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.
The concept of film editing is a seductive one for choreographers. It allows them to quickly alter a movement sequence, to choose a version that seems most “right,” to fade, to easily alter real time and even place. None of this is possible in live performance, so the process of editing their films must have been an exciting and challenging one.
Filmmaker Lindsey Thomas was able to engage eight dancers from the Pacific Northwest Ballet who performed brief segments of a dance by Dutch choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, “Cylindrical Shadows.” The movement sequences continued seamlessly as the locale changed from place to place, in a garden area that perhaps was next to the ballet’s building at Seattle Center, to a waterfront shot, and then to an open field near train tracks — we even see a Sounder train pass by.
It was all quite lovely as not only did Thomas shift geographic locations, but each time the camera roamed from long shots of the group to ones close in. The languid nature of the movement allowed you to focus on the groupings and the change of scenery.
“Off the Grid” was a remaking for film by Amy O’Neal of her earlier live choreography “On the Grid.” It was filmed entirely at the Smoke Farm in Arlington, mostly at night, making the muscular work rich with premonitions of something dangerous. Some of it was filmed outdoors in a grassy field, with illumination by dancers holding flashlights. At other times we are in a claustrophobic indoor space, perhaps a barn, the dancer’s rigorous writhing bringing up storms of dust from the building’s floor and coating their bodies.
Adam Sekular, who is also the program director at Northwest Film Forum, and choreographer Shannon Stewart teamed up to make “Third Floor/This Phosphorescent.” Set in the abandoned Publix Hotel in the International District, the film evoked memories of those who might have lived there before its closure in 2003. Tall and pale, Stewart’s ghostly presence in various sites in the building gives an eerie sense of history, and of poltergeists who might still roam the rooms and corridors.
KT Niehoff, now a veteran local dancemaker, tried her hand at filmmaking for the first time with “Parts Don’t Work” performed in the now defunct Fun Forest Amusement Park at Seattle Center. Blanca Cabrera is the heroine, for some reason pursued and harassed by a trio of scantily clad women in white go-go boots with giant teeth and mouths, known as the “Girl Gang.” They traipse around the park making good use of rides and other amusements. This absurdist film gave us a good sense of the slightly tawdry atmosphere of a place that was meant to “amuse.”
Specific locales were also the setting for Shawn Telford’s “Kubota Flower,” a little haiku of a film with “exotic” dancer Lili Verlaine disrobing from a lavish red dress of many textures down to pasties and nothing else at Kubota Gardens, and Marissa Rae Niederhauser’s “tracing,” which found her shifting scenes and time in a rural farmhouse.
The "Next Dance Cinema" is a co-production of Northwest Film Forum with Velocity Dance Center, and after the program all the filmmakers came out to respond to audience questions. When asked what their favorite thing was in making these movies, Shawn Telford had the best, and certainly most succinct response. “I got to film a stripper!” The life of an artist should always be so fulfilling.