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collected practitioner writing on screendance and moving image

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Outlying Areas

Research project undertaken during November and December 2009 at Cambridge Central Library’s Mediatheque.

Monday, January 18, 2010

On Teaching Screendance: Two-Way Traffic and Maya Deren’s Theory of Vertical Narrative Progression

Text of a paper presented at Exploring the The Screen as Site for Choreography, University of Bristol, in April 2009

By way of contextualisation, I’m going to talk a little about how this paper evolved, and about my own background in screendance. I studied the field for three years as part of a programme of academic research, and this involved making work, having it shown, attending festivals in Britain and elsewhere, and writing about the whole process within academic and review-based contexts. As a natural progression from all of this activity, I was asked last year to give a series of lectures as part of the Dance Performance course at Middlesex University and this gave me the opportunity to stand back, take stock and question what I wanted to present on a critical and conceptual level.
Within a professional context, opportunities to make work conforming to traditional, film and television industry-led models are scarce. However, within the sector, a range of highly screen-literate artists can be seen to adapt their creativity to developing work outside of the margins of traditional funding and production structures. Within the festival circuit, there is a sense of the genre opening out to look beyond its own borders, as categorisation and boundaries increasingly shift and blur. Reciprocity of influence - the two-way traffic of the title - is an area which has often been marginalised or overlooked, as the artform acknowledges its developmental debt to other traditions and methods of practice, but is only beginning to find a language capable of articulating the legacy that a dance trained artist brings to the creation of work for screen.
The work that I chose to present exists within the margin of overlap between choreographic orientation and aspects of screen-related history and practice. Each of the pieces charts the migration of choreographic function beyond traditional notions, widening parameters and inviting context-specific definitions, and, significantly, each fits across cracks within the arform’s categorisation modes. I specifically did not want to present the students with work conforming to an overfamilar set of screendance tropes, with pre-choreographed material translated to a screen context. This paper has developed in part from post-viewing discussions, with student views touching on a number of highly relevant issues, including the role of the Director and the process of direction; the importance of intentionality and produced an enquiry which could stand as an alternative title for this paper, ‘Who decides what’s dance?’
I also want to contextualise by talking about my own involvement within the process of writing. Screendance is a sparsely-populated community, whose members - like the inhabitants of a small island - fulfill multiple and often overlapping roles which can include maker, lecturer, spectator, researcher, workshop leader, reviewer, curator, festival or conference organiser at any given time. My own activities place me within a number of interlinked categories, often writing about the work of people who are a part of my professional world, and who I have known over long timespans. While I have no pretensions towards framing myself as a disinterested ‘outside eye’, I do like to think that I can stand sufficiently to one side to discern patterns, create groupings and add a highly-personalised commentary, as one voice and viewpoint among many, to the work I see developing around me.
As this is a paper dealing in part with narrative forms, I’m going to begin with a story. In 1953, avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren presented a paper in New York at a symposium on poetry and film. Fellow panellists included the playwright Arthur Miller and the poet Dylan Thomas. At this event, Deren put forward a model for evaluating screenbased narrative progression, contrasting a notion of horizontal movement, shifting from one action-oriented event to another, with that of vertical progress. This, she asserted, represented an associative, poetically-oriented exploration, where meanings inherent within ‘the ramifications of the moment’ were subject to in-depth examination (in Jackson in Nichols, 2001, p.64). While not initially well received, Deren’s theorising has been more recently reappraised. Annette Michelson has read Deren’s model in relation to aspects of Roman Jakobson’s writing in the field of linguistic theory (in Jackson in Nichols, 2001, p.65). Erin Brannigan has also identified parallels between Deren’s model of vertical progression and the Deleuzean notion of the time-image (Brannigan, 2002, contents/02/22/deren.htm).
Within the context of this paper, Deren’s notion is presented as central to an understanding of the work of three contemporary makers of moving image. While the work does not concern itself with the performance of codified movement content, it will be argued that dance-derived practices, mutating within context-specific forms, influence the highly personalised set of compositional strategies used by each practitioner. The work will also be located within a contemporary ecology of dance work for screen, drawing on practitioner writing in addition to a range of cultural and historical influences.
Reflecting the array of options open to contemporary practitioners, film maker Stan Brakhage has written of the shifting status and perception of his own roles within the context of film production, by stating that
I have contributed to many commercial films as ‘director’ , ‘photographer’, ‘editor’, ‘writer’, ‘actor’ even ‘grip’, etcetera, and sometimes in combination of all of these. But mostly I have worked at home and alone on films of seemingly no commercial value
(Brakhage in McPherson, 2001, p.142)
Brighton-based Marisa Zanotti’s professional history is as a performer and dance maker, currently developing screenbased work as a Director within a traditional production context. From At The End Of The Sentence , created in 2005, an initial monochromatic image of a disembodied torso foregrounds the slowed movement pathway of a whirling rope, followed by a montage sequence reducing morning-set daily preparations to a series of nine shots. As a wealth of information is contained within this sequence, it is worth examining in detail. A half-open bedroom door frames a single male character, seated on the side of a bed. Compositionally reminiscent of the work of figurative painter Edward Hopper, the angularity of the door frame is balanced by the vertical patterning of a stairway, partially visible by the outer edge of the frame. Sound intrudes on solitude, as the electronic harshness of a clock radio alarm initiates the underlying rhythmic urgency of a continuously ticking clock. A top shot of a dresser and chair discloses the trappings of an ordered masculine world: a neatly folded shirt; an arrangement of coins, keys and comb. A back view of a kitchen-set head follows, as an egg is loudly cracked, and a textual countdown begins with a minimal call of ‘fifteen minutes’. Two bathroom-set shots disclose the back of a head, the sound of water, the reflection of a face, as the countdown reaches ‘eight minutes’. A disembodied kitchen-set hand measures a serving of oats; a kettle whistles in the foreground, and a figure calls ‘five minutes’ before leaving shot. A table-top view as porridge is poured, and the count reaches ‘one minute’.
Zanotti’s directorial input can be read from a choreographic perspective in relation to the parallel processes of framing and edit. The role of the latter has been specifically addressed by Karen Pearlman in an outlining of the overlap in function between the professional roles of the dance trained artist and the film editor. Pearlman has expanded on the physiologically-oriented correspondences inherent within the editing process, which she describes as ‘tuning one’s own physical rhythms to the rhythms being perceived in the filmed material’ (undated, dancefilms.org/Abouteduaction.html, p.3). Stan Brakhage has also made reference to the process of art-making as a physiological phenomenon, asserting that an artist’s input reflects an externalisation of ‘the individual expression that can be attended by a person hearing himself sing and hearing his heart beat’ (in McPherson, 2001, p.124). As Director, Zanotti moves the viewer through the particulars of domestic habitation, touring bedroom, bathroom and kitchen in thin-sliced micro-segments as a cumulative gathering of detail, while isolated instances of gestural movement are interwoven with rhythmically precise sonic counterpoint. Information on the specifics of emotional shading is amassed at high speed, in a close-knit fusion of constituent elements, heavily weighted towards the non-verbal. Characters are glimpsed in physically fragmented, temporally isolated moments, and this compositional fluency can be attributed to Zanotti’s professional lineage, approached through the framework of a highly personalised, choreographically-derived skillset, and manifest within the arena of short film.
