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Friday, November 13, 2009

Hybrids - Filmwaves

Article on hybridised dance/screen practice in Filmwaves:


Dance artists creating screen projects frequently meet with the assumption that their role is restricted to that of dancing body, or, at most, to the creation of steps for other dancing bodies. A traditional model of choreographer/director demarcation, familiar from Hollywood musicals and M.T.V., can work to reinforce this misconception, while multiple strands of hybridisation feed into a current, and internationally high profile, wave of making from an emerging breed of British-based dance/media artists.

Experimental histories require navigation by alternative landmarks. A Study in Choreography for Camera  contributed to Maya Deren’s reputation not only as a defining presence within mid twentieth century avant-garde film, but also within a parallel, sometimes overlapping, tradition of dance-informed screen practice1. The latter, less documented line includes fellow U.S. based filmmakers Shirley Clarke, Doris Chase, Amy Greenfield, Elaine Summers and Yvonne Rainer, while in nineteen seventies Britain, Sally Potter absorbed influences from both the London Filmmakers Co-op and the newly-opened London Contemporary Dance School. Television commissioning and industry-led production models set the agenda for the next twenty years of a genre beginning to self-identify as ‘screendance’, with use of gesture-based movement, site-specific making and cross-generational casts reflecting the impact in Britain of New Dance, and involving established, stage and gallery-based dance-makers such as Lea Anderson, Rosemary Butcher and Rosemary Lee. Over the last decade, access to low-cost cameras, editing software, and domestic computers allowed dance artists to translate specific skills and strengths into shot composition, camera movement, and pace of edit, while a growing body of academic research begins to frame this phase transition in choreographic terms2. As the complex, long-term consequences of digitisation unfold,  increasing numbers of equally dance and screen literate voices, creating distinctive bodies of work, continue to emerge. In an overwhelmingly male-dominated screen industry, and amid debate on lack of representation for female choreographers, mapping recent examples of integrated practice reveals clusters and patternings of influence and approach linking intriguingly high numbers of female makers3.

A creator of movement-led short film since 1990, London-based artist Miranda Pennell  arranges the angularly synchronised movements of a military marching band entirely by means of frame and cut in 2001’s Tattoo. Pennell also generates subtly time-lapsed flocking behaviour in You Made Me Love You, from 2005, reflecting back to the viewer an unselfconscious immersion in task as teenaged dance students strive to match the minimal, cat-and-mouse movement journey of the camera. Now based in the Scottish Highlands, Katrina McPherson has  developed a significant body of work over the last two decades with longstanding creative partner Simon Fildes, often placing the subjective experience of the dance artist at the heart of her output. Pace, created in 1996, contains echoes of Hilary Harris’ camera-based experimentation, creating a close-in, off-centre world of fragmentary motion. Sense8,  created with sighted and visually impaired performers in 2001, rests on information received through body-centred, proprioceptive processes, registering shifts of weight and changes in balance from within. McPherson’s mediation places the viewer almost as a participant within the unfolding experience, rather than attempting a definitive, externally-oriented portrayal.

Negotiating crossover from a background in visual arts, physicalised response is also central to the work of Rachel Davies, whose camera pathways lead viewing eye through full bicycle wheel rotation in Hong-Kong-set We Got Old, from 2002, and backseat view of passing Manchester suburbs in 2007’s The Assembly. Dance-trained videographer Becky Edmunds sidesteps the issue of ‘dancer-as-subject’ by using aspects of environment as choreographic raw material, with shifting scenic panorama dissolving and emerging around the central, static figure of 2009’s Stand-In, and by drawing on an improvisatory-led tradition of movement scores in the rapid, slide-action camera rotation of Arctic Circle-set Skate, from 2009. Magali Charrier, Lucy Cash and Rajyashree Ramamurthi braid strikingly disparate elements into multistranded screen compositions, with Charrier’s equally-balanced mix of live action, animation and non-linear narrative drawing the viewer into the luminously monochrome, self-contained world of 2004’s Tralala. Cash threads rhythmic glimpses of movement through text-based interludes in 2006’s Sight Reading , constructing a cartoon-like hyper-reality from voice-over, stop-motion and still image in 2008’s Requiem for the Redhead? , while Ramamurthi presents a child’s-eye  camera view of shifting sensory stimulus in 2007’s More Stories.

