Overview on Dance on Camera

What is a dance film?

Purely speaking, a dance film is one in which dance and film/video are both integral to a work. This simple definition separates dance films from archival records of stage or site specific dance compositions. The makers of dance films consider the placement and movement of the camera, the lighting, the balance of foreground and background, and the composition within the framing of each shot in the overall choreography. A dance film can take many forms: documentary, dance designed for the camera (cine dance or screen dance), a screen adaptation of a stage work, animation, or kinetic abstraction.

The structure for a dance for the camera, otherwise known as a cine dance or screen dance, may be driven by a kinetic or visual design concept, poetry or narrative, imagery from reality or dreams, traditional or idiosyncratic musical forms. The intention may be to produce what cannot be conceived in a live performance or to stretch and condense a multi-media form.

The essential difference between an archival record of a stage work and what we are referring to as a dance film, a dance for the camera, is the involvement of the choreographer in a collaboration with a composer, cinematographer, editor, and a director. Alternatively, the choreographer may also assume all those roles him or herself.


Read ten simple tips to making a dance film.

Que es danza en cámara? 

Cualquier forma - documental, narrativo, animación, grabación de un espectáculo; danza en cámara es una integración de imagen y movimiento, una integración de la tradición de cine y las tradiciones de la danza. Danza en cámara puede mostrar - con mas facilidad que  un espectáculo vivo - sol y sombra, los dos lados de cualquier realidad, y los contextos de las ideas. Y por eso, lo mejor de la danza en cámara es que como la poesía, es una abstracción o una esencia,… como un buen vino.

The dominant principle behind directing a dance video is curiosity, fascination, investigating concepts, preparedness, and ultimately personal style. There is a deep sense of planning, motivated by structure, vocabulary, environment and trusting your intuition and instinct .” says the award-winning Belgian director Thierry de Mey

Choreography, however subtle, has been a deciding factor for the success of many a screen star - from the voluptuous face and body movements of Marilyn Monroe as directed by Jack Cole to the dead pan antics of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. You too might find that you perform best in the controlled environment of film.

Adapt a dance for the screen by asking yourself 

1) What could be revealed through the medium of film that is not readily apparent in my current dance? What creative opportunity is possible by adapting the dance for the screen? 

2) What is most important in my original dance? How can a film team be directed to make that clear? 

3) Do I want to add choreography, characters, or images not in the original dance? If so, what might they be? Where would they be introduced? 

4) What parts of the dance could be dropped to make the film compelling and only as long/short as is necessary to communicate my premise?

5) Should I possibly use a different score or create one for the film?

6) Should the camera be objective or subjective? If subjective, whose point of view would the camera represent?

7) What emotional or intellectual responses do I wish to elicit? Beyond the steps and dynamics, what ideas - or twists and turns - will give the film depth and layers provoking the viewer to want to see my film again and again. 

8) Where is the arch to the action? Knowing that will help you direct your camera crew. 

9) Where should I/could I shoot this? In a mix of places? Man-made, outdoor, or crafted to suit the piece? 

10) Do I want to use natural lighting? Soft or hard lighting? Subtle or stylized?

11) What is my orienting shot? What can I do to replace the darkening of the theatre and the rise of the curtain?

12) What is my signature movement, image, or style? How could I develop that to make it larger than life? 



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Articles from Dance on Camera Journals

"Cutting Rhythms" 
Excerpts from the second in a series of three articles by Co-Artistic Director of The Physical TV Company, Karen Pearlman printed in Dance on Camera Journal/Ezine

This series of three articles is adapted from Cutting Rhythms, my Doctorate of Creative Arts Thesis (University of Technology, Sydney).  Cutting Rhythms is about rhythm in film editing - what it is and how it is made.  It draws on my background as a dancer, choreographerand editor, and looks at editing as a form of choreography and in particular the process of shaping a film's rhythms as a choreographic process.  These excerpts, adapted from Cutting Rhythms for the DFA Journal, break editing rhythms down into three types: event rhythm, physical rhythm and emotional rhythm.  The article in the last issue was an introduction to this notion of three types of editing rhythms and a specific look at one type: 'event rhythm'.  In this issue 'physical rhythm' will be considered and the next article will be about 'emotional rhythm'.

