Moved by a Motion Not Its Own: Some Notes on Dance in Film
by Cynthia Bond
Recently, as I sat in the audience of a dance performance for which I was dramaturg, I was struck by the 20-something audience members seated on either side of me, gleefully snapping selfies and posting them to Instagram as they waited for the show to begin. (They certainly didn’t waste their time reading the program, unlike their middle-aged counterparts in the next row). This phenomenon strikes me as more than just the brave new world of technology we presently inhabit. Those Instagram photos say: “I am here!” While you might see such selfie-snapping sprees at a step and repeat for a film festival, typically seated film audience members don’t document themselves (or maybe I’m going to the wrong movies). Could my neighbors’ urge to document their presence (yes through the virtual media addictions of our contemporary life) have been spurred by attending a live performance?
Live performance and film perhaps share some historical ground, both traditionally taking place in a proscenium space, both often revolving around narrative. But film is the elegy, performance is the life. Film is the trace of the past to performance’s right now (though of course the past is always present: the ghosts of other performances, the representational and psychological baggage the audience imports, etc.). We speak of a film audience dreaming, but we hope that the performance audience is thinking (when they are not–woe betide–fully, dreamlessly, sleeping). But I don’t mean to privilege one over the other: the perfection and completion of the cinematic image can be just as powerful as live performance.
What I find transporting when performance appears in film are the uncanny moments when it seems to disrupt film’s seamless narrative surface. Think of Harpo in a Marx Brothers’ musical interlude stepping out of scene and out of character to play the harp: the sudden grave look of absorption on his face as he drops the comic mask; his rapt attention to the instrument focusing us on the musical performance as if there were a now. Perhaps part of the uncanniness comes from the way these scenes remind us that on screen Harpo is always a performer; that he exists at a remove from his representation both as an actor and as a harpist. These scenes are at once glaringly “stagey” and abruptly human. Or recall President Barack Obama singing a snippet of Al Green at the Apollo Theatre in 2012. The approving roar from the audience marks the uncanny: we know our President is always on stage when we see him, but we ignore it. When he sings, we see him for what he is: a performer.
The experiential chasm between audience reception of film and live dance performance has not kept cinema from documenting, reshaping, and staging dance on its own terms. Some of the first films ever made, Edison’s shorts, recorded dance, or rather made dance performance the content of cinematic experiments: “The Sioux Ghost Dance,” the exoticized flamenco dancer, the creepy and comic violence of the “Bowery Waltz.”
Self-conscious dance performance in film steps outside of the naturalizing tendencies of Western cinema cast in the classic Hollywood mold. We have come to accept this convention in Musicals, but it’s still difficult to shake the sense of corniness when characters in film suddenly break into song and dance. (Indian films, on the other hand, have trained their audiences to expect song and dance even in the middle of a thriller.) Films like Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark and the recent God Help the Girl by Belle & Sebastian front man Stuart Murdoch have created more easily digestible spectacles for contemporary audiences. Both use music that is more pop than Musical, staging dance numbers as low-key, escapist fantasies that spring from the troubled mind of the central character.
The conventional wisdom about the classic Musical is that the “numbers” don’t disrupt, but actually advance the narrative: the songs tell the deeper story. But certainly there’s plenty of sheer non-story advancing exuberance in the performances of a superficially classic Musical like It’s Always Fair Weather, a surprisingly dark take on post-WWII prosperity and the rise of corporate capitalism and TV nation. When Gene Kelly and his mates dance with garbage can lids on their feet, it’s not necessarily moving the story along, but rather clearing the cinematic moment for the uncanny, embodied engagement that dance in film can generate. Bob Fosse’s cinematic autobiography All That Jazz explicitly toys with the notion of the Musical’s dependence on performance to tell the story, mounting numbers that vacillate between being part of the plot (the show the Fosse-esque main character is choreographing) or providing commentary on the plot (the fantasy sequences about film-Fosse’s life).