Fellow Brighton-based artist Becky Edmunds’ professional background lies within the fields of improvised dance and live art, with a substantial body of experience developed within the highly specialist practice of dance videography. Recent screenbased work has been created in partnership with sound artist Scott Smith and dance artist Gill Clarke, and This Place, dating from 2008, makes use of a range of readily-identifiable compositional strategies in a diffuse and non-linear exploration of location. The work begins with a minimal soundscape of sporadic, industrial noise. Set against a darkened screen, this device provides a recurring baseline of visual referencing. A contrasting white screen state, used as counterpoint, forms a basis for the appearance of flickering, architectural detail, initially disclosed in part. The viewing eye is guided through a scaffolded cross-hatching of wood and metal, while the seemingly solid man-made verticals of brick-built towers and grooved metallic tracking appear to shimmer and undulate in the camera’s gaze. The screenspace contracts to accommodate the sharp angles of signeage, and the piece ends in a shot series on the greyscaled textural detail of blocked stone.
Video artist Bill Viola has articulated the notion of embodied knowledge, deriving from professionally-related practices, stating
I first started using a video camera when I was 21. I had to think about where I was pointing it, how I was using it, what the light was, and so on. And this process was not only technical, it had a direct effect on the content of my work. Then I used that camera for twenty years, and that 21-year old part of me who was struggling with composition and lighting is now something deeper, and has migrated to my hand, so that the center (sic) of consciousness has moved from my conscious mind to my hand. My hand now ‘knows’ where to put the camera, which I do quite naturally, when I encounter a new location.
(Viola, 1998, p.272)
This sentiment is echoed by Edmunds in a description of her own practice, where she states that the decisions made, involving the siting of the camera in relation to her subjects, feel instinctive, but they come from years of practising placing my body in space as a dancer’ (2006, email). This approach also strongly resonates with Brakhage’s assertion that ‘cinematic dancing might be said to occur as any filmmaker is moved to include his whole physiological awareness in any film movement’ (in McPherson, 2001, p.132). Edmunds’ camera practice provides a clear example of kinaesthetically aware engagement with the act of filming, translating into a strongly physiologically-based viewing response. Within the work, the eye is led along a trail of textural minutae and visual information is disclosed within carefully controlled increments, woven within a tightly regulated framework. Atmospheric tone is generated within an angular matrix of visual patterning, ultimately disrupted and mobilised by camera effect. Extreme selectivity of focus and distortion of scale feature as aspects of Edmunds’ compositional strategizing. Elements traceable from improvised performance and dance documentation synergistically combine, finding a fit within the screening contexts of documentary and artists film.
Brakhage has also observed that the original meaning of cinematographer is ‘writer of movement’ (2003, DVD interview), and in London-based short filmmaker Christopher Steel’s Welcome to Southside from 2008, camera journey forms the basis of the work. Multiple re-exposures of footage shot from a moving vehicle interior creates an abstracted cityscape of night-lit neon. From opening darkness, white flecks converge into the overlaid markings of a central circular structure, gradually cohering and then dissipating. The outline of bridge supports festoon the screen as curving strings of brightness, and confectionary-coloured specks cloud like fireflies against the steady peripheral motion of passing lights. Shown in silence, and as a continuous, unedited take, the visuality of the work is heightened and removed from the constraints of linear time, with a quality of atmospheric otherness, reminiscent of the photographic travel studies of Oscar Marzaroli, blurring specificity of detail into an etheric residue of city-based transience.
Brakhage has written with specific reference to the movement of the natural elements in Deren’s A Study in Choreography for Camera from 1945, asserting that,
when she pans across the trees in the beginning, they ‘strobe’ because she was shooting at the wrong speed. The effect is magical. They are in a state of dance.
(Brakhage, 1989, p.98)
Steel’s use of camera motion transforms the non-natural aspects of his surroundings, with composite elements arguably attaining Brakhage’s notion of ‘a state of dance’. The constant motion of passage locates the viewing eye within a kinaesthetically-oriented experience, generating an internalised rhythmic response to the out-of-time negotiation of external landscape. While not located as a practitioner within a dance tradition, Steel’s work can clearly be contextualised in relation to the filmic avant-garde, where the legacy of makers such as Norman McLaren and Len Lye problematises traditional genre demarcation. Generally shown within the remit of experimental short film programming, Steel’s work crossed a contemporary threshold of categorisation by recent inclusion within the screendance festival circuit.
When viewed from within the parameters of Deren’s notion of vertical progression, all three works concern themselves with the ‘ramifications of the moment’, layered into a poetically-oriented mesh of image-states, with a sense of linear time distorted, truncated or collapsed. Zanotti’s opening montage makes accretive use of isolated detail as a means of building character and context, while Edmunds’ selective disclosure of visual patterning constructs over time an immersive viewing environment, and Steel’s conceptualisation of cityscape as overlaid amalgam transcends the particulars of location, transforming everyday experience into auric abstraction. Deren’s model of non-linear verticality can be viewed as a key characteristic of the territorial overlap between screendance and experimental film practice, and can also provide a theoretical grounding for aspects of compositional arrangement often favoured by dance trained artists. In this instance, Deren’s model also provides a unifying ground of approach to a range of work, which, when viewed together, can be seen to represent, in diversity of conceptualisation and execution, a sampling of options available to contemporary screenbased artists.
The transformation of that climate within recent memory is starkly foregrounded by referencing the limited pool of specialist writing on screendance. In 1993, the then Arts Council of Great Britain published an anthology, edited by Stephanie Jordan and Dave Allen, on the emergent genre of dance work created for screen. Reflecting a period where four terrestrial television channels were dominant, the text evokes a world where dance and screen culture represented two entirely separate fields of specialist knowledge and working practice, providing a rationale for the title of the book, Parallel Lines (p.vi). Sixteen years on from publication, the cultural and creative landscape surrounding screendance is entirely unrecognisable. A show of hands from the dance students at Middlesex revealed a daily engagement with mobile technologies, social networking sites and internet-based moving image, providing a snapshot of the ubiquity of interaction with screenbased culture for this cross-section of twenty first century youth. Many dance trained artists regard working with the software programs iMovie or Final Cut Pro as natural extensions of a computer-based culture they have grown to take for granted, rather than excursions into a realm of privileged technical expertise. Ripples from the waves of cultural change can be identified in convergence points across a range of contemporary artforms, including dance, film and video, requiring a redefinition of traditional practices in the process of adaption to changing circumstance and possibility. Artists are operating within an irrevocably altered cultural context, and Betty Redfern has noted the correspondence between artistic process and environmental influence, asserting that ‘the work of even the most highly creative artist grows out of the habits and thoughts and feelings integral to the society to which he belongs’ (1983, p.38).

