Curated by Harkness Dance Center, 92nd St Y, New York
August 5, 2020
Dance created and specially edited for film goes way back to Loie Fuller around the turn of the twentieth-century and there’s been plenty of it since. What the mobile phone has done is give everyone access to the technology, a point recognised by the 92nd St Y when they launched their Mobile Dance Film Festival in 2018. All credit to them for coming up with something a little bit different.
This year’s third annual festival features thirty new films from around the globe, all made pre-pandemic. A further thirteen films comprise a special Quarantine Screen category showcasing films made during COVID-19 lockdowns (click here for David Mead’s review of those).
Right from its beginnings, ‘Dance for the Camera’ as a genre has always pushed boundaries. Very often it is very different from what most people might generally perceive as dance, even dance adapted for film.
There is certainly a lot of variety in the films selected. The problem is that it’s not exactly novel any more. There has been a lot of this sort of work around in the past six months, a time in which dance shot on mobiles has moved on dramatically. Perhaps that’s why I found a few of the festival offerings decidedly unengaging, as dance or as film.
By its very nature, dance created for film lacks the buzz of energy you get from a live performance. It needs to capture us in other ways. The most successful films in the Mobile Dance Film Festival are those that communicate something rather than just announcing ‘here are some whizzy things I can do with my camera and an editing suite’, or putting a dancer against an interesting or beautiful background; and there are several of both in the programmes.
The problem comes to the fore when that point is reached where what is created stops being primarily about bodies moving. How many times did I find that it was the choreography, the physicality of the action, that was grabbing me? Not enough.
The message communicated doesn’t come much more topical than in Living with Demons by Blakh Love Arts from New York. Opening with footage of black people being arrested, the four-minute film explores the mental state of black men and women, and how they deal with the demons in their lives on a daily basis. The dance makes its points eloquently and calmly, without any sense that the viewer is being lectured to; always the most powerful approach. Scenes of Krystal Bates and Haseem Bivins dancing in a backyard are interspersed cleverly with moments of stillness showing them deep in thought. The calm of the music (‘Quiet the Monster’ by Liberation Era) contrasts perfectly with the power of the idea and the dance.
All the films are short, running from less than a minute to around six. Sometimes very short is perfect, as in The Breakup by Luli Brindisi, which sees dancers Fiore Gimenez and Erick Ferreyra burst into a room, seemingly in the midst of a blazing argument, for a breathtaking sixty seconds of athletic, rough and tumble, and brilliantly timed dance. Short enough to grab us, long enough to tell its story, and with camerawork that makes you feel like you are there with them without ever dominating the action. A scene that has the couple in silhouette against a stained glass window is especially alluring. Perfect.
Sometimes things need a little longer to develop, though, as in Things Buried by Chelsea M Davis and dance film company, Rozmova. The slow burner of an opening suggests hidden feelings or hidden needs that later bloom in a duet that sees choreographer and partner Alex Wang (王永同) dance their way around the lanes and alleys of Taipei. With an air of Fred and Ginger about it, the choreography is filled with joyousness and a wonderful sense of freedom. There’s even a narrative. Super stuff.
I also very much enjoyed Take Five by Elijah Richardson to the eponymous jazz score by Dave Brubeck. The detail in the opening scene in bed as he wakes is a gem, and the later dance in the streets and parks of Chicago match the mood of the music perfectly.
I do wish choreographer-directors would not speed up, slow down, use stop-motion or whatever without reason, however. Too often they seem to do it simply because it’s available and they can.
Sometimes the technology just takes over completely. Colony by Didier Mulleras, a Busby Berkeley-style film, is certainly full of clever editing and whizzy special effects used to multiply dancers. The problem is that’s pretty much all it’s about. There are times when it’s no more than colourful abstract shapes morphing into one another as they glide around the screen.
Setting the dance against an interesting backdrop is a common ploy. Some of the filmmakers take us on a tour. Semihundido by Stephanie Perez takes us around Madrid Rio Park. In Montebello by Eduardo Hernandez, we visit the sights of the Californian town of the same name.
Most beautiful setting, however has to be the Baughman Center at the University of Florida, scene of The Night We Met: The good, the bad, and the unsure, created and danced by Emma Anne Wedemeyer. Apparently, it explores the mind of two different characters reflecting on pivotal moments in their life. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really communicate that and feels just like a pop video for the music: ‘The Night We Met’ by Lord Huron.
There’s one unusual foreground too. In Between, Around, and Underneath by Isabella Vergara has the floor-based dance watched from above through the blades of a rotating fan. The dancing is fine, but does it say anything?
As can be the case with dance for the camera, a lot of dancing was not a necessary requirement (I’ve even seen dance films without any reference to humans, let alone humans moving). As film, I was very taken by Danced House (Casa Danzada) in memory of my father… by Leni Méndez, even if it does lose a few marks for some unnecessary special effects towards the end. Full of text, that’s bursting with feeling, and that somehow works better in Spanish (with subtitles) than I could ever imagine it would spoken in English, it’s almost poetic, certainly a thoughtful digging into the soul. But there’s little attempt at choreography, certainly no attempt at developing movement ideas.
Finally and to show how broad the definition of dance for the camera can be, Sublimation by Lisa Kusanagi is an animation composed of 570 ink paintings. It’s certainly an impressive piece of visual art, although the mobile phone connection rather eludes me.