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I Dream of Augustine, director Cordelia Beresford I Dream of Augustine, director Cordelia Beresford
What do you call it—dancefilm, dance on camera, video dance, dance on screen...? Whatever it is, it was the topic of the first Screendance, State of the Art Conference held at the American Dance Festival (ADF) in Durham, North Carolina.

And within which critical discourse does it sit? This vital question was raised by Douglas Rosenberg, conference convener, keynote speaker, dancefilm-maker, and professor and founding director of ADF’s Dancing for the Camera in his opening address. Rosenberg’s multiple titles were typical of the conference participants and attendees, most straddling at least 2 areas of making, teaching, curating and theorising this fastest growing form of creativity in dance. The question of critical discourse proved to be the crucial one, underpinning all of the debates about name, form, structure, production processes, aesthetics, purpose and future of...whatever it’s called.

Papers, screenings, and workshops pushed us to consider, for example, dance on camera in academia (presented by a panel of 5 academics who have done heroic work in bringing the form into universities in America): cinematic visions of Butoh (Daniele Wilmouth, filmmaker and academic); popular film and dance (Karen Backstein, film theorist); and the range of cinematic and artistic possibilities offered by the apparatus of the screen (Alla Kovgan, filmmaker and curator, on choreographic cinema). Olive Bieringa, director of The Body Cartography Project, examined generating video material kinesthetically; Evann Siebens and Keith Doyle, ‘dance media artists’, explored improvisational shooting techniques; Daniel Conrad, filmmaker, considered the techniques of getting dance off the stage; and Billy Cowie, filmmaker and research fellow at University of Brighton, looked at framing; and more. Other presenters brought us ideas about new media (Harmony Bench, UCLA PhD candidate, in a paper on Hyperdance); about motion capture (by Michael Miles, motion capture developer); dance film in conjunction with live performance (John Crawford, assistant professor of dance and media arts at the University of California, Irvine); and even “new models for knowledge transfer between practicing collaborative and cross media artists” in the form of a report by Katrina McPherson, video dance artist and author of the recently published Making Video Dance (Routledge, 2006), reporting on her own “Opensource” conference in Scotland.

Australians contributed 3 papers. Filmmaker Tracie Mitchell, spoke about her own developing ability, and that of dancefilmmakers at large, to “move fluidly through the lands of dance and film”, describing her art as “like a visual poem rather than a linear story.” Her film Whole Heart, which has been screened widely and shared a prize in Australia’s 2006 ReelDance Festival, demonstrated her premise, by moving coherently between the naturalistic and the expressionistic. Whole Heart’s widespread acceptance in the Australian film community (AFC funding, Melbourne Film Festival and Dendy Awards screenings at the Sydney Film Festival) indicates that at some level, our “film industry” is really all art house.

Richard James Allen described this ‘art house industry’ phenomenon in his screening and paper on dance and drama hybrids in Australia/New Zealand dancefilm. He pointed out that dancefilm-making offers a potential escape from the stifling and unimaginative aspects of our ‘industry’-wide insistence on naturalism, and called upon Australian filmmakers to work with the fantatistical, the physical and the vertiginous possibilities of the choreographic sensibility. His screening of Cordelia Beresford’s The Eye Inside, Shona McCullagh’s Break, his own Thursday’s Fictions and Madeleine Hetherton’s Together demonstrated the potential of dance drama hybrids to be cinematic, provocative and engaging experiences.

My own paper on ‘Editing as a form of Choreography’ came from a perspective which is as deeply influenced by training, teaching and creating in cinema as it is by my 20 year professional career in dance. My challenge was around the question of understanding the cinematic potential of editing as well as its choreographic potential—a challenge which was not taken up materially so much as it was philosophically through the question: “Is dance on screen a dance art, a cinema art or a visual art?”

This question ultimately produced the critical framework being sought by the conference. Animated discussions between myself, Rosenberg, Kovgan, McPherson, Allen, Professor Ellen Bromberg of the University of Utah, the conference “Respondent”, dance film producer and chair of South East Dance, Bob Lockyer, and the formal and informal contributions of all attendees, lead to a diagram of 3 overlapping disciplines: dance, cinema, and visual art. Unlike the typical result of these models, it was determined that the ‘ideal’ screendance production was not necessarily a mix of all 3. Rather, each approach and each overlap provided a way of comprehending a given work:

A dance on screen which prioritises dance as its central discipline will foreground the composition and exhibition of the danced movement.

A dancefilm that is working in the overlapping areas of cinema and dance will prioritise the directorial vision and emphasise the collaborative coordination of all of the elements of cinematic production from script to mise-en-scéne to sound mix.

A video dance that is based in the thinking of a video art maker, a performance art maker or a visual artist will have its effect through techniques, schools, theories and premises of those disciplines.

As Rosenberg hoped, determining this framework for critical discourse through the distinctions within these approaches has an immediate and profound impact on all other areas of discussion. Educational programs can identify whether they are built around the study of one, 2 or all 3 of these approaches and their attendant histories, aesthetics and production processes. Festival directors can articulate whether their interests lie in the ‘art’ film approach of a visual experience, the dance aspect of dance film, or the cinematic realisation of ideas. Or, if the festival embraces a ‘successful’ film in any combination of the 3, they can determine how a given film ‘succeeds’ within its approach. Critics can likewise respond to work from within an articulated and informed framework of either their own perspective of what the form should be or their informed reading of the maker’s intentions.

Most importantly, the articulation of the framework for critical discourse around ‘screendance’ (which is ultimately my term of choice since it embraces film, video, new media, installation and future media) allows artists to identify their own priorities and to educate and develop themselves within and around the history of their own approach and mix of influences. Identifying and knowing our frames and histories may save us from the danger Lockyer warned us of in his summary of the proceedings: that as the form matures, unless we know our own history, we are doomed to rewind and repeat our steps.


Karen Pearlman is co-artistic director, with Richard James Allen, of The Physical TV Company, whose award-winning cinematic dance films have been seen in festivals and theatrical or broadcast screenings around the world.

Screendance, American Dance Festival, Durham, North Carolina, USA, July 6-9 www.americandancefestival.org

RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 pg. 20

© Karen Pearlman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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