In the late 1920's Soviet filmmaker and theorist Dziga Vertov made a strong case, both in theory and in practice, for film as a visual art form, not a narrative or literary art form, with editing being one of the strongest cinematic means of showing the truth of the movement of the world.  If one is concerned with physical rhythm, one is concerned, as Vertov proclaims, with “meaningful rhythmic visual order”, not as a means to something else but as a revelation in and of itself.  In Vertov's masterpiece Man with a Movie Camera (1929), and quite often in dancefilm, the physical rhythm is the defining rhythm of the film.

An editor working primarily with physical rhythm crafts the arcs of physical movement in a film.  Her choices about which shots to join, and how and when to join them, are choices of linking movements smoothly or colliding them abruptly (to paraphrase the age-old debate between Soviet montage theorists Pudovkin and Eisenstein).  The editor works along a spectrum between the absolutely seamless and the dynamic clash of movement size, shape, speed, energy or direction.  These choices shape cine phrases of movement, which, like dance phrases, carry the rise and fall of energy, and use the rate and concentration of movement as affective forces.This kind of cutting

Cutting 12 hours of rushes into twelve minutes of dance, in silence, here are the principles I used:  
1. Re-Choreographing  
This involves changing the choreography to create the feeling the choreography created.  Taking this liberty depends on how willing the director is to let you have a go at realizing his vision in different ways.  Fortunately, in this case, we agreed that it was the feeling of the dance that carried the meaning, not the steps themselves.  So, if the choreography of the actual movements had to change, once they were on the screen, in order to express the meanings built into the live dancing, so be it.  When I worked on Thursday's Fictionsas a picture editor I acted as a 'choreographic' editor by transposing the intentions (not the steps) of the choreographer's live composition to screen time, space and energy. When doing this I would sometimes imagine how the series of shots would constitute a wave-form pattern if their accents were charted on paper. Then, from this imaginary chart I would decide if the dynamic wave’s peak was too sharp or too shallow, too broad or too narrow, or otherwise distorting the flow of movement trajectories beyond a range which expressed the choreographer’s intentions.  I would then alter the actual sequence of steps, pauses or gestures accordingly to change the shape of the dynamic wave.  One of my most frequent methods of doing this was to redesign the movement phrases using shots that allowed one dancer to finish another’s move.  In this case, a movement impulse starts in one shot and then the next shot continues its trajectory phrasing.  This particular device extends individual movement arcs and returns the fullness of expressive energy that the screen sometimes strips from three-dimensional movement. 

2. Narrative translations
This method involves asking the question, “What is a particular, given, abstract movement communicating with its energy in emotional or narrative terms?”  I would literally ask myself, and the director, “Where are we now in the dance’s ‘story’ or structure?  Where have we come from?”  The answers would guide the direction I moved in – just as in narrative.  If we had come from frozen, through slow thawing breaths to short sharp outbursts of energy, where were we going now?  To the first celebratory unison.  Which in turn leads, as per the choreography, to getting wild and needing to pull the energy back in.  And so on.  Knowing the ‘story’ in movement quality/energy terms helped me know how long to stay with things, how quickly to build to or establish them, and where their development was leading.  When I say it ‘helped me know’ I don’t mean it told me the answers, I mean it was one way of asking questions that I could try cutting the answers to – theorizing possible solutions directly through the material. 

3. Dancing Edits
People sometimes complain about editing in films like Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002) that the editing is too fast or there are too many close ups, so they can’t “see the choreography”.  This is an inappropriate view of dance film as an art form.  In dance film, it is not that you are missing the ‘dance’ by only seeing one dancer or one body part or by seeing a rapid hit-hit-hit–hit-hit of cuts.  This is a screen dance whose ultimate choreographic form is composed of the movement phrases, experiences and actions created with the cuts.  As dance professor Sondra Horton Fraleigh says about dance in her book Dance and the Lived Body, A Descriptive Aesthetics:

In dance, leaping and turning are actually single figures of movement, having specific shapes in time and space.  The dance work as a whole is a gestalt that emerges form the integration of single figures. This is no less true for a screen dance.  What you see is the dance, not a version of the dance all cut up.  