A brief historical exploration reveals parallels within the pace of twenty-first century technical development and the industrial innovations, arguably facilitating the emergence of moving image, of the nineteenth. Wolfgang Schivelbusch has written of the phenomenon of ‘panoramic seeing’, which, he asserts, emerged during the nineteenth century as a direct consequence of the new social phenomenon of the railway journey. Andrew Pickering has commented on this railway-mediated characterisation of visual perception by observing that, in contrast to previously available modes of transport, such as walking or carriage travel, ‘the immediate foreground vanishes...and the background is seen synthetically...It is as though the landscape appears as a movie projected on to the screen of the window’ (Pickering in Schatzki, Knorr Cetina and von Savigny, 2001, p.67/8). Against such a backdrop of rapid industrial development, introducing railway travel and telegraphic communication to the American west, Eadweard Muybridge famously produced a series of photographs in California in 1872 revealing the stride-action of a race-horse. Without Muybridge’s technological innovation in relation to the mechanics of shutter-release, precise details of high-speed movement had previously been imperceptible to the human eye, and Rebecca Solnit has commented that this experimentation began a process ’revealing the secret world of motion’ (Solnit, 2003, p.83). Dance filmmaker Douglas Rosenberg has also commented that Muybridge’s motion studies ‘anticipated what we have come to call video dance by some one hundred years’ (undated, www.dvpg.net/essays.html.p.9).

