When did you start to work with choreographers and, as a documentary filmmaker, what drew you to dance?
I knew nothing at all about dance until my early twenties. When I was at university I studied literature and thought I was going to be a writer. So dance wasn’t anywhere in my orbit or the orbit of my friends...I came across it basically because I went to work in television as a researcher on the South Bank Show. A colleague of mine, Geoff Dunlop, made a very good documentary on Merce Cunningham in the 1980s…and it really opened my eyes onto a whole new world that I never knew existed, and which I found very exciting.
Then when I started directing documentaries for the program, one thing became clear to me very quickly…If you make a film about a writer, it’s fundamentally a journalistic exercise rather than a cinematic one. The writer may be a fantastic interviewee but there’s not much you can do, film-wise, apart from setting up a shot of them talking. Dance was by far the most cinematic of the art forms. The minute you walk into a dance studio it’s all about what you can articulate through image and movement. So coming from a literary background, I quickly realised that film can’t really carry much literary content and that if you want to make something very powerful in a cinematic sense, then words are not the way to do it. I needed to find non-literary ways of working, and dance seemed to offer the best possibilities.
The cinematic influences you revealed thoughout the Dance Screen Lab—it seems you came to those after you had discovered dance and found the relevance of those directors to making the most of the cinematic potential of dance?
The influences have been progressive: as the years go by you discover new things and have new concerns. One of the first things that made me interested in film at all was seeing Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972). Up until that time I thought of the cinema as being James Bond movies. So, just as I’d grown up without dance in provincial towns in England, neither was film a big part of my life, certainly not art films. Someone like Herzog relates to dance because of the physicality of the work. He famously said, “film is the art of the illiterates”, and I suppose that relates to dance because its power is not literary.
What models of film were useful in adapting dance work that has narrative elements, or has specific things to say, such as the work of DV8 Physical Theatre?
An important thing to say about Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men (1989) is that we never thought we were making a dancefilm. When we made it I had no sense of there being a dancefilm culture such as there is now. In fact, one thing DV8 were emphatic about was that they hated the word ‘dance’ and called themselves physical theatre. So it is kind of ironic that that film is now talked about as an iconic dancefilm.
But isn’t the success of the film because of the connection or affinity with cinematic traditions? It was physical theatre, physical cinema, not dance.
For me what it represented was a chance to make a silent movie. It was a fantastic exercise in what can be expressed purely through action and image. Up until the end of the 1920s, every film was a dancefilm in the sense that it was all about what could be expressed through the body. There’s the issue of intertitles but, fundamentally, it was about the body. All the people that made cinema into an international success story—Keaton, Chaplin, Gish, Fairbanks—they are people who are very articulate with their bodies. All those references were in my mind when I did Dead Dreams…
|Mko Malkhasyan, David Hinton and Alla Kovgan on the shoot of Nora|
Well that whole production was a kind of cultural melting pot, which was one of the things I liked about it. Alla wanted to work with Mko Malkhasyan, a cameraman from Armenia, and Nora wanted the male lead to be played by Souleymane Badolo who comes from Burkina Faso. On the set there were five languages being spoken. Apart from his tribal language, Souleymane could only speak French, Alla was speaking Russian to Mko, I was speaking English to Nora, the line producer was speaking Portuguese to the police because that is the official language in Mozambique. Then Nora was speaking Shona to the local tribal people who were taking part in the film. So just practically speaking, communication was glorious if nightmarish.
We knew we weren’t going to make an ethnographic film. We weren’t making a documentary about Shona culture. Nora is a Shona who grew up in Zimbabwe, but she’s spent many years living in New York, absorbing a lot from ballet and American modern dance which had a big effect on the movement content of the film. And behind the camera we weren’t pretending to look at the world purely passively like a documentary maker, or to look at it with an African eye. Alla’s a Russian living in America and I’m English and Mko is Armenian and it was very interesting for us to find a vision for the film that we all agreed on—but we found it a strong aesthetic, very vivid, that we all really like.
It reminded me of the Haitian footage that Maya Deren shot—in slow motion and trying to get inside this trance dancing that’s so powerful. And I’ve been thinking about the specificity of bodies, exemplified in the solo dancer in Nora—you are not watching an actor embodying a character, you are watching someone using their ‘real’ body and gestural world. So there is an affinity between dance and documentary.
Yes, it’s become a big issue for me. I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity in dance which is a huge part of its appeal; the fact that they are actually doing it. That’s what makes it different from acting, which is pretending. And it’s a massive issue how you achieve authenticity in dance on film.
So we are not talking about documentations of dance but the way in which the poetic film structures you find in dancefilm can still contain these very real and authentic film performances.
I’m really interested in both extremes. Paradjanov and Bresson—he’s another one—these directors are basically control freaks. It’s the same with Busby Berkeley. The person making the film has a very clear vision of what they want to create and I kind of like those creative visionaries; people who find the performers they need to fulfil their vision and that’s all they require of their performers…anything else they give is just a nuisance.
And that’s exactly how choreographers can operate.
Absolutely, and often a lot of the tension between choreographers and directors is that they are both used to being tin gods in their professional worlds. It can be hard for them to give it up when they collaborate.
But a director who has a choreographic way of working with moving bodies and staging them for the screen—the way Paradjanov and Bresson do—that’s something you are able to do.
There’s a lot of different ways to make good work. The freedom is there to experiment as much as you like and take your influences from anywhere you like. Working in dancefilm now is like working in Hollywood in 1910—the rules haven’t been invented yet. You might make good work by being very controlling, or by allowing your performers lots of freedom. What interests me is when people really make up their minds, really make a decision about what they’re trying to do, and then push it as far as it will go. Then the result won’t be bland. I’m fundamentally incredibly optimistic about the future of the form.
RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 24
© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org