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screendance: artform in transition

richard james allen at imz dancescreen & opensource

Horizon of Exile, Isabel Rocamora Horizon of Exile, Isabel Rocamora

Several attendees commented to me that IMZ dancescreen, long held to be one of the premiere screendance events in world, was this year a rather smaller and hastily pulled together affair. And it is true that by comparison with some of its earlier iterations, the event overall appeared to have lost some of its lustre, forward-looking energy and intellectual coherence. Despite some inspiring and cogent words about creating work for an audience in the keynote address by Henk van der Meulen, President of IMZ, the festival seemed content to settle into a self-congratulatory snake eating its tail pattern of ‘this work is good because we say it’s good therefore it’s good.’ But by and large, it wasn’t. It is alarming when you feel that you could take any element out of a work—its aesthetic, its choreography, its design, its shooting and editing styles, its music and sound design—and replace it with that element from another work without really noticing any significant change.

Some exceptions were the films at IMZ that looked for deeper inspiration in the nature and history of the media in which they are participating. Particularly worthy of mention is Swedish choreographer Pontus Lindberg’s potent and visually splendid Rain; a lovely adaptation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain entitled Höhenluft (Mountain Air) from Netherlands/UK director Annick Vroom and choreographers Andrea Boll, Andreas Denk and Klaus Jürgens; and UK-based Isabel Rocamora’s poignant, award-winning Horizon of Exile. Also worth following up were Netherland’s choreographer Jirí Kylián and director Boris Paval Conen’s quirky black and white adaptation of Carmen titled Car Men; British choreographer/director Jo Parkes’ highly unusual mixing of farming and dancing in From the Soil; and the offbeat dance screen award winner Les Ballets C de la B, directed by Belgium’s Alan Platel.

But overall the festival had a sense of creative stagnation and aesthetic clumsiness, perhaps partly explained by the fact that IMZ is sustained by (largely European) commissioning editors who, to their obvious frustration, are less and less able to contribute to the development of the artform (because they have less and less cash). With the shift of dancefilm distribution from television to the internet, the question of who is going to pay for dance films to be made in the future remains unresolved. The closest to a solution was offered by Rob Overman, who is developing an online portal for classical music called, soon to be able to be ‘re-skinned’ to serve as a node for the rich bodies of work in other genres, such as dance film and jazz.

The issue of screendance distribution for student use, research and audiences was also discussed in arguably the liveliest session at dancescreen, Teaching/Education of dance filmmaking, ably chaired by John Crawford of University of California at Irvine. The speakers presented an inspiring vision for the educational possibilities of the artform. Interestingly, taken together, some of the more cogent comments underscored an idea which came out of the Screendance: The State of the Art Conference at the American Dance Festival in July 2006 (RT74, p20): the need for a critical framework for screendance, seeing it as an artform at the fluid nexus of three overlapping disciplines—dance, cinema and visual art. In particular, Katrina McPherson of Dundee University, Scotland traced the history and usefulness of dance film as a teaching tool in her book Making Video Dance (Routledge, 2006). Shona McCullagh, a dance filmmaker and educator from New Zealand, warned that the cheapness and easiness of digital video was leading to less honing of the creative process, less focus and less clear artistic choices, with the result that much current work in the medium was, in her words, “flumsy”, meaning wobbly and without rigour. And Alex Reuben, supported by one of his former students at The Place in London, Sergio Cruz, cogently argued for the necessity for widening of a screendance practitioner’s range and reference to include practices from video art as well as cinematic traditions.

All caveats aside, IMZ dance screen’s most creative contribution was to bring to attention the potential that digital media and the internet are offering as opportunities for new forms of creativity and interactivity. Some of these were witnessed in McCullagh’s session on her recent explorations of new and hybrid technologies in the work mondo nuovo; Simon Fildes’ introduction to online dance creativity; Ronald Hartwig’s presentation on imaginative online marketing; and Billy Cowie’s installation work, In the Flesh, a 3D hologram of a woman in a closet [see p24]. It was hard to tell whether Cowie meant this work to be eerie, awkward, confronting, or spiritual—but remarkably it appeared to be all of these things.

Where IMZ was more about business, Opensource: (Videodance) Symposium was more about ideas. The Opensource: (Videodance) Symposium in June 2006 was one of the first international gatherings to bring a theoretical perspective to the burgeoning art of screendance and people were bursting to be heard on the subject. That symposium, followed closely by the Screendance: The State of the Art Conference changed the landscape for international practitioners and thinkers, and has lead to the soon to be released Screendance Journal. At the second Symposium in November 2007, there was definitely a feeling that things had moved on. And perhaps, if there is a criticism to be made of the event, it was that it relied a little unquestioningly on the structures previously set up rather than remembering, in advance, that you can never step in the same river twice. Nor was everybody willing or able to, as Douglas Rosenberg, US dancefilm-maker and academic, put it, “name your frame”, or present clear information about the perspective from which theories were being put: an important skill when ideas that are being discussed have a big impact on our perception of past and future creativity.

Interestingly, the most vital discussions at Opensource, in congruence with IMZ, were in response to the fluid, unanswered questions posed by the internet. In particular, the idea of a “screendance map.” This would build on some of the work already begun by Fildes and McPherson at as well as filling out the details of the earlier critical framework proposed at the Screendance Conference. In doing so it could supply the metadata needed for an online dance film portal, allowing creators to use ‘tagging’ technology (suggested by British choreographer Litza Bixler) to identify, describe and situate their work. In this way, dance films could find their place in an evolving, interactive definition of the form.

Following on from this was a debate about whether in the online world screendance would continue to require the kinds of curators or gatekeepers characteristic of television and film festivals, or whether users would prefer to follow the ontology of the search engine—tags, similar work, most viewed work—and the social network: what their friends were watching. This question will be no doubt asked at the forthcoming Screendance: State of the Art 2, Curating the Practice/Curating as Practice, at the American Dance Festival in July 2008.

“Screendance is dead, long live Screendance”, proclaimed Katrina Macpherson as a rallying call for reinvigoration of a form which, after an exciting period of discovery and experimentation, appears to many to be in danger of stultification. Critical thinking and speaking about screendance, like the digital revolution and the internet, has the potential to be part of the problem or part of the solution. It will probably be both, but let’s hope more of the latter.

IMZ dancescreen, 11th International Competitive Festival for Dance Films and Videos, The Hague, Netherlands, Nov 15-18, 2007

Opensource: (Videodance) Symposium,
Findhorn, Scotland, Nov 20-24, 2007

Richard James Allen is co-artistic director with Karen Pearlman of The Physical TV Company. At Opensource: (Videodance) he gave a presentation on the company and its multi-award-winning work Thursday’s Fictions.

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 35

© Richard James Allen; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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