Certainly a lot of what we might call “art dance” is documented on film. And if you can’t go to a performance, it’s your best option for experiencing it in some way. But of course what the performance becomes depends greatly on the filmmaker’s choices. In Pina, Wim Wenders chose to dramatize and narrativize Pina Bausch’s already highly dramatic and narrative work. His frequent close up shot-reverse-shot sequences between dancers in a duet echo the editorial techniques used in classic Hollywood films to get audiences to identify with the characters. Contrast that to Chantal Akerman’s earlier film, One Day Pina Asked, which announces up front its limitations in evoking the performative experience, offering fragments of rehearsals and dancer interviews in a more neutral documentary style. (Other great cinematic documents which foreground Bausch’s work in a more proscenium-based approach are the Paris Opera Ballet version of Orpheus und Eurydike, and Dancing Dreams, which chronicles Bausch’s work with a group of teenagers on her piece “Contact Zone.”)
Clearly, the relationship between dance and film can be much more complex than simply the performance and the document. Consider the film Amelia, ostensibly a documentary of choreography by La La La Human Steps founder, Édouard Locke, but ultimately an extraordinary cinematizing of dance, where the camera becomes a central choreographer. Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s iconic 1983 dance, Rosas Danst Rosas, later became the center of an iconic dance film of the piece, directed by the composer of the music for Rosas, Thierry de May. (Not to mention an iconic threatened lawsuit: De Keersmaeker charged Beyoncé with stealing several key moves from both the piece and the film, for her “Countdown” music video. Beyoncé is rumored to have paid to settle the allegations.) Now De Keersmaeker has repurposed the tensions between influence and stealing, performance and film, in the “Re: Rosas” project. Interested performers visit the project website to learn the Rosas choreography from videos and download the music. They then perform and produce a film of their own version of the piece, and submit it to be posted on the site. Thus, to complete their DIY version, participants have to negotiate the languages of both dance and film.
Sometimes cinematic narrative and formal techniques are used to blur the line between performance and film. A director like Carlos Saura is brilliant at mining the art vs. life theme so common in narrative dance films (think Black Swan, in many ways a far less satisfying version of the gorgeous Powell & Pressburger classic, The Red Shoes). In Saura’s perhaps best known work in the U.S., Carmen, we lose track of the line between the flamenco Carmen being staged by the company portrayed in the film and the off-stage events paralleling the opera Carmen’s narrative of love and betrayal. Crucial to creating the confusion is Saura’s subtle, gliding camerawork. My favorite Saura dance film is the non-narrative Sevillanas (sadly, unavailable in the US on DVD). The camera winds its way unhurriedly through studios where young women practice, to groups of elderly dancers coupling up in flamenco duets, to group performance vignettes. Saura has created a fluid cinematic language that is at once highly, gorgeously stylized yet documentary in feel; a form that is always in touch with dance as labor and performance.
On the other end of the stylistic spectrum is Tony Gatlif’s Latcho Drom, which traces the evolution of flamenco dance and music and the Roma people who created it from Northern India through Spain. Using a more flatly objective style than Sevillanas, Latcho Drom moves from performance to performance and country to country without the talking head experts or voiceovers typical of documentaries. We are left instead to look for connections between performances themselves and ponder the influences of culture, place, and time on the permutations and variations of a rich art form.
“How can we know the dancer from the dance?,” asks the classic Yeats poem. So too, discerning dance from films’ transformation of dance is an endlessly entertaining challenge.
Cynthia Bond is a writer, educator, and media and arts producer. She has published film and television criticism, and her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry and other journals. She is producer for the short film Self-Deportation: The Untold Tale of a Marginal Woman, written and directed by AAIFF 2014 screenplay award winner Eugene Sun Park, an official selection of the 2015 Speechless Film Festival. She was dramaturg for human, next, a performance for dancers, projection, and video monitors, which had its NYC premiere in 2014. She was also dramaturg for Elements Contemporary Ballet’s The Sun King, which premiered at the Pritzker Pavilion in 2014. Bond is media coordinator for Out of Site Chicago, a performance art organization that curates public performances in Wicker Park-Bucktown. Find out more on her website: www.creativebond.net