4. Singing the Rhythm
During the cutting process, movement trajectories shaped by cuts can ‘sound’ in the editor’s head.  This phenomenon draws on a kind of synesthesia that I think a lot of editors have.  As the editor Tom Haneke says in First Cut, Conversations with Film Editors, “I hear spaces.”  This may also be one reasons why editing is so often compared with music.  The movements ‘sound’ in editor’s heads (bodies) with their timing, pacing, and trajectory phrasing making a kind of ‘song’.  It is very hard to vocalize this song, and I’m not much of a singer.  So when I ‘sing’ I often mean just tuning my awareness to the song in my head.  I sing my cuts, too, not just the movements in a given shot, but the phrases that I make with edits, ‘listening’ to breath, intensities, tensions and releases of the flow of energy, time, space and movement to see if I’ve hit a false note.  It is not just because my background is in dance that I also ‘dance’ as I cut.  I have heard other editors speak of this phenomenon, too, wherein they notice their head, shoulders, eyebrows, blinks or breaths moving sympathetically with the movement phrases being cut together, tracking their rise and fall of energy and noting their punctuation points with a short sharp nod.  “Singing the Rhythm” means tuning one’s own physical rhythms to the rhythms being perceived in the filmed material, and is at work in every single rhythmic decision I make. 





"John Deere"
Short by Mitchell Rose

Drawing inspiration from the rich history of dance films which have been made since the early 1900s.

The inventor Thomas Edison used dancers in his studio in New Jersey in the 1890s to test his equipment. Ever since, inventors have worked with dancers to demonstrate their newfound effects. 

In the early 1900s, Georges Melies the French magician- turned photographer-turned filmmaker often incorporated dance in his brilliant shorts. In the vaudevillian style, Melies' structure had a clear beginning, middle, and end and his purpose was equally clear -to entertain you. The Russian puppeteer Alexander Shiraef, perhaps the first dancer-turned filmmaker, was playing in the same era with stop action photography, dissolves, and magic tricks with astonishing results. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton had the double strength of being actor/director/writer/choreographers. Keaton thrilled you with his adventurous stunts while Chaplin appealed to your sense of pathos.After the technicians and magicians came the romantics. The dancer-turned-director Stanley Donen who worked with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire honored the Hollywood formula for commercial success while exploring various ideas from Fred's dancing on the ceiling to Gene's dancing with his altar ego in a display window (COVER GIRL).Scholar Larry Billman claims that a large portion of dance films have the underlying theme of "dancing to win." The script is driven by the appealing notion that dancing well can single you out from the crowd. These films instill a sense of hope. While not setting out with this intention, Daivd LaChapelle's film 2005 RIZE honors Krumping and a neighborhood's way of dealing with their struggle, of allowing that struggle to define who they are. For a long stretch, a dance sequence in commercial films was synonymous with decoration, and sexual titillation. Yet sometimes, the tease is only a cover. Peal away the layers behind Busby Berkeley's extravaganzas with his cascading sets and sequined ladies and you’ll find a political message. Mussolini's films of synchronized swimmers have been compared to Berkeley's graphic spectaculars.Beyond the entertainment was a subliminal call for order and obedience to authority.The Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini honors the freedom of the individual, with a choreography of the streets that is joyfully chaotic.Maya Deren, daughter of a Russian psychiatrist who studied with Katherine Dunham in Haiti, is the one who moved beyond experimenting with machinery, plots, tricks and dance as decoration. Her shorts placed the body in landscapes in a magnetic way that few dance filmmakers have been able to top. Deren wanted to entrance her audience, to cast a spell upon them. She was fascinated by the voodoo culture of Haiti and a student of trance.
Over the last fifteen years, especially in Europe, dance video as a narrative form caught the producer's trust. But recently the narrative form seems to be fading with the emergence of the Revivalists. Around the world, filmmakers are creating something akin to mobile paintings, homage to landscape and bodies.
Within the history of dance on camera lies a long tradition of choreography created in the editing room. A recent example of this is NASCENT from the Czech born filmmaker Gina Czarnecki. NASCENT could be seen as graphic design, but it also plays on your powers of perception. Czarnecki writes, “I rework and re-work the images so that form and content are made in the process of constructing the imagery. It is laborious but gives a unique hand-made aesthetic- bringing in traditions of drawing and painting to the digital, time based medium.” 

The vaudevillians made us laugh, the romantics to sigh, Maya Deren and the few hypnotists of her ilk to make us dream. The dancer turned filmmaker turned dancer Yvonne Rainer made us question the logic of any single movement whether of the body or the camera. She broke down our expectations. Meredith Monk and Sergei Parajanov instill us with a sense of wonder. 