Within a contemporary context, Rosenberg has also argued for the need for a radical rethinking of traditional screen-related choreographic process, observing that
in order for the video or cine-dance to live, its original (the ‘choreography’) must be effaced or sacrificed in favour of a new creature.
(Rosenberg, undated, www.dvpg.net/essays.html, p.10/11)
It can be argued that choreographic practice for screen has, in certain instances, reached a point of sufficient maturity to bypass Rosenberg’s notion of original choreographic content altogether, engaging directly with screen-related processes in ways which are wholly inseparable from context, and that this evolutionary progression is currently manifesting in a diverse array of genre-crossing creatures as artists and viewers, not confined within the linearity of parallel tracks, but inhabiting areas of non-linear, multidirectional intersection.
The task of articulating the kinaesthetic engagement of artists with the processes of filming and editing, and of how that engagement can transmit to viewers, appears entirely appropriate to makers of, and commentators on, the genre of screendance. Read in this way, the ‘state of dance’, as explored within twentieth-century avant-garde film by Deren, Brakhage, McLaren, can provide both raw material and method of approach relevant to contemporary screenbased practitioners such as Zanotti, Edmunds and Steel, mediated through a range of twenty-first century production options.
I’m going to leave the last word to the students, and to providing at least in part an answer to their question which began the paper. Reading a screenbased image, including the procedures involved in its construction and it’s many possible interpretations, from a choreographic perspective requires an underlying affirmation of the validity of such an undertaking. This event seems to me to highlight the timeliness and importance of this ongoing process, with all of us here to engage for ourselves, both individually and collectively, in the ongoing task of deciding what can be read as dance within a screen context, and how that task might be achieved.

Brakhage, S. 1989 Film at Wit’s End: Essays on American Independent Filmmakers Edinburgh, Polygon
Brannigan, E. undated Maya Deren, Dance, and Gestural Encounters in Ritual in Transfigured Time
www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/02/22/deren.html - accessed 13.11.06
Jordan, S. and Allen, D. (eds.) 1993 Parallel Lines: Media Representation of Dance
London, The Arts Council of Great Britain
McPherson, B. (ed.) 2001 Essential Brakhage New York, McPherson & Company
Nichols, B. (ed.) 2001 Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde Berkeley, University of California Press
Pearlman, K. undated Editing Rhythms
www.dancefilms.org/Abouteducation.html - accessed - 21.2.07
Redfern, B. 1983, Dance, Art & Aesthetics London Dance Books Ltd
Rosenberg, D. undated Video Space: A Site for Choreography
www.dvpg.net/essays.html - accessed - 19.11.06

Schatzki, C, Knorr Cetina, K, von Savigny, E. (eds.) 2001 The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory London, Routledge

Solnit, R. 2003 Motion Studies London, Bloomsbury
Viola, B. 1998 Reasons for Knocking At An Empty House Cambridge, MIT Press
Brakhage, S. 2003 by Brakhage: an anthology The Criterion Collection
Edmunds, B. 2008 This Place Field Production
Steel, C. 2008 Welcome to Southside
Zanotti, M. (Dir.) 2005 At The End of The Sentence Oxygen Films

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hybrids: Becky Edmunds - Filmwaves

Interview with dance-trained screen artist Becky Edmunds for Filmwaves.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Close Readings

Writing originally generated during 2005/6 by participation in a Film Studies course run by University of Cambridge Board of Continuing Education and Cambridge Arts Picture House. Focussing in turn on the work of filmmakers Geoffrey Jones, Lynne Ramsay, Carlos Saura and choreographer/director Wim Vandekeybus, each text was revised during October 2009.

Geoffrey Jones:

British short filmmaker Geoffrey Jones found employment during the 1960s with the Shell Film Unit, and British Transport Films, locating much of his output within the tradition of the British Industrial short. Jones’ distinctive editing style relates to the rhythmic interaction of elements as screen composition. In Shell Spirit , created as an advert for the company in 1962, a large amount of visual information is compressed within a two minute timeframe, tightly edited to the accompaniment of a jauntily melodic penny whistle soundtrack.

The work begins and ends with an opening, and subsequently closing, human eye. Juxtaposed with the Shell logo, the image conflates both the start and end of the viewing experience with the company’s visual branding. The eye’s use as a framing device lends a sense of distance, presenting a window-on-the-world exoticism as found in children’s T.V. programming, documentary and public information film of the period.

