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New dance films evoke time and place

Eight short dance films at Northwest Film Forum cover lots of physical and imagistic territory. And one work offers a special opportunity: "I got to film a stripper!"

A scene from “Third Floor/This Phosphorescent.”

A scene from “Third Floor/This Phosphorescent.” Courtesy of Northwest Film Forum

In watching the early films of Fred Astaire, and comparing them to other musicals of that time and even later, you see important differences. In other films, dance numbers had edits to change camera angles and frame, or cuts from the dancing to get “reaction” shots from others in the scene, or close-ups to go from full dancer bodies to shots featuring only their faces or upper bodies. This was not the case with those famous Fred and Ginger movies of the 1930s.

Astaire wanted film audiences to focus on the dancing.

There were few, if any reaction shots, and he demanded that the dance numbers whenever possible be in one long take without edits. He also required that the dancer’s whole body be shown virtually all the time. This asked much from the performers, and Astaire was known for his perfectionist approach. In these early musicals he assured the primacy of the dance.

On my way to “Next Dance Cinema” at the Northwest Film Forum on Monday (Dec. 12), I wondered where along a broad continuum of ways to present dance on film the makers of the eight short works in the program might fall. In contrast to Astaire, for instance, Gene Kelly, another great dancer/choreographer, had a different approach. He explored the possibilities of film to display dance in new ways, different from the live stage, famously performing with cartoon figures, or making an experimental film, “Invitation to the Dance.”

Dance on film has been around for about as long as film itself. The earliest depictions include Thomas Edison’s 1894 short film of the legendary Ruth St. Denis, and in 1896 the Lumiere brothers record of what is believed to be Loie Fuller performing her “Danse Serpentine.” Early on, ethnographic filmmakers included “native” dancing in their work, and artists such as Mura Dehn documented the urban vernacular dances of African Americans. By 1929, with the advent of sound, we get the first of what will become a tradition, especially in Hollywood, of lavish film musicals. There has long been a non-commercial sub-genre that experiments with movement and film, such as Charles Atlas’ collaborations with the choreographer Merce Cunningham.

With the new filmmakers, would we get the Astaire full body record, Kelly’s experiments with movement on film, far out experiments, or this generation’s emphasis on rapid edits, use of technology, and hyped up movements?

Not unsurprisingly, given that six of the of the nine filmmakers were active stage choreographers, several works focused on already choreographed dances that were then adapted in one way or another for the camera, and all took place in a variety of locales around the region.

Corrie Befort’s “Cut Chalk” for six dancers and four hand-clapping musicians engaged me throughout with its close-in shots of dancers performing in a studio. The camera roams over the dancer’s faces and bodies giving the viewer a sense of the immediacy and visceral nature of the performing, something you would not likely experience in a proscenium theater.

As an audience member, you can choose what to watch in a live performance. I often, if sitting on the far side of a theater, will peek into the wings to see dancers waiting to go on or completing their exits. Befort is not only directing her dancers, but also the viewer, as she zooms in on close-in moments, and then when you are entranced with watching one or two performers, she cuts to a larger group, or introduces a musician into the mix, four of whom actually enter the stage space and interact with the dancers.

The six performers are all beautiful young women, and they grew even more so as the dance progressed. It did not hurt that several of them were sitting in the row right in front of my wife and I. It was a treat to occasionally glance at them so intensely entranced with their filmic selves. Apparently it was the first time they had seen their film on such a large screen. The Forum’s is quite diminutive, so I can only imagine the impact of seeing themselves at the Cinerama Dome.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Dec 16, 8:47 a.m. Inappropriate

"White Christmas" is in the rotation on AMC right now, so you can see an example of Astaire's film work. I've often thought it was ironic that, even though his insisted that he be filmed in a kind of documentary style, the dances themselves had no life outside of the film, while other filmmakers (like Befort, O'Neal and Thomas above) work with existing dances, remaking them for the flat screen.

sandik

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