Action films, musicals, martial arts films have down to a science how to make the spine tingle with the movement in their films. With such amazing hits as HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, which Owen Gleiberman from Entertainment Weekly called "an outrageously gorgeous spectacle of balletic aggression," what more inspiration could you need?



(an excerpt from Dance on Camera Journal)  
by Robert Johnson                      

Ballet films are a special treat for the fans of classic dance.These opera-house lurkers thrill to see the art that they love in the new, and glamorous light of the big screen.  Ballet aficionados also appreciate the mainstream recognition that a commercial film signifies, implying that the public at large can comprehend, and share their devotion.    Only a few such films have appeared over the years, but almost all have become classics.  

  “LA MORT DU CYGNE” (“BALLERINA.”)  explores the obsession to dance, and the fabled jealousy that has led rival ballerinas to put ground glass in each other’s toe shoes, and soap the stage before premieres. The heroine, Rose Souris, a young student at the Paris Opera school,dreams only of becoming a dancer, and idolizes the company’s star ballerina, whom sheadopts as her “godmother.”  When the intrusion of a glamorous, Russian artiste threatens her godmother’s career, the girl takes matters into her own hands.  A trap door on stage opens mysteriously beneath the foreign dancer, as she performs the ballet “La Mort du Cygne,” and she plunges downward with a shriek, knocking herself unconscious, and breaking her leg.           

The guilty child flees underground, running terrified through backstage corridors littered with scenery, where gargoyles leer at her in accusation.  Confined to her apartment, the recovering Russian ballerina lies stretched on an oriental divan, smoking a cigarette, andbrooding.  Shadows under her eyes bespeak Slavic suffering, and the pain of exile, and thesmoke curls up toward a Byzantine icon.  She dreams of dancing a la Isadora Duncan, butan infection completes the job begun by French xenophobia, and—fate worse thandeath--she can never dance again.                    Then the fun starts.       

To the child’s surprise, her beloved godmother gives up dancing to marry a wealthyadmirer, a frivolous betrayal of Rose Souris’s artistic principles.  It seems the child’sloyalties were misplaced.  Then the Russian dancer begins to teach at the Paris Operaschool, and the talented Rose Souris becomes her star pupil, even as the girl struggles withthe knowledge that she caused her teacher’s injury.                       

When the Russian gives Souris the leading role as Queen Bee in the “Ballet of the Bees,”jealousy begins to fester among the other children, and their gossipy ballet mothers.  Anenvious gnat reveals Souris’s criminality, but in the end her talent, and the pure love ofdancing that she shares with her Russian teacher save her from destruction.                        Dance triumphs.                                  

      # # #

An impression of Belgian director Clara Van Gool
by Kelly Hargraves

Telling a story with images rather than words is dance’s forte, but sometimes the reality of a dance’s setting remains an abstraction on stage.  Cinema is the art which allows our imaginations to travel to new locations—to view princesses in their castles; soldiers in their fields; drinkers in their pubs.  When a dance film can bring together the vibrant expressiveness of movement and the immediacy of a character’s milieu the stories have a greater magnitude.  Three recent films by Belgian filmmaker Clara Van Gool put dance in such dynamic locations.

With choreographer Angelika Oi, Van Gool opens up the ancient streets of Tuscany inBitings and Other Effects.  The tunnels and pubs of London become new stages for the choreographies of Jamie Watton in Exit and Lloyd Newson in Enter Achilles.

These three films directed by Van Gool are rich with cinematic atmosphere that brings about lustrous interpretations of the choreography. The 35-year-old filmmaker was trained at the Dutch Film and Television Academy.  While pursuing her studies, she decided to focus on making short films and films without words—so dance was a subject that attracted her.  Van Gool and her choreographer friends began to experiment. She discovered working with choreographers who have a strong sense of character and story development is best for her, saying she finds more formal, abstract work harder to film.  She’s made several films with Belgian choreographer Angelika Oi, including Bitings.  While working on this film, she met Watton, and together the two created Exit.  It was through Watton, a dancer in DV8, that Van Gool became involved in the making of the film version of DV8’s Enter Achilles.

