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Through a Different Lens

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Preserving and spreading the power of dance through film festivals

By Joshua Bartlett

Since the beginning of cinematic history, film and movement have maintained a close relationship. Think of the early silent films of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, whose mime abilities were fluidly balletic in quality. Even the phrase “motion picture” succinctly defines the essence of cinema.

Horizon of Exile (2007), an award-winning film by Isabel Rocamora, features stunning cinematography. (Image courtesy Deirdre Towers)

But the last 20 years have brought into focus the significance of dance on the screen, and, as a result, dance film festivals have become more numerous and prominent. According to Deirdre Towers, artistic director of New York’s Dance on Camera Festival and of the Dance Films Association, there are at least 35 major dance film festivals around the world (a handful of them in the United States), with many smaller organized screenings popping up every year. There are those who think dance videos or films diminish the original purpose of dance—to be seen live on a stage or at a specified gathering. Festival filmmakers and directors, nonetheless, see a clear purpose in making films for and about dance and in establishing venues where they can be seen.

For Towers, the original purpose of the Dance on Camera Festival, which emerged from the DFA (founded in 1956) and became an official film festival in 1972, remains essentially unchanged today. “Dance films were being made and there wasn’t a venue to look at them and get a sense of a standard of excellence,” she says. “We wanted filmmakers to get an impression of alternative and interesting approaches.”

John Crawford, director of the UCI Dance Film Festival on the campus of the University of California at Irvine, honors the achievements of pioneer film choreographers and directors such as Gene Kelly or Busby Berkeley. However, he thinks that for a long time the evolution of dance filmmaking lagged behind mainstream films in terms of directing and technology. “Dance film is a genre that is really developing very rapidly,” says Crawford. “As of the last 10 years we are at the advent of very capable video technology that makes filmmaking so much less expensive. We are seeing an explosion of film experiments by choreographers that allows for the transformation of dance as an art form. Now we can fully integrate the vocabulary of film to realize its potential.” The end result is the creation of a new language for the screen that necessitates film festivals to allow for a wider exposure to dance.

Los Angeles obviously holds the distinction of being the film capital of the world. Nevertheless, when Lynette Kessler, artistic and executive director of Dance Camera West of Los Angeles, started the festival seven years ago, she didn’t expect the overwhelming response it received. “It was sold out for a month before it happened,” she says. “I come from a modern dance background and had to drag people to see my concerts.” In her view, one of the festival’s primary purposes is to accentuate the diverse cultural audience in the area. “We have 102 different languages and dance forms represented here. I have the unique opportunity to show films made from nearly any style or genre or cultural background.” She gets submissions from countries as varied as India, Congo, Cambodia, Estonia, Iceland, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. Like the other festivals, she includes features, documentaries, restagings of existing work for the screen, animation, and experimental shorts.

Dance Camera West, held at venues like the Getty Center and the Walt Disney Concert Hall (as well as lower-profile spaces), represents numerous examples of successful dance films. Inside the Circle (2007), shown at the 2007 festival, documented the break-dancing culture that congregates for an annual three-day competition, called B-Boy City, in Austin, TX. Following several of the participants over a six-year period, director Marcy Garriott examined the outstanding talents and sometimes wayward lives of the dancers. The audience choice award at the June 2008 festival went to The Rain (2006), directed by Pontus Lidberg, which featured sensual choreography in rain-soaked settings. Another award winner, Horizon of Exile (2007), directed by Isabel Rocamora, provided visually stunning cinematography of burka-clad women dancing ritualistically on an arid plain while streams of water bubbled from the earth’s surface.

Dance on Camera presented a range of films at its New York showings in January, including Water Flowing Together, a documentary about former New York City Ballet principal dancer Jock Soto’s offstage life. An example of a popular short feature (produced for around $2,000) was the whimsical INEARTHIA (2006), in which a man wraps himself around a pole and attempts to spin the Earth faster and faster until it starts to unwind. The festival holds screenings primarily at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, but also at galleries and performance spaces in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

‘We have 102 different languages and dance forms represented here. I have the unique opportunity to show films made from nearly any style or genre or cultural background.’ — Lynette Kessler, Dance Camera West

At the UCI Dance Film Festival, held over a three-day period, Crawford screened William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced, but also devoted a full afternoon exclusively to student work. In his opinion, plenty of dance is seen on television these days, but it is limited in its scope, camera work, and vocabulary. “So You Think You Can Dance is fabulous because it lets people see the passion and athleticism that a strong dancer can bring to the screen,” says Crawford, who fully grasps the importance of combining dance with media technology for the younger generation. “But as an art form, dance needs to go beyond that. A film festival doesn’t replace the more popular forms; it just adds to the mix. A lot of what you see is so commercial and sexist in its orientation that we need to give other kinds of artists the ability to respond in their own way.”

To get the attention of a festival director, a film needs to reach certain criteria. Crawford looks for eclecticism among the entries and stresses that dance should stake a place in the foreground of a work, rather than merely be incidental to it. Towers insists, since much of her festival takes place at Lincoln Center, that there has to be a reason to see it “in the can,” as they say in movie lingo. “To ask someone to sit in a film house, it has to be as good as or better than the live performance,” says Towers. “From our submissions, we try to show the best in terms of clarity of intention. I am a fan of all the things a dance teacher would like: good dancing, good musicality, grace, wit, something that shows imagination.”

“We are interested in what media can do for dance in taking it to a new place,” says Kessler. In doing so, Dance Camera West sometimes uses alternative surfaces for screenings, such as buildings or trees.

Most festival directors agree on what they do not want: one-dimensional documentation of a stage performance. “We don’t want to see a stage recording where you see the heads in the audience, the edge of the stage and the wings,” says Towers. “It’s clear when the camera was put in the back of the room and there was no collaboration between the choreographer and the director.”

So what is the relevance of dance film festivals to dance studio owners and teachers who have enough in their busy lives to worry about? The short answer is that they can broaden their horizons about the art form. “I think dance teachers and students need to see all kinds of dance,” says Kessler. “Studios get into their structures, offering a certain curriculum and then structure even deeper with competitions and recitals. They have to have those structures to stay in business. But dance and media allow for all kinds of possibilities.”

Knowing how to shoot your own video of a dance competition or performance, for example, is simply good business. “Your video becomes an ambassador for the studio beyond its immediate circuit,” says Towers. “You have to look at it from the point of view of how the technology can be used to enhance what you are doing.” In addition, Towers cites her experience with a studio owner who wanted to get an edge on the competition in her hometown. Because she had a rectangular studio, Towers encouraged her to screen her own mini dance film festival there to ratchet up some publicity. Even placing a television monitor with dance films in the waiting room of a studio can provoke curiosity and educate at the same time.

Dance film festivals, large or small, also have the potential to bring a new dance audience from the general public. “People might not initially plunk down $50 to see a live dance performance, but they might stumble onto a Dance Camera West event because it is $10, or in the case of some outdoor events, free,” says Kessler. “The Los Angeles Music Center and UCLA Live have seen dance audiences grow because of Dance Camera West.”

Each festival has information on future programming and basic application forms for submissions of DVDs on its website. The next events are: Dance on Camera, January 7–16, 2009 (www.dancefilmsassn.org/DanceOnCamerMain.html); UCI Film Festival, March 2009 (http://dancefilm.arts.uci.edu); Dance Camera West, June 5–27, 2009 (www.dancecamerawest.org).

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