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En-Knapp in Vertigo Bird En-Knapp in Vertigo Bird
photo Ziga Koritnik
A boy stares out to sea from a high sand dune, thinking, waiting, ready for action in his commando-style jumpsuit. This is serious play. He signals with obscure gestures to a figure on the beach (he plays all the roles), arms and limbs flying in an ‘action man’ display of skill. The figure on the beach bolts, twisting and spinning as he runs. The camera work in Boy (UK) choreographer Rosemary Lee, director Peter Anderson, takes us into an imaginary life, small hands fluttering out codes, epic slides down the side of a dune. Between close-up and long shot we can piece together gesture, intention, space and terrain in this beautiful depiction of the intensity of child’s play—the choreography remains true to the unthought, incipient actions of childhood, and the direction privileges each moment with grand, almost monumental shots.

This short film was one of the international dance video/films that made up Videosteps, curated by Michelle Mahrer and part of Leisa Shelton’s Intersteps programme at The Performance Space. This event also included the launch of the Microdance films. What people at the screenings saw was a kind of map of the interface between dance and film, two points which, speaking cinematically, could become ‘documentation’ and ‘cinema’. This neat binary of mine grew out of a belief that the utilitarian use of film/video for the creation and recording of dance, was a type of primitive practice in relation to recent examples which engage in the technical and historical aspects of film, along with the dance as subject.

An example of this ‘primitive’ practice within Videosteps would be Douglas Wright’s Ore (New Zealand), directed by himself and Chris Graves, a film that for me, marked a point around which the other films could be placed. Ore is a film of Wright’s solo from Buried Venus (1996) and if you’re talking documentation, this is a fine example. The virtuosity of this curiously Nijinksyish dancer is highlighted by some great editing; the intention of the film is clear as you find yourself marvelling, striving to comprehend. (Where’s that pause button?) Ex-Wright dancer Brian Carbee comments that the film cannot compare to the live performance, cannot be more than a mediation which is devoid of the magic of a physical presence. I suggest that this style of dance film must always fall short as a ‘replacement’ in comparison to those films which actively negotiate the filmic form. Then Carbee brings me face to face with my own bias, asking—but how can film be truer to dance than to represent a dance performance to the best of its ability? For a dancer, this may well be the fundamental aim. It is dance, he points out, which is expected to bend towards this monolith of the 20th century arts; it is dance which is adapting to film. Meanwhile, I feel myself slipping between two worlds, but decide to stick to my guns and argue that “it’s a two way street”. There is a definite satisfaction in those films which embrace the whole—the dance, the filmic expectations and possibilities, the movement both on the screen and of the frames.

A certain tendency in dance film to patch together dramatic sections and discrete dance sequences performed to the camera became clear after seeing the films Effort Public (Germany), Vertigo Bird (Slovenia) and The Father is Sleeping (Microdance) in this programme. Effort Public expresses the class struggle with the effort of dance becoming the main physical metaphor. Men throw and catch each other like sides of meat in an industrial, dark space where the dance can never stop, always in frame, moving off, or in the background. Filmic ‘tricks’ such as a play on reflections in a pool of water and the tracing of a chain reaction across objects, sit outside the drama which is located in the movement. The film really only frames and selects the dance, the factory space acting as a ‘set’. Vertigo Bird, choreographer Iztok Kovac, is alarmingly similar, set as it is, in “the labyrinth of mining pits” in the town of Trbovlje (program note). The drama is established through the shots of workers moving around with the dance sequences remaining separate, except for a scene where the workers act as an audience, the aim of the work to seek “a connection between two worlds” becoming clear. Here we slip into a documentation of ‘audience’ response. In The Father Is Sleeping, choreographer Matthew Bergen; director Robert Herbert, everyday gestures between father and son develop into a new and touching movement language, but a separate dance sequence by new performers at the height of the action fails to make contact with the central drama.

Then there were cases where The Dance was the sole subject driving the work and we perhaps came close to that balance between the two elements, the film ‘showing’ the dance as only it can—doing the dance created specifically for it. The most remarkable in this regard was Nine Cauldrons (Microdance), director-choreographer Trevor Patrick; co-director Paul Hampton, which can be summed up in the word performer Trevor Patrick chose to describe his cinematic encounter—“seductive”. The camera is in the thrall of the moving body—every detail from fabric moving across skin to the twist of an ankle is rendered with an obsessive gaze, the ‘eye’ now dangerously close, now taking in the body, costume, movement and all. The alchemy of the filmic process transforms and reinvents.

In opposition to this harnessing of technology in the service of the choreography is an indulgence in filmic techniques at the expense of choreographic invention. Lodela (Canada), is an uncanny visual fantasy of epic proportions, memorable for the shimmering void of white back to back with a similar void of black. Two figures mirror each others’ movements in these opposing ‘worlds’ but the movements add little to the black/white, life/death oppositions established visually.

Like Boy, Reines D’un Jour (Switzerland) takes us into a singular world and acquaints us with it through movement that seems organic to its context. If film has an historical association with narrative fiction, both Boy and Reines D’un Jour negotiate this history while also accessing the avant-garde possibilities of a non-text based short. The Swiss film is located in the Alps and draws on romantic cinematic imagery, from lush green landscapes to bodies tumbling down a hill to rustic cottages and village feasts. The joi de vivre of such scenarios is given free rein in the ecstatic bodies of the dancers who move through the landscape, not as locals, but as visitors responding to the environment. Social dancing is intertwined with other dance; men challenge each other, women lean and support one another, couples tease each other. And all without a trace of irony—completely disarming.

It perhaps confirms Eleanor Brickhill’s concern that “the good will” is gone from audiences (RealTime #24)—in this case Sydney dance audiences—that people didn’t seize an opportunity to see some great international and local dance film/video. An interest in the dance film genre is not imperative. For dance, the most elusive of the performing arts, the opportunity to transport performances from around the world to our own theatres is like a small miracle.


Videosteps, curated by Michelle Mahrer in Leisa Shelton’s Intersteps, The Performance Space, Sydney, November 1, 8 & 15, 1997

RealTime issue #23 Feb-March 1998 pg. 37

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

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