Exit takes place in a pedestrian tunnel under the Thames River in London, which was built as a fall-out shelter during WWII.  Shot in black & white, Exit drips with the humidity and dampness of such a place.  Through improvisation, Watton and Van Gool created a series of contemporary characters who travel through this ominous passage—a young girl, a businessman, a mother and her son.  Curious relationships develop between these bodies in a trapped space.  The walls vibrate as they hurtle into each other, running through the puddles and falling on the cold paved path to briskly roll or lie down and nap.

The atmosphere in Bitings and Other Effects, shown this November at the New York Expo of Short Film and Video/Dance on Camera Night, greatly contrasts with that of Exit.  Rich colors and noisy street scenes give it a romantic, old-world feeling.  Elaborate costumes and tapestry frame the dancers in the large glorious rooms of an Italian mansion where the wide-open spaces heighten the sense of isolation of the dancers involved in private moments.  The story is based on the Tarantella, and the effects of a tarantula’s sting.  Following the initial bite, each victim is drawn to the center of the city.  Van Gool’s camera follows them as they spin toward a central spot.  With them, we travel through the old stone streets, over roof tops and across crowded plazas.

The film version of DV8’s stage production of Enter Achilles, takes us inside a London pub, with its gleaming wood bar, beer taps and glasses.  The tensions are high as the group of virile young men flirt and threaten one another.  An ingenious choreography ensues with the dancers still holding their beer glasses while jumping each other or tumbling across the barroom floor.  Van Gool enhances the stunning choreography and the personality of these men by following their intense actions with a detached eye and then zooming in to show us their intentions.  Through the intimacy of film, she heightens the strong psychology of DV8’s dance.

By using conventional camera work, without special effects or filmic illusion, she creates a strong sense of narrative.  Happily, each film has its own distinct personality and atmosphere.  Van Gool seems to have a good sense of a choreographer’s needs and hasn’t interfered with the dance itself.  She attempts to keep segments whole with little editing.  Instead, she uses the worlds surrounding the dance—the colors, textures and sounds—to heighten the dance’s story and enhance the energy and dynamics of its movement.  Her strength is her strong craftsmanship as a filmmaker.  Deft editing, strong musicality and a range of camera angles give Van Gool’s films a sense of reality that stage work often lacks.


Getting off the stage
by Daniel Conrad

Dance film is problematic because it is not an original genre but derives from the stage. Yet it is a mistake to merely record pure stage performances on film: you lose the spontaneity and immediacy of live performance without getting anything artistic in return. For drama, this was established early in film history when filmmakers were doing precisely that: filming pure theatrical performances on a stage. This quickly changed when Kuleshov, Pudovkin, and Eisenstein developed editing as a transformative mode of expression, and not mere punctuation.

Unlike theatre, dance is organized human movement. This makes the transition to film particularly difficult, since the conventional movement vocabulary of dance (particularly ballet) is designed for stage. E.g., the turnout of fifth position lets one leap sideways while facing the audience. There is little need for this in film, since the camera can move with the dancer. Stage-dance also lacks close-ups, aerial angles, and locations, because the stage only provides one angle. Film moves from angle to angle. Eisenstein might even say it moves from cut to cut, since the cuts are aesthetically active. At its best, cutting can create “surprising inevitability,” where audience expectations are paid off, handsomely, in ways that were completely unexpected but make perfect sense in retrospect.

However, if one responds by cutting stage-dance into shots and reassembling these into film, the unity of the choreography is destroyed. So the transition from stage to film has to start with filmic choreography, incorporating montage, angles, camera movement, and locations at the beginning of the process.

There are two basic solutions. The first solution is to completely re-choreograph a stage work, shot-by-shot for the camera. This can run into the same problems as adapting a novel for the screen, but it can work if the choreographer understands the medium. A beautiful example of this is Édouard Lock's film, Amelia, based on the stage work. Here the choreographer/director (Lock) makes truly filmic choreography.

This re-choreographing is partly a question of kinetics: film time runs more quickly than stage time. In film we cut out of each scene as soon as we can and into the next as late as we can. Space is different too: if you frame an abdomen in closeup, the thrust of muscles across the light requires choreographing individual muscles, ignoring the rest of the body. This change in scale changes the dynamics: a small movement, which on stage is subtle, can rush across the screen violently in a close-up. You may need to slow it down. And since the frame is horizontal, you may get better dynamics if you move horizontally rather than vertically.