A journey begins with the purchase of petrol, and continues through cityscape and country-set locations before arriving at a seaside location. Jones manages to convey large amounts of visual information with great economy of means, as close-ups of a petrol cap’s removal, and insertion of a syphon establish the journey’s garage forecourt starting point. No driver is ever seen, and visual detail is presented at almost subliminal level, as rows of eyes on an advertising billboard flash past. Car wheels, bicycles and white lines of road marking are framed from vehicle level, as the overhead patternings of telegraph wires blur into passing abstraction. The serial passage of picket fence posts and newly-ploughed furrows become visual counterpoints to specific musical content. A woman turns her head to one side, dark hair disarrayed in slipstream. A group of pigs turn to run, apparently in fright, and the silhouette of a galloping horse is superimposed against country road, as though travelling alongside, before veering off on an adjacent path. Birds in flight and the spores from a dandelion clock mark the journey’s country-set passage, while a gull and breaking waves herald an end point by the sea. Throughout, visual imagery equates the purchase of Shell’s product with ease of movement and the carefree liberty of unfettered motor travel. Horse, birds, waves and an open sky locate the car and its driver within the freedom of the natural world, as a fleeting shot of a roadside cottage presents an image of solidity and immovability, left behind for dust.

Jones, G. (dir.) 2004 Geoffrey Jones: The Rhythm of Film BFI

Lynne Ramsay:

After initial study of photography, Lynne Ramsay trained as a cinematographer, and her directorial output can be read as the weaving together of often visually-led images and episodes.

Ramsay begins her debut feature Ratcatcher (1999) with a striking image, as a head and torso twist, close-up and in slow-motion, shrouded in a nylon curtain. A muted soundtrack of childhood shouts is abruptly broken by a blow to the head, restoring an external world of normalised sound and parental discipline, as the curtains slowly unwind.

Windows recur as a framing image. From the upper deck of a bus, the film’s central character, James, watches the landscape shift from the oppressive, rubbish-strewn streets of his urban neighbourhood to an expansive countryside location. Encountering a golden-lit view of a field from an uncompleted kitchen window, lack of glass allows him to sit within the frame, before passing through as though into another dimension of being. Reflections recur, distorted or clear, within the surface of the canal.

Throughout, Ramsay uses wordless images and episodes to illustrate emotional states. James escapes from the pressures of family by running along the canalside at dusk. Filmed from the opposite bank, his reflection is visible in the water’s surface, with laboured breath amplified, as though heard close by. In the wake of attack, James’ father and mother slow dance in their living room, entwined against a darkened background, visible from the waist up. The couple’s close bodily contact as they slowly revolve presents an image of wholeness and tenderness, temporarily resolving gender-based, societal and inter-familial conflicts. Escaping his father’s anger, James externalises his own by attacking the rats infesting black rubbish bags, his movements blurred, filmed in jarring close-up with dislocatingly rapid cutting rate.

Reflected in the distorting oval of a bus’ stairway mirror, James observes his surroundings change as a journey progresses. Partial and constricted camera angles give way to a fuller framing choice, exposing a vista of open countryside from the bus’s upper deck. James encounters the exterior of a partially-completed housing project, jumping into a pile of sand, and making use of an adjacent spade. In the house’s interior, after lying inside a plastic-covered bath, and urinating into an as yet unplumbed toilet, he encounters the kitchen-set, window framed view of a golden field, and, once inside, is filmed in a montage of running, jumping, rolling and lying. His head, briefly visible against the shoulder-high crop, disappears from view, to be replaced by feet in the air, followed by a shot in which he stands upright, surveying the landscape.

This physical and emotional terrain is revisited at the film’s end, as a procession of figures appears over the horizon line, through the field and towards the house. Led by James’ father and followed by his mother and younger sister, reflected in the mirror she carries, the processional party is framed through the rectangular shape of the kitchen window. The formalised quality of painterly composition and strong golden light adds to an idealised sense of beauty, bookended by footage of James’ body floating in slowed underwater motion.

Ramsay’s second full-length film, Morvern Callar (2003), is an adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel, with narrative’s requirements allowing Ramsay to contrast the enclosed, winter-set landscape of a small port town in the north of Scotland with sundrenched expanses of rural Spain.

Use of dialogue-free imagery surfaces in a repeating engagement with intermittent light source. Highly selective framing for the film’s opening sequence provides an ambiguous viewing perspective, with Samantha Morton’s face shown in close up, in proximity to another, partially seen, figure. Further visual information is provided gradually, ending in a shot revealing Morton’s body lying adjacent to another on a living room floor, lit by the rhythmic pulsing of Christmas tree lights. Morton, in the title role, later inhabits the night-time darkness of the shore’s edge, as a lone fisherman, passing in his boat, illuminates her presence by torchlight. Circularly framed and surrounded by blackness, Morton lifts her skirt to her waist, maintaining visual engagement with the camera/viewer, by staring into the light. Within a club setting, an at times over-saturated red or blue flash fleetingly discloses faces, hands and arms within the surrounding darkness, in addition to Morton’s face, hair pulled back exaggerating eye sockets and cheek-bones to otherworldly effect.

Ramsay also conveys Morton’s attempts to overcome a sense of her character’s alienation from environment by connecting through touch. In the film’s opening sequence, she traces the length of her dead boyfriend’s arm, and after burying his body, appears to find a moment of release in the natural surroundings of moorland landscape, shown in a montage of running and laughing, accompanied by the sound of her own breath. Using one hand to trace the pattern of a branch to its tip, both are then immersed in water, observing the insect life in the surrounding mud. Later sitting against a tree in the Spanish countryside, an insect climbs over a hand, establishing connection to the life of the earth.

