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Too many cooks?

Erin Brannigan talks with choreographers from the Microdance series

Dance writer and former freelance dancer Erin Brannigan is currently working on an essay on dance and film for Writings on Dance and acting as contributing editor.

Microdance is an initiative of the Australia Council and the Australian Film Commission. Funded by these two agencies, 13 projects from a field of 62 submissions where shortlisted for further development. In August 1996, the ABC selected four projects for production. They will be screened as part of Steps#3—Intersteps at The Performance Space on November 8, followed by discussion with the artists.

Film has been fascinated with the moving body since the first “moving pictures” harnessed light through technology to give motion to images. Filmic studies of human movement such as the work of Eadweard Muybridge late last century are seminal examples of this obsession. Trevor Patrick would appear to revisit these origins of the cinema in his short film, Nine Cauldrons. Nine pools of light illuminate nine encounters between camera and body, the body becoming site and geography of the filmic journey. The notion of ‘journey’ and its narrative implications, whether explicit or implicit, is at the heart of the series of four short films that constitute Microdance.

Another significant issue became apparent in discussions with three of the choreographers, Matthew Bergan, Kate Champion and Sue Healey, along with a faxed response from Trevor Patrick—the role of the choreographer within the cinematic process. Trevor Patrick describes the historic role of the choreographer as being “functionary—someone who came in, put the steps or movement sequences together, then left the director and the producer alone to get on with realising their artistic vision.” We must go back beyond the musical genre to understand current dance/film practice or alternatively to the avant-garde film movements of the 50s and 60s when experimental film techniques escaped the trajectory of the classic fiction film genre.

Recently, dance-maker Lucy Guerin spoke of the effect that the human figure has upon performance, describing it as being “one of the most loaded sites for a narrative source.” This function of the human figure, the narrative history of the cinematic practice and the often-problematic relationship between dance and narrative, emerged as a framework for creative considerations. Matthew Bergan posed the question that we had been circling: “How do you bring movement to film and film narrative—whether it be just movement for movement’s sake, the lusciousness of it, or whether you try and present a narrative within that?” Bergan also spoke of “the linguistic matter of using dancers and bodies as opposed to the textual matter of story and narrative”. The choreographers found themselves negotiating a medium, which had its own indelible history of storytelling, a point compounded by the application process which demanded written synopses and storyboards or shot-lists. Bergan felt compelled to “make it read on paper” and Healey found she “rewrote it as if it would be a straight literary narrative”.

The challenge that Bergan articulated was met by each team in varying ways that constitute a kind of map of the interface between film and dance. Trevor Patrick chose a metaphoric journey made up of iconic moments inspired by a series of drawings by American artist Robert Longo entitled "Men in the Cities”, and Taoist mythology concerning alchemy. His simple approach to the film as “a trio for camera, sound and dancer” is reminiscent of Muybridge; in this case the science is absorbed into the expression, the relationship between body and camera becomes a storytelling mechanism, and the alchemy resonates in the mixture of body, light and film.

Sue Healey, like Trevor Patrick, indulged in the writing stage of her project Slipped and, like Patrick, moved far away from literal interpretations towards what she referred to as “a very clear physical narrative”. With the basic metaphor of a staircase and the journey of the climb being representative of “memory, ancestral past and looking back at the past”, ultimately for her “the movement is the drama”. The use of a strong and simple metaphorical image that acts as a “spine image” allows the dance to occur along and around the stairs, fulfilling a narrative-like function in elaborating upon the basic premise.

Matthew Bergan approached his film, The Father is Sleeping, from the linguistic problematics of a film/dance collaboration, stating in his proposal that his agenda for the film was to look at “narrative and developing an area that combines movement and drama”. Bergan developed a process in which “a scene happens quite naturally and out of that comes a physical gesture…a casual approach to movement.” His theme of “the symbolic father” was approached as a “realistic portrayal” complicated by the effects of memory.

The concept of memory is common to three of the four projects and offers a device for the type of magical transformation of events with which both film and dance have long been enamoured. Kate Champion’s The Changing Room is explicit in taking memory as its subject, the idea that “you can’t go forward if you are attached to your memories…until you’ve completely confronted them.” Again there is a strong visual metaphor—a room that tilts and diminishes in size, eventually filling with water and forcing Champion’s character out. As with Healey, the movement is dictated by the central physical image with the drama growing out of Champion’s desire to explore the kind of “visual effects” that only film can offer.

In Healey’s description of her project, theatre and dance are opposing forces and the struggle to insist upon the work as “a dance project” where “the actual guts of the work had to exist in movement,” required that her director Louise Curham “give over” the work. The creation of a binary opposition where theatre, drama and film came down on one side with movement/dance on the other, persisted throughout the discussions. The assumptions this promotes are odd; that dance and theatre are discrete disciplines is a point contradicted in the stage work of all four choreographers.

This opposition seems more attributable to a power struggle that developed out of disciplinary traditions. Patrick describes “the independent dance-maker who writes, performs, directs and occasionally produces his own work.” This central authority figure is in direct contrast to the teamwork that creates films, a methodology Patrick refers to as being from “another culture.” This new territory was alternatively daunting and comforting for the choreographers. There was a sense of relief when the delegatory system of film production seemed to support an artistic vision, and frustration when this same process left the choreographers feeling “out of control.” As all of the choreographers came up with the original concepts, many felt like Champion when she said that the collaborative process is “like making a cake and someone puts orange rind in, and you didn’t want to put orange rind in.”

Perhaps we must look at the notion of the film auteur, the central artistic force that first appeared in theory surrounding the avant-garde film movements. If new dance film/video practice relates more to this type of aesthetic, as opposed to the aesthetic of the classic narrative fiction film, then the auteur is an obvious role model. Problems arise then when this figure comes in two parts with two different crafts—two different cakes from two different recipes.

The technology and language of filmmakers can be alienating and the industry structure of film is ever-present in the shape of producers and financial pressure. The choreographers’ concerns seem understandable when you place the power of the film industry beside the relatively marginalised dance community. Matthew Bergan’s studies in the area of film gave him the confidence to state that he felt “100 per cent confident to direct and choreograph” next time and, with Champion in agreement, there are precedents set where a cinematographer has been a sufficient co-worker on such projects. I would like to see the choreographers in the editing suite succumbing to the “seduction” Patrick described, indulging in choreography of the image that this technology makes possible.


Matthew Bergan, The Father is Sleeping, director Robert Herbert; Trevor Patrick, Nine Cauldrons, director Paul Hampton; Sue Healey, Slipped, director Louise Curham; Kate Champion, The Changing Room, director Alyson Bell

Dance writer and former freelance dancer Erin Brannigan is currently working on an essay on dance and film for Writings on Dance and acting as contributing editor.

RealTime issue #21 Oct-Nov 1997 pg. 12

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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