The second - and I think stronger - solution is to compose a film de-novo, out of original dance phrases choreographed deliberately as fragments with sticky ends. The choreographer needs know how these fragments will be cut together; so, ideally, he/she should work closely, shot-by-shot, with the director. Each shot can then be choreographed with cutting in mind, using the frame instead of the stage. The choreography then keeps its integrity, while the film keeps its montage-logic.

Consider, for example, the unstageable, de novo opening scene of the film, West Side Story, choreographed for the camera by co-director Jerome Robbins. A spare shot of a lone young man moves to two men, then three, then larger groups, in loose counterpoint with finger pops on the upbeats. Eisenstein called this “rhythmic” cutting. Then, groups of Anglo or Puerto-Rican young men take turns confronting and chasing each other in a counterpoint he termed “dialectic” cutting. The stark graphic patterns change quickly. Instead of the 180 degree rule, there is a rupture of spatial and temporal continuity, allowing the movement to carry much more than the thin narrative. The result is a powerful visual essay on male bonding in situations where survival depends on loyalty and numbers.

Yet even working shot-by-shot, a common problem is the sense of missing some vital piece of choreography which is out of frame during the shot. In extreme cases, this destroys the choreography. This problem is common  in matching-action cutting, when trying to create the illusion of continuous action; and it is at its absolute worst when the director tries to cover a pre-existing stage dance with three cameras, as if it were a hockey game.

When choreographing shot-by-shot, this problem can be fixed in several ways: by keeping all the vital action within the frame at any point in time (Bob Fosse did this routinely), by deliberately using the off-screen space to create ambiguity, by eliminating the sense of continuous action and substituting strong rhythmic bridges between shots (as in the above scene from West Side Story), and by using non-matched “collision” cuts or pseudo-matching action cuts.

“Collision” cutting, Eisenstein's invention, involves cutting unmatched shots in ways that make them collide, e.g., by changing screen-direction. Screen direction derives from the static composition of the frame (as in the Mein Liebe Herr sequence of Fosse’s Cabaret), from movement of bodies through the frame (as in the Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin), or from camera movement (as in Hilary Harris’s 9 Variations on a Dance Theme). When screen direction is repeated shot to shot, this creates momentum; sharp reversals in screen direction then create “collision.”

Pseudo-matching action cuts (often used in modern narrative films, such as Ron Mann’sThe Insider, but invented by Pudovkin) leap from one shot (or scene) to another across a kinetic bridge. They work like this: cut from (e.g.) the rising action of a moving leg in one shot to a moving arm, with similar kinetics and screen-position, in the next. We can even cut to another location this way; continuity is broken, but the kinetic bridge maintains the illusion of simultaneity.

When all these methods are used together, with music, strong graphics, and colour, you get what Eisenstein called “overtonal” montage, or, toward the end of his career, “ecstasy,” referring to the sensation of being flown out of the frame. The dance sequence from the end of Ivan the Terrible - Part II and the sequence that renders the eponymous ballet from The Red Shoes are good examples.

Concerning locations, one very powerful non-stage approach is to move the filming to a location which does not easily lend itself to dance. These locations are not just backdrops but dance partners, because the physical restrictions and freedoms they give the dancers determine the repertoire of available movement, which is different from stage movement. And the solutions the dancers and choreographers invent in response give each location a unique choreography with its own specific kinetic logic. A good location is, then, an elaborate piece of gymnastic equipment which prevents you from using all those moves with French names but frees you to do other things in compensation. Examples of good location work abound, including Lloyd Newson's recent The Cost of Living (with DV8), and John Comisky's Hit and Run.

Some of the virtues of location work can be simulated in a studio. E.g., Fred Astaire’s “Stiff Upper Lip” sequence in Damsel in Distress, which takes place in a simulated amusement park, is full of gymnastic movement invented to fit the physical demands of the set. Interestingly, this is one of the few dance sequences in Astaire’s filmography which employs quick collision cuts and violations of the 180 degree rule. He normally preferred long, full-figure shots, in strict continuity; and many of his dances comprise a single long take.