The absence of any obvious sound in the film’s opening sequence provokes an unsettling viewing experience, akin to the holding of breath. The muted noise of computer screen scrolling, where the instruction ‘Read Me’ resonates with the start of an Alice-like journey, emphasises an environment of extreme quietness. Later, the sounds of wrapping paper; the snap of jacket fasteners and the clicking of a cigarette lighter appear to take on heightened levels, while outside, the sound of a passing train and a ringing phone evoke a jarring sense of intrusion. Morton’s walkman provides an insulating and private soundtrack to her own experience. Entering her supermarket workplace becomes a music video-like marriage of aural and visual imagery, as the sweep of a motorised buggy coincides with a lush string arrangement, and a camera pans along the butcher’s counter as staff wave in greeting to the camera. Morton is filmed front-on in tight facial close-up in her progression through the store, before her walkman is removed and placed in her locker, heralding a return to working life.

Ramsay, L. (dir.) 1999 Ratcatcher Holy Cow Productions

Ramsay, L. (dir.) 2003 Morvern Callar Momentum Pictures

Carlos Saura:

Carlos Saura collaborated with choreographer Antonio Gades on two works, with Gades’ setting of traditional Spanish flamenco form within highly theatricalised narrative frameworks subsequently translated to screen. In Blood Wedding (1981), documentary-style footage contextualises the production, as company members arrive backstage, and prepare for performance. Footage of class in the studio/performance space allows for experimentation with tightly framed feet and faces. Dancers and musicians remain visible by the side of the studio throughout, emphasising a sense of the familial, enclosed and self-created universe of company life. Christina Hoyos’ Bride changes costume by the side of the space, making visible the demarcation between performance and non-performance states. Intimacy of scale provided by studio setting emphasises the extreme theatricality of Gades’ approach, while also highlighting moments of screen-specifc engagement. Grouped facing out towards the camera, the performers hold positions without movement, accompanied by a complete cessation of sound. Elsewhere, floor-based duet work is framed from above, and extreme close-up of faces in profile and clicking fingers heightens a sense of claustrophobic menace. A slow-motion fight takes place in real time, with close in framing on faces and the sound of breath intensifying the intimacy of the encounter. As the piece ends, Hoyos, clad in blood-smeared bridal dress, is reflected back to the viewer through studio mirror.

Throughlines are clearly traceable from aspects of Blood Wedding to Saura and Gades’ subsequent collaboration Carmen, created from 1983. A feature length film, with complex narrative structure, Gades, Hoyos and the company play versions of themselves, engaging with the conventions of dramatic naturalism in fictionalised preparations for a flamenco-based theatre production. Scenes retain a flavour of documentary-style origin, with the image and significance of mirrors greatly expanded, exploring issues of identity, performance and duplicity. Gades and Laura del Sol, as the dancer chosen to play the production’s title role, are initially seen together reflected in a dressing room mirror, while a full-length, mirrored studio wall provides a constant view of company activity from director’s office.

As the film begins, Gades’ eyes, framed tightly in close-up, scan the screen, immediately reflected by camera pan across a studio-set sea of moving arms and torsos. In later class footage, a continuous, percussive journey of feet, followed by floor-level moving camera, crosses the space. A fight, framed through bodily mesh of performers, creates a sense of oppressive crowding, while overhead shots reveal a careful patterning of costumes for two opposing factions - purple, blue and green contrasting with red and black. A moment of knife-wielding is framed in close-up, with throat-slitting in soundless slow motion. Gades and another dancer duel, armed with sticks. The performers’ silhouettes expand the duet to a quartet, until only two shadows remain.

Moving from the universal to the particular, static camera positioning records an initially empty studio space filling with performers, as couples engage in partnered social dancing. The camera pans across densely-packed faces and bodies, locating Gades and del Sol in close-up. Music is used as a key element signalling emotional shifts and states. Paco de Lucia supplies a flamenco version of Bizet’s score for Gades’ ‘live’ production, while non-diegetic use of the orchestral version signifies undercurrents surfacing elsewhere within Gades and del Sol’s emotional interactions. This tension is established from the start of the film, as de Lucia and other musicians play by the side of the stage, as Gades, in headphones, listens to Bizet at an adjacent tape-deck. Gades and del Sol leave the production’s rehearsal area to the accompaniment of the opera’s climactic musical passage, and the stabbing of Carmen is enacted partially out of shot. The camera subsequently pans out and away from the main characters, revealing company dancers engaging in everyday, inter-rehearsal activities, in a final image underscoring the film’s ambiguously shifting exploration of performance and reality.

