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Pascal Magnin, Contrecoup Pascal Magnin, Contrecoup
Travelling the world watching dance films and videos, the trek culminating in an event where 219 are being watched on 30 monitors by 250 people over 5 days, should bring some clarity to the whole question of what a dance film might be. But the subject of the dance screen events that are proliferating in Europe, both in conjunction with dance festivals and as independent events, had me heading back to the past…and the drawing board. This historically rich and potentially radical interdisciplinary form is in danger of being cornered by commercial success and market demands which have led to the creation of a generic formula for ‘short dance films.’ Some of the clichés of this form are: one sustained physical joke, limitless natural landscapes populated by wild women with long hair and men in shirt sleeves kicking up dirt, figures bombarded with water/wind/fire or lost in desolate warehouse spaces. Arnd Wesemann, writing of this tendency in a special dance screen issue of Ballett International, declares that “the dance film keeps to itself” behaving “like a closed society.”

At the big event, the IMZ Dance Screen 99 in Cologne, a very good dance filmmaker, Laura Taler (whose documentary on Canadian dancemaker Bill Coleman is a real redefinition of such work) spoke of Bob Lockyer (the undisputed ‘father’ of dance screen who programs dance for the BBC) as travelling the world “spawning” short, made-for-television dance/video collaborations that provide bite-sized chunks of contemporary dance for the masses. The other formula popular with television broadcasters is the recorded version of famous choreographic works—for example Petipa’s Le Corsaire and Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, screenings of which were given the red carpet treatment in Cologne.

This is a new development in dance film work. Look through any dance video collection in the world and you’ll find an institutionalised lineage that includes video experimentation, animation and film essays on motion in all its forms. The New York Public Library Dance Collection (which claims to be the largest in the world and which also has the tightest security), includes works by Hilary Harris, Norman McLaren, Nam June Paik and Ed Emshwiller and at the Cinémateque de la Danse in Paris, Ferdinand Leger and Rene Clair provide another history. Look to the periphery—and the real heart—of the dance screen culture and you’ll find a continuation of this more heterogeneous approach.

Ironically, the works which claim the prize-money are the product of contemporary dance and filmmakers’ commitment to a truly interdisciplinary practice. Dust by Anthony Atanasio and Miriam King and Contrecoup by Pascal Magnin and Alias Compagnie shared two-thirds of the prize-money at Dance Screen and a common, intensely cinematic aesthetic. Both Atanasio and Magnin are established directors who have taken on dance for what it can offer their craft. (The other successful approach seems to come from dancemakers who have taken on film in a similar way such as Wim Vandekeybus.) Dust is as glossy as an alcohol ad but its images of the body jar—a face framed by a swimming cap and goggles and sporting false eyelashes blinks through sand; a swimsuit clad body floats up out of inky black water. Contrecoup begins on the street with the gestures of a sharply dressed guy becoming a dance of yelled abuse. The fine line between gesture and dance continues throughout the film and Magnin’s resulting newly formulated ‘musical’ is affective and strong. Both would work well on television which is clearly a plus at an event where half of those attending are producers.

Other brave but less network-friendly submissions include Allee der Kosmonauten by Sasha Waltz, which features a surreal, ‘universal’ family in a home environment that is never physically stable; Les Ballets C de la B’s Eyes on the Back (dir. Yves Opstaele), a pseudo-documentary with dancers on tour amusing themselves in their hotel rooms in increasingly disturbing but oddly familiar ways; and The Way of the Weed featuring the dancers of the Ballett Frankfurt, a sci-fi epic charting an investigative journey to another planet where human movement studies are taking place. Special mention should be made of Australian Michelle Mahrer’s finely crafted documentary on the Page brothers, Urban Clan, which won Best Documentary.

Il Coreografo Elettronico in Naples went crazy, awarding first prize to Lourdes Las Vegas (Bernadetje) by Arne Sierens, Alain Platel and Giovanni Cioni. The Italian festival was small and intimate and there was a Neopolitan anarchy and real pleasure to the proceedings and consequent decision-making. Lourdes... is a rambling mystery of a film, cutting between fun fair shots and quiet moments where individuals share comments or a performance with the camera. The dance is in the film’s telling, not the participants.

