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Daniel Belton Daniel Belton
courtesy the artist

Although the company’s output is diverse, its film work is pervaded by a sense of aesthetic historicism. Matchbox (2008), for example, draws on the imagery of the Bauhaus, Futurism, vaudeville, the films of Friz Lang and Buster Keaton. Earlier films allude to Albrecht Durer, Renaissance perspective and Commedia del’arte.

Belton acquired an interest in art history at an early age through his father, painter Peter Belton, who serves as designer on most of Good Company’s projects. Indeed, Belton considers the sculptural, painterly aesthetic of many of his films as representing a ‘return’ in his career. “I left high school with high marks in art”, he explains, “and I was heading to Canterbury University to study fine arts, but had auditioned for the New Zealand School of Dance. They called me up and said: ‘You’re in!’ I thought that while my body was young I should do this—and I could come back and go to art school later.” Belton graduated in 1990, subsequently dancing with many companies in New Zealand and internationally, including the Douglas Wright Company, Arc Dance and Tanz Gervasi, Austria.

In 1997 Belton settled in Dunedin in the south of New Zealand and founded Good Company. “I wanted to start making my own work, not only for theatre spaces, but to fuse the visual arts with dance, sculpture and kinetic art.”Good Company’s recent work can be divided into two main series. The most recent triptych culminated in Matchbox, growing out of the companion pieces Game (2004) and Reset (2006). These are the most closely related of Belton’s films, shot in misty, halo-infused black-and-white reminiscent of German Expressionist cinematography. Focused around the idea of a kind of combined puppet show and game-playing machine, figures interact by pushing buttons, arranging poles, dancing with each other or animating miniature figures and vaudevillian bands. Belton’s earlier trilogy—Soma Songs (2006), Seismos (2006) and After Dürer (2007)—dealt with problems of space and the articulation of line and form through movement within a set of virtual, perspectival frames, or across a multifaceted and effectively multidimensional sculptural object. Dancers crawled over planes and into inverted relationships, as in the upside-down works of MC Escher.

“I was originally drawn in to theatre by puppet shows”, Belton observes. “They are a filmic window. It’s like looking in the back of an old bellows camera. You open it up, it concertinas out, and it’s like there’s a little theatre in there, in the viewfinder. It’s a miniature proscenium arch.” Belton is keen to ensure that these relatively commonplace ideas about the relationship of film to theatre materialise in a complex—albeit still light and playful—mise en scène. The characters of Matchbox climb into and out of a graphed, perspectival space, its digitally added lines (provided by Jac Grenfell) converging on what would be the focal point for any one view. The performers are, in effect, rendered mechanical, inasmuch as they interact with the objects and materials presented to them by the flashing, almost Mondrian-like game device designed by Peter Belton.

“[This machine] is also like the sound box of a musical instrument”, adds Belton. A key part of Matchbox’s alluring blend of time and reference is to be found in the wound-down score produced by Grenfell’s digital decomposition of the music of Django Reinhardt and 1930s vaudeville. The game dings, crackles and pulses with these sounds, just as it produces pillars and squares, or offers spaces and lights with which the characters interact. Not only are several of these sonic and visual motifs coincident within Matchbox, but they perform the same dramaturgical function of rendering a machinic world of performance and of dancing from within an antiquated yet contemporary, partly-digitised format. Belton indeed goes so far as to shoot in digital video and reformat the image in 16 mm analogue film, even though in many cases his films are projected from a DVD dub.

It is this interest in bodies and forms whose motor force and activity seem derived from the logic of film and of the moving image, rather more than human, fleshy or three-dimensionally choreographic logic per se, which places Matchbox and its companion works close to the conceptual ideology of Bauhaus and Futurism. Like many dance film artists, Belton’s interest in the form originally derived from his work on archiving his own productions as well as from producing live multimedia pieces like the stage production Soma Songs (2005). “It was always frustrating because it was never like the live show”, Belton admits. “But then there was something in that loss, as well as in the discipline of locking down your reading to one visual frame.” Where some of Belton’s live performances have multiple points of interest and a circus sense of order tipping into chaos (Fellini-like, notably in Belton’s Commedia-influenced Soundings, 2001), his films are by contrast tightly focused on small groups in glowing, misty but well-defined hazes of light, or on crisp figures which stand out before a black background amidst architectural lines and shapes.

Recalling the ideas behind the extraordinary modernist marionettes and sleek, conical, monochromatically painted dolls designed by Sophie Tauber and Oscar Schlemmer, Belton insists that “working with the human body for film is like puppeteering. You craft a choreographic story with the bodies of the dancers you are working with, but in postproduction you revisit that. You can jump cut, speed things up, reverse things, slow them down, or you can layer them.” Although Belton generates much of the material which he films by giving tasks to his performers, and sees them as active agents within the process of developing the work, nevertheless the philosophy of his approach explicitly denies agency to the dancer-characters of his films. The figures who dance across his screen are not particularly human, or even necessarily embodied per se. They are formal devices within a larger mise en scène. In Matchbox in particular, the game-play set up by uncertainty over the categories of human versus non-human and agency versus puppetry produces the humour and narrative arc of the work.

In the end though, Belton’s preferred metaphor to describe his material is storytelling. “We’re storytelling beings”, he insists. “I try to make each film have enough layers to have many readings. With the way I choose my performers, I’m not trying to get a group of racehorses together. You’ve got people from all walks of life, different shapes and sizes. It’s about drawing them out and allowing them to offer as much as they can. The theatre is like an engine for telling [many] stories.” These narrative threads, forms, sounds and movements are unified through the medium of this machine, which gathers material along its lines of sight and sound, and then beams them out. “It’s like the sound box of a musical instrument”, observes Belton. “When you project film, you are projecting this information out. The soundbox from a guitar or a lute is also projecting sound out, and the theatre is projecting storytelling.”

Matchbox’s World Premiere was at the Otago Festival of the Arts, Dunedin NZ, October 2008. It was a finalist in the VideoDansa, Barcelona Prize 2009, IDN Festival, Barcelona, Spain and in the Official selection Dance on Camera Festival International Competition 2009, New York, USA.

Daniel Belton & Good Company, Matchbox, director, performer, editor Daniel Belton, co-producer, performer Donnine Harrison, performers Richard Huber, Caroline Claver, Courtney Poulier, Tim Fletcher, Emmett Hardie, Kilda Northcott, director of photography, animations, sound Jac Grenfell, lighting, animation Nils Stroop, holography Ozrac Densky, design Peter Belton & company;

RealTime issue #92 Aug-Sept 2009 pg. 35

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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