Saura, C. (dir.) Gades, A. (chor.) 1983 Carmen Momentous Pictures World Cinema Collection

Saura, C. (dir.) Gades, A. (chor.) 1981 Blood Wedding First Classic Films

Wim Vandekeybus:

Flemish choreographer Wim Vandekeybus achieved international acclaim in 1987 with his company Ultima Vez’ debut stage production What The Body Does Not Remember. Vandekeybus’ signature movement vocabulary emphasises extreme physicality and athleticism, with gender relations often portrayed as a zone of combat. Blush, which screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, concerns the physical, emotional and mythic dynamics of passion. Vandekeybus convincingly transcends the work’s stage-based origins, making use of a range of cinematic styles with great confidence and fluency. The sense of a distinctive choreographic language is retained and expanded to engage with visual storytelling in a mix of poetically-oriented imagery and devices.

Blush is located within a mythic world, where naturalism blends with dance in extreme emotional states such as dreaming and dying. The film bypasses traditional linear narrative structure, but explores a layered and highly associative narrative progression. A Bride is identified early on, and also, by association, her bridegroom. Threshold states function as a boundaries between life and death, waking and dreaming, poetic lyricism and naturalism. Frogs appear throughout the film, in their capacity as amphibious creatures inhabiting both water and land, and as the symbol of fairy-tale related romantic transformation. The human performers also inhabit a recognisably naturalistic world of social gatherings, a pastoral idyll of land and water, and a netherworld of dream and myth.

The work begins with the green of a sun-drenched cane field, and a close-up of a frog. A monologue, delivered by female voice-over, is heard as the film’s titles appear. The speaker’s face and head appear as the monologue progresses, framed tightly against Corsican sky and sun. The film is composed as a series of disparate scenes, beginning with female narrator, flanked by a group of other young women, entering a darkened interior to sit, and continuing her emotionally charged address of apparent renunciation and loss to the camera positioned in front of her. A widened shot reveals an attentive male figure, seated opposite at a large table, and surrounded by male dinner guests. While no traditional dance content is featured, Vandekeybus makes use of a number of distinctively choreographic strategies in relation to filming as the dinner party progresses, making use of a more naturalistic performance style, incorporating dialogue. The camera slowly and continuously pans around the table, alternating with overhead shots of table-dancing guests, and eye-level framing of their moving feet. A series of close-ups foreground the bride and groom in a competitive ‘toast’, which ends as the bride’s glass shatters in slowed-motion. Guests assemble for a full-figure group picture, captured by traditional, front-on, camera positioning, as the performers hold the static gaze of the camera/audience for longer than is entirely comfortable.

An abrupt switch is made to an outdoor location, as the character of the Bride, in a flowing white night-shirt like dress, feeds pigs, and four men, including her groom, walk towards an open expanse of field. A stretch of water, occupying the bottom half of the screenspace, is counterbalanced an overhanging outcrop of rock. Four female heads appear in turn from under the water’s surface, placed at differing proximities to the central, static camera position. The women emerge from water to shoreline, appearing equally at home on land in a sensually animalistic movement vocabulary. A trio of men in a clearing engage in a vigourously physical series of rolls, drops and jumps, with movement and vocalisation mimicking the sheep and goats in their care. A female interloper breaks into the trio, initiating a sequence of chase and pursuit through the rocky landscape. Filmed as a series of quickly-moving close-ups of feet, legs and earth, the chase is illustrated from the perspective of both pursuer and pursued. In a series of underwater shots, attendant slowing of motion provides a sense of partial abstraction, with performers glimpsed close-in as kicking legs and feet. A trio dance in sand by the shoreline, their arms linked in playfully changing circular formations, suggestive of solidarity in shared female identity. A series of mixed gender trios retain the part-playful circular linkage of bodies, connecting in close proximity and rarely straying beyond the distance of arms length. Hands connect to faces, initiating turns, with sudden inward pulls towards the axial figure conferring a sense of a tight social grouping and kinship. The Groom dives underwater, as the Bride negotiates a pathway down stone steps and along a narrow path. The movements of two men and one woman develop into increasingly problematic sexualised content. The bride climbs upwards, arrestingly framed against the blue of the sky and the whiteness of the rock. Three trios, filmed in differing proximities to camera, reveal partially-abstracted movement configurations. The Bride, framed against the sky at the edge of the cliff-face, sways. Trio performers fall to the ground, leaving the Groom alone standing upright. A series of fast edits, in tight close-up of the Bride’s face, are suggestive of a fall. The Groom runs with great urgency and the Bride’s face appears, falling in the slowed-motion movement language of the underwater state.

A new sequence signals a shift to an interior space, gradually revealed as church or village hall, with a stage at one end, occupied by a band. Performers of differing ages are seated around the edge of the floorspace, functioning as impassive chorus of observers/spectators. Choreographic content mixes with more naturalistic narrative advancement, interconnecting on an equally illustrative basis. The Groom lies prone on the hall’s empty floorspace, face-down as though incapacitated by grief. The Bride stands near to his outstretched arms in her white dress, combing her hair. Other performers enter the space, as women fasten dresses and men button shirts. The movement vocabulary contrasts the reaching, unfolding, and lengthening of the floor-based figures with the upright progression of the standing. Floor-bound hands reach to connect with ambulant feet in an overtly unequal contract of dependency and need. Floor-level camera travels the length of bodies. Two men uncurl, as two pairs of female feet walk over their backs, and lying feet connect side-on around arcing pathways to stepping ones. The Bride tends to the Groom and to other of the men, straightening ties and smoothing collars. Outside the hall, she holds an item of clothing to her face, as though inhaling its smell. The performers gather in a repeat of the portrait grouping, this time clothed in black, with the figure of the white-clad Bride visible in the background, before an apparent continuation of her underwater fall, her hair in close-up streaming like seaweed. Her mouth opens and a frog swims out and away.

