festivals and picked up multiple awards along the way.

Meanwhile, his skill as a translator came into play, working with Israeli filmmaker brothers Tomer and Barak Heymann for their documentary about the life of choreographer Ohad Naharin called ‘Mr. Gaga.’ He translated the words of choreographer Kazuko Hirabayashi, who was Naharin’s dance teacher at the Juilliard School. Coincidently, Ms. Hirabayashi was also Madoff’s teacher and mentor. When she was dealing with the onset of debilitating ALS, which limited her ability to speak, he cared for her.

After Hirabayashi died in 2016, Madoff staged a tribute memorial performance for Hirabayashi at Symphony Space in Manhattan, featuring live performances by Cunningham dancers and dancers from the Ailey Company, the Graham Company American Ballet Theater, Abraham. In. Motion, and Batsheva Dance Company/Ohad Naharin. Covering the event for Dance Magazine, Jen Peters wrote, “A biographical documentary created by Daniel Madoff narrated and wove between pieces, perhaps stealing the show.”

Dance film vocabulary & the Xfactor

Madoff credits a friend at BBC America for showing him how to “write (shooting) scripts, sculpt and edit film,” and focus on all the technical elements required of filmmaking. “The most I’ll call myself is a cinematographer. Framing is something I have a feel for, but, yeah, there is so much more I need to learn.”  Meanwhile, he has jumped at the chance to make comedies, action films, corporate films, and recently a “sizzle animation” reel for a digital company. Still, Madoff’s expertise is perhaps at its best in filming dance.

As BalletX artistic director Christine Cox notes in a recent interview, “I believe his dancing has helped him become a better filmmaker because he has such great timing and focus. Daniel is a true artist and filmmaker… he has such a keen eye and ability to make the dancer feel at ease, and he captures the best moments on camera.” 

Madoff met Cox “a year and a half ago, and she took a chance on me.” His three 2021 BalletX films- – Tsai Hsi Hung’s Two X Two, Manuel Vignoulle’s Heal, and Francesca Harper’s Thaw are stylistically different dance films. Madoff said that his “first allegiance is always to the material,” and striving to realize the choreographer’s vision of the piece on film.

He also uses his dance abilities as he moves with his hand-held camera equipment, angling low to the ground in a crouching plie with full gear on his shoulders, only to rise without pause on the wet field in Fairmount Park for Blake Krapels’ raucous and muddy solo, ‘Heal.’   

One technique he learned from Kazuko in her choreographic process he explained was “Kazuko would cover her eyes with her fingers to get a blurred picture of the movement, which might seem antithetical to filmmaking, but it gave her a clearer picture of the energy of the choreography.”

On film, the energy of a dance performance can lose that elusive ‘magic’ one sees at a live performance. In his BalletX films, this distinctive element transfers well. Madoff gives all the credit to the dancers in conveying that energy and being just as ready for the cameras as they are in front of a crowd.

Crediting Merce

Daniel has many treasured memories of when he danced for Cunningham and his methodical techniques for creating dance. “Merce was all about the process,” Madoff says “and recognition of the creative building blocks you need and the time it takes for something to materialize.”

These are methods that Madoff has kept in mind as he expands his filmmaking career and aesthetic purpose. In fact, in a full-circle moment, Madoff is currently working on a shooting script for his own film about the specificity of Cunningham’s legacy and groundbreaking methods that changed contemporary dance and influenced generations of dancers, musicians, and visual artists around the globe.

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One reply on “Artist Spotlight: Dance-filmmaker Daniel Madoff”

  1. Congratulations Daniel. Good to hear about your accomplishments. I’m still working on my “Merce” book…”Merce at my house” Berkeley, the Bay Area and beyond. Keep in touch when possible. Joanna (in Berkeley)

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