Within a festival context, the form has often played the part of the introverted teenager at the interdisciplinary party, by keeping itself almost entirely to itself. Over the last three years, Manchester-based Moves has broken beyond this self-limiting pattern, with founding director Pascale Moyse purposely including dance-centred work within a more varied menu of short film, animation and new media-influenced offerings4. With formats combining promenade performance and sequential screenings, Emma Gladstone and visual arts curator Sasha Craddock are also programming across traditional demarcation lines for Sadler’s Wells’ dance and media series Live Screen5, while increasing numbers of dance trained makers leave behind an isolationist mind-set to apply their skills elsewhere. In the script-based drama At the End of the Sentence; from 2005, Brighton-based Marisa Zanotti establishes character and context through individual shot composition and cumulative gathering of visual detail. Bristol-based Lisa May Thomas’ The Elders, from 2006, contextualises minimal movement of mouths and hands within a documentary-influenced framework of personal and social history and Phillipa Thomas exploits the materiality of filmic medium in 2006’s Electric Desert, overlaying grainily monochrome slowed-motion with vivid colour blur. Exploring embodiment and presence, while subverting conventional notions of dance, Liz Aggiss’ self-reflexive performance-to-camera in Diva, from 2007, sets expressionist pastiche within the format of film-within-a-film; Miriam King’s Body Electric No. 2 , created in 2005 with Davide Pepe, builds an unsettlingly flash-scanned edit from a closed-in landscape of physical distortion, while dance and visual arts researcher Claudia Kappenberg’s Moebius  installation, from 2008, layers body-based imagery and archive footage as multilevelled states of memory and sensory perception.

For a form with a rich and honoured history of incoming creative traffic, acknowledging the experience of hybridity from a dance-centred perspective is a significant, and relatively recent, development. Loss of more traditionally-oriented events, including the long-established London-based Dance on Screen festival, provided space for grassroots-upwards, root-and-branch rethink of previously settled structures. Networks and alliances are currently running ahead of established models, with initiatives springing up between the fault lines separating old from new, and reshaping the form at an accelerated pace. In 2006, the first of two Open Source Video Dance Symposia, held at the Findhorn Foundation in North East Scotland, catalysed momentum for collective action, providing a dedicated environment - part retreat, part think-tank - driven by participant-led agendas6. Smaller-scale, artist-run projects, such as Bristol-based screening series Light Fantastic, have appeared alongside longer-term networked developments7. The University of Brighton recently hosted the first in a two-year, AHRC-supported seminar programme, headed by Claudia Kappenberg and bringing together British and U.S. based researchers with the aim of generating new writing8. Centred on input from film historian Ian Christie, Tate Modern’s Catherine Wood contributes to forthcoming meetings on curatorial policy. Working closely in parallel, South East Dance Agency fellowship recipient Lucy Cash has drawn together a practitioner grouping around a series of events in Brighton and London planned for spring 2010. Supported by partner organisations including Artsadmin, Independent Dance and Southwark’s Roxy cinema, What If? interweaves multiple layers of artist-led curation, movement interventions and commissioned writing, entirely reimagining the traditional, ninety minute, sit-down screening format9. Additional strands of personalised, practitioner writing from Simon Fildes, Gitta Wigro and others, are contextualising the form from the inside out, as a field without specialist writers negotiates the challenges of generating a written ecology from within.

Like an overshadowed younger sibling, screendance has often made do with imperfectly-fitting hand-me-downs from the already-established conventions of mainstream dance, film and television. A process of generational shift is taking place within porous boundary zones where movement and media practices intersect, consequently opening channels for true creative dialogue on a basis of equality. As dance on screen becomes dance and screen, making is recast as a process of integration, with the potential for artists to engage choreographically at every operational stage. Rather than displacing the specialist knowledge of director, cinematographer, or editor, new perspectives are emerging, uncovering a dance-inflected dialect within a common language of screen composition. Arguably, hybrid artists are doing what artists have always done, in resolutely refusing to colour within the margins, instead using their skills and experience to messily, creatively explore new pockets of territory by often fluidly digitised means.

Chirstinn Whyte completed a PhD in 2008 at Middlesex University, London, researching choreographic practice for screen.

1. See Rosenberg, D. 2000 Screen Dance p.1/2

2. See Pearlman, K. 2009 Cutting Rhythms Focal Press

3. See Mackrell, J. May 2009 The Ladies Vanish  The Guardian

4. Moves Festival of Movement on Screen - www.movementonscreen.org.uk

5. Live Screen - www.sadlerswells.com

6. Open Source Video Dance Symposium - www.videodance.org.uk/symposia.html

7. Light Fantastic - www.thelightfantastic.co.uk

8. International Research Forum for Discourse and Publication in Screendance -

9. South East Dance Agency Fellowships -www.southeastdance.org.uk/Artistfellowships08.htm


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