The work then switches to an engagement with ‘real world’ naturalism and dialogue, delivered in a variety of languages. A party or reception takes place, with the same guests in dark suits and dresses. Over the course of the scene, two arguments develop, shown in parallel. In a kitchen, a flirtatious exchange on love and death is interrupted by a confrontation from an aggrieved partner. Elsewhere, three men discuss love as a chemical reaction, which develops into a vigourous argument, continued outside. The argument can be heard as three women shift into more stylised movement content, turning and swirling skirts as they change positions from sitting to standing, and all of the guests join together in a toast.

The film’s narrative line subsequently advances by means of montage, revisiting the green of the cane field, and a close-up of the frog. Footage of the Groom in a rural, exterior location, is intercut with that of the Bride as she disappears into an opening in the earth. Propelled along a darkened, subterranean passageway, other faces, nightmarishly distorted in close-up, travel along the same route, while the Groom’s progression is tracked by following camera. Action moves into a red-lit studio location, suggestive of the decaying interior space of an industrial warehouse. A moving camera explores slowly, as the Bride is pulled from the opening in the earth, surrounded by men who strip her of her white dress, taunting with words and blows. The viewer is moved into further recesses, encountering disturbing tableaux of loveless interaction, before returning to the Bride, whose tears are sucked through straws. The Groom reaches her, attempting comfort, and heralding the start of a new sequence presenting Vandekeybus’ choreographic language in a variety of inventively filmic ways.

The camera is used to suggest a series of interlocking and oppressive cell-like interior spaces, each housing an ongoing strand of choreographic development. Two opposing factions of a crowd face one another, later converging into a melee. Two men closely circle before locking shoulders and then heads, with framing tight in on moving bodies throughout. Composer David Eugene Edwards, already a performative presence in previous scenes, is sporadically seen, filmed by jerkily moving camera. What appears as a continuous tracking shot moves through a series of adjacent spaces, each inhabited by a duet or trio, engaged in the ongoing combat of physical blocking. The Bride and Groom engage in an ambiguous meeting, with the movement vocabulary of conflict tinged by alternative possibilities. As the sequence ends, the Groom, flanked by a group of men, gathers up the Bride, running the length of the passageway, and out of shot. In an exterior landscape of water and sunlight, the Groom carries the Bride in their return to shore, where a line of men stand between the water and the land. A male voice-over is heard, with the Bride shown alone and upright. A close-up of the Groom as he turns his head to look behind him is followed by an abrupt cut to a new sequence.

The viewer is returned to the aftermath of the reception. A man lies, snoring in an apparently drunken state, as a woman climbs on top of the sleeping figure. Footage of their one-sided coupling is intercut with imagery of the Bride, emerging from the water, staggering and falling in an attempt to reach land, and of the Groom by the shoreline, accosted by a woman in a vivid red dress. Three red-costumed duets enact a movement vocabulary of lifts and falls with passionate physical abandon. At the party, the sleeping man awakes to find himself alone, as the Groom runs, and the Bride continues her attempt to emerge from the water. The Groom reaches the grounds of a ruined building at night, and the red-clad duets develop their vocabulary of embrace and surrender. Images are revisited as a man, finding a frog in the grass, raises it to his mouth. The couples talk intensely, later shouting, although no sound can be heard. The film’s end titles appear against an underwater background, and a lone swimming figure ends the piece.

Blush appears to show a series of events co-occurring in a variety of inter-related, non-linear psychological states, such as dream and myth, as well as external reality. Many influences are apparent, with the Bride and Groom functioning as archetypal figures, rather than as named characters. Dialogue is used sparingly and in a highly stylised way, and Vandekeybus convincingly utilises passages of formalised choreographic content as one element of an integrated, filmic whole. A range of choreographers recently directing screenbased versions of their stage-based work include Edouard Lock, Lloyd Newson and Vandekeybus. All three are drawn from the performance-making traditions of dance-theatre, where a choreographer is likely to arrange multi-disciplinary collaborative elements, generating material by devising tasks, rather than concentrating purely on the creation of codified, step-based dance. Vandekeybus has undoubtedly benefited from a history of collaborative work with actors, musicians and filmmakers in the creation of his stage-based output, and this translates in Blush into a facility for weaving strands of elements and imagery within a distinctively overarching creative vision.

Vandekeybus, W. 2005 Blush CCCP/Total Film

Friday, November 13, 2009

Hybrids - Filmwaves

Article on hybridised dance/screen practice in Filmwaves:

Archive Highlights: Dance on Screen - RealTime

Article on RealTime’s extensive coverage of screendance by Erin Brannigan.

Johanna Billing in RealTime

Review of Swedish artist Johanna Billing’s work at the Arnolfini, Bristol in October 2009.