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Dance films give new meaning to motion picture

By Elizabeth Packer

May 31, 2007 10:16 pm

Does the thought of a dance performance bring to mind tutu-clad ballerinas pirouetting across a stage?

How about a woman’s contorting body covered in blue Post-it notes as she gracefully moves and dances around an endless white hall? Or what about projected silhouettes of bodies gliding over sheets of Lycra strung between trees in a park?

If the latter images sound more like weird experiments than dance performances, then it is time to discover dance film, an evolving genre redefining the way people think about dance. In dance film, also referred to as “dance media” or “dance on screen,” traditional choreography and film cinematography collide to become an entirely new method of artistic expression.

Beginning today, Dance Camera West will host its sixth annual film festival of dance media. For a month, the newest and most innovative dance films from around the world will screen in Los Angeles.

“The first thing people do is walk off the stage and out of the studio. … You do that and right away the language of the choreography changes. When someone sees (dance film) for the first time, it’ll blow their brains out,” said Lynette Kessler, Dance Camera West founder and director.

In dance film, anything goes. Performers are not confined to a stage and the audience-dancer relationship is not confined to a single angle. Instead, the medium continually seeks to blur the lines between dance and film and to challenge old conceptions of movement.

The many elements involved in creating dance film ““ from the initial choreography to the final editing ““ provide ample opportunities for artists to experiment and innovate their craft. Victoria Marks, a professor in the UCLA world arts and cultures department and a prominent dance filmmaker, suggests that dance film is creative in different ways than choreographing for the stage is.

“In film, gravity doesn’t have to abide by its usual laws and you don’t have to be in a space with four walls ““ you can go through the walls,” she said.

Dance media is not a stage piece simply filmed from the audience, but the result of several collaborative processes.

“Choreography happens in the actual dance movie. Choreography happens through the director and the camera movement, and then choreography happens in the editing lab, so it’s more than just a live body on stage,” said Allyson Moore Voye, a recent UCLA world arts and cultures graduate and the festival coordinator.

Creating dance film, in addition to changing traditional choreography methods, is an extremely hands-on process. Filming a performance enables the choreography to be broken down into sections so performers do not have to memorize an entire show, which stage performances require.

“Performers only have to memorize short chunks, so you can coach them more,” Marks said.

This freedom opens the genre up to allow atypical performers into dance film. Marks, for example, often works with nondancers; one film she made was cast with mother-daughter pairs.

There is also room for creativity in the actual screening of the film, as work is often physically presented in a way that matches its content. In the realm of dance film, anything can become a screen.

Kessler, for instance, projected a film about dancers performing inside an old concrete army bunker onto a pile of concrete blocks.

“We match the dance media with the particular screening surface which results in a continuity of theme and material, and creates a continuous texture,” she said.

The most exciting aspect of dance film might be its accessibility to people outside of the dance world and its ability to create new dance fans.

Cari Ann Shim Sham, who is currently working with Marks toward her master of fine arts in dance, has shown dance films at numerous festivals.

“It allows for more access in the sense that people are more willing to see a film than a dance performance and people are more familiar with film,” she said.

Not only is the genre itself more accessible, but today’s technology has made it easier to make and view dance films. With editing and recording equipment readily available, anyone with an idea can make a dance film.

Online video outlets help create global audiences for dance film. Shim Sham has posted some of her work on YouTube, and has seen firsthand the ways the Internet can expose people to the genre.

“It’s a great vehicle as an artist to put your work online and anyone in the whole world can have access to it. It’s the most powerful tool right now. … It creates this dialogue with people that you’ve never met, which is really a beautiful thing,” she said.

But while people can now access dance film online, the dance film festival brings the genre to L.A. audiences.

The screenings being shown are as varied as dance film itself. Several types of work, including experimental shorts and documentaries, will be showcased, and there will also be outdoor screenings and a dance installation piece. In total, out of the 250 submissions reviewed by Kessler and a viewing committee, 50 will be shown at various L.A. venues, including the RedCat Theater and the UCLA Hammer Museum.

“I get excited by the ways in which people can feel connected to the films they’re viewing. Dance films are not attempting to create reality,” Marks said.

“They allow us to enter imagined worlds.”

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Elizabeth Packer
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