Other unstageable methods involve manipulating the camera with speed changes or superimposition. The classic superimposition film is Norman McLaren's exquisite Pas de Deux, where he used the optical printer to superimpose many identical duplicates of a shot against itself. Each duplicate lags its neighbour by several frames, throwing the movement into a very tight, multi-voiced canon. Each dancer's limbs leave a trail of visual echoes, layering the movement. The dancers are back-lit against a black background, creating sharp outlines, emphasizing the pure, balanced lines of the choreography


When texture is more important than line, you can front-light the dancers and make superimpositions in-camera. In this method, the negative is exposed, then rewound in the camera and re-exposed to yield layers of images. This renders complex textures with a full range of midtones; so it differs substantially from optical printing. The texture of the surface of the skin can be a vital part of the composition, especially in side-light, and this method allows the rendition of elaborate textural rhythms as superimposed bodily surfaces melt or pulse across each other. Ideally, the layered images act in concert as the visual equivalents of the voices of a fugue: in canon, counterpoint, unison, and stretto.

Unlike optical printing, in-camera methods allow random associations. The results can be gloriously unpredictable, but we plan our shots anyway, hoping for rich mistakes. As Eisenhower said, after D-Day, "Plans are useless, but planning is essential." When shooting two layers, we previsualize both layers before shooting. The first layer is filmed along with a video-tap, and the exposed film rewound to a punch-mark. Temp music is synced to the video. We use the music to keep the layers in sync while filming, and dancers watch the first layer before performing the second. This allows complex systems. E.g., dancer Richard Siegal once emphasized the downbeat on the first pass and the upbeat on the second.

By superimposing, you can marry dancer over dancer, so that they can do a pas de deux (or even a pas de trois) with their own selves. Or you can marry dancers with a location, with textural potential. And you can do otherwise dangerous things. We have had dancers cavorting in the middle of the Hells Gate rapids, in sheets of fire, with a live, rented tiger, and with hordes of exuberant children.

Changing camera speeds is also interesting. In the Prague Metro, our dancers were working in moving subway cars and escalators. It would have been dangerous to dance at full speed, so we set the choreography to temp music, then cut the performance tempo in half, so the dancers were dancing at half-speed. Then we undercranked the camera to bring the action back up to the full speed of the choreography. This allowed the dancers to thread the needle and be safe while being intricate. The resulting kinetics were strangely lyrical.

We have discussed making dance filmic. Can we make film more choreographic? One option: give up narrative. Dance doesn't need narrative any more than music does; it has another way of constructing unity. Of course, dance includes storybook ballet, but then plot is not usually the point. And without plot or characters, film needs no real-world counterpart. It can also do without a message. Rather, it can convey new ways of looking at the world, of taking it apart and letting it re-associate. In modern dance, unlike most narrative film, this kind of abstraction is a common way of working. There is no need to lose it.

There are advantages to this. When you work with abstract movement, you are not imprisoned by a story-line or the requirements of a character, so texture, structure, rhythm, and point of view can be far more potent. And by organizing the body like this, you see it (and humanity) differently.

When you add strategic choices of angles, you can represent humanity as a borderless continuum at both large and small scales: from above, as if we were a single mass of organized protoplasm; or from up close, as if an individual body was just a colony of independent limbs. Both ways of looking filter out the individual to look at hidden human patterns - to reveal the human condition in ways that we usually can't see through narrative alone.

In conclusion, dance film can do things neither dance nor film can do alone if it frees itself from some conventions of its parents. Film provides ways of organizing the world with angles, camera movement, locations, and montage. Dance provides abstract ways of organizing the world with human movement.

Of course, however we organize our little worlds, both dance and film require artists with vision. Theorists usually avoid writing about this, because it's hard to write about; but ultimately, methodologies alone don’t justify a work of art. The poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau was once asked by a journalist what he would choose to save if his house were on fire. He replied, "Le feu" (The fire).

© 2003, 2006, Daniel Conrad

Mast, G., 1982, Howard Hawks, Storyteller pp. 30-31, Oxford Univ. Press
Eisenstein, S., 1929, Methods of Montage, in Film Form, transl. Jay Leyda, Harcourt Brace
Eisenstein, S., 1929, A Dialectic Approach to Film Form, in Film Form, transl. Jay Leyda, Harcourt Brace Eisenstein, S., 1929, The Filmic Fourth Dimension, in Film Form, transl. Jay Leyda, Harcourt Brace New York Times, Apr. 23, 2001, p.B1

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