At Montpellier Danse 99 in southern France, cinema’s influence on contemporary dance became the main manifestation of the theme, “Image and Dance.” Surrounding the main performance programme were screenings in 5 venues, a video-based installation and “Vitrines video danse”—screenings in shops and cafes. One cinema was devoted to the video and film work of participating choreographers while another screened feature films presented by those same choreographers. Directors chosen included Pasolini, Denis, Fassbinder, Lynch, Kurosawa, Cassavetes, Tarkovski, Jarmusch and Godard…this is not any old cinema and the ‘dance’ implicit in these films tells us more about the actual possibilities for dance and film than the TV snippets promoted as the archetype of the form. On top of this, open forums included “Choreography, essential component of cinema?” and “Film Loving Choreographers.”

Even more telling were the various manifestations of the cinematic in the performance work. Obviously chosen for their relevance to the festival theme, I believe these works do, however, outline specific but widespread tendencies within dance for a generation of choreographers whose primary culture has been one of the screen rather than the stage. The Alwin Nikolais retrospective paid tribute to a peer of Merce Cunningham whose experiments in the 50s with light and soundscapes and video collaborations in the 60s with Ed Emshwiller were technically and aesthetically groundbreaking. Nikolais was invited to Montpellier by French choreographer Philippe Decouflé who reproduced film effects on stage in Triton and Shazam!, continuing his role as the magician of French contemporary dance to the point of duplicating his film Abracadabra in the latter work. His obsession with trickery and turn-of-the-century entertainments connect him to the earliest cinema and the spectacles that were its currency.

UK-based French choreographer Gilles Jobim’s exploration of the body as subject in A+B=X saw the 3 dancers’ upturned rumps and backs transformed into screens onto which the face of Franko B was projected. The naked, sculptural, physical presence of the dancers was upstaged by the face-pulling, absent performance artist who also had the last say in the piece, both as a voice-over and on screen, displaying his self-mutilations that were somehow rendered poetic on film. Nasser Martin-Gousset’s Solarium heralded its cinematic intentions with projected ‘titles’ and ‘credits.’ Populated by cinematic archetypes—the stripper, the cowboy, the spy, the transvestite, the doctor—and featuring a suitcase swapping sequence, chase scene (the danger element being Nasser’s white stilettos) and drugging, Solarium plundered film and pop music for its fragmentary and refreshingly raw end result. Charles Creange aimed straight, but not necessarily clear, with his new work, Movies, which shared the themes of “time, space and substance” with its namesake but also the empty gloss of a certain type of flick.

Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus’ In Spite of Wishing and Wanting and accompanying film programme left the most lasting impression on this ‘motion’ picture mission. (See Alex Sierz page 6.)The film component of the stage production The Last Words figured as the collective dream of the 11 men on-stage. Based on a story by Julio Cortazar, the narrative unfolded as a universal mythology; the prophet, the monarch, revolution, execution and miracles all made an appearance. As in Vandekeybus’ other films, La Mentira (1992) and Elba and Frederico (1993), the bodies tell the tale; actions, gestures and postures speak louder than words. In The Last Words, palace officials scurry around the throne on their haunches and a wife rolls away from her husband in what looks like the warmest bed. In La Mentira, an old man boils an egg, taking us through the ritual with a running commentary and then we are with him at bedtime, right until he flicks off his torch. In Elba and Frederico, the cross-over time in the morning between a night-worker and his day-working partner is multiplied in a montage of mornings, the characters repeating actions that have as many variations as there are days in a lifetime. The common element of sleep across these works seemed to take us back to the body as a home for the imagination that runs rife in the rest of Vandekeybus’ work—both the pause and the flow.

One of the most scary encounters of the trip was discovering that French choreographers Joelle Bouvier and Régis Obadia, who have made some of the most successful short dance films, actually behave like movie stars and that Ralph Fiennes doesn’t behave like one at all…Sorry, did I drop a name somewhere? (Doesn’t everyone want their piece of the movies?)

RealTime issue #33 Oct-Nov 1999 pg. 7

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

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