Kinetic alchemies

Philipa Rothfield on dance and the camera in Dance Lumière

You could never envisage all the camera has seen, countless images scattered at random in time and space like the fragments of a vast and ancient mosaic…you will never comprehend the totality of such a fabulous and excessive montage…
Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity, Sage Publications, London, 1998.

It is hard to think of this year’s Dance Lumière program as a totality. So different were these shorts that I started to wonder what it is that characterises the “dance film.” This year’s curator, Erin Brannigan, spoke briefly before the showing, delineating 2 forms of classification. One of the categories is a performance which has been filmed, a dance documentation. Many of the films in this category were reminiscent of those Royal Shakespeare Company films of plays staged on sets. The setting is usually the original performance space, the staging the same as that for the performance. An exception to this was Scenes in a Prison (Jim Hughes, Graeme McLeod). This work was (re)located in a prison, admitting a plurality of perspectives upon the unrelenting nastiness committed by its “inmates.” Another notable exception to the staged paradigm was Falling (Mahalya Middlemist and Sue-ellen Kohler) which played with the temporality of the movement, turning the work into something quite different from live performance. Falling comprised a sepia tinted fractal of movement, progressing as if frame-by-frame, the fluidity of movement reduced to staccato images. What I loved about this film was the space for thought created in its snail-like progress. The rest of the filmed performances—Elegy, Body in Question, and Subtle Jetlag—were interesting because the performances looked interesting, not because of their being films.

The other espoused form of classification was the “Dance Film”, that is, a film specifically made with dance. One would expect these films to offer more in terms of a cinematic aesthetic. Perhaps so, but they certainly did not ascribe to the same cinematic values nor to the same interpretation of dance. Some of the films shared a sense of dancerly composition: Sure (Tracie Mitchell, Mark Pugh) showed a beautiful warp and weft of dancing bodies, and Dadance (Horsley, Wheadon, and Elmaz) a surreal 1930s play between visual art and dance. But others, such as Hands (Jonathan Burrows, Adam Roberts) and Greedy Jane (Miranda Pennell), involved urbane forms of movement which were carefully crafted and represented.

What is it that film brings to dance? Film can do things performance cannot. The perspectival nature of the camera, the suture of film montage, the reduction to black and white (Sure), the enhancement of particular colours (Greedy Jane), the distortion of time and motion (Falling, Dividing Loops) are specific features of the filmed image. Added to this is the fact that we are viewing a conjunction of dance and film. Perhaps alchemy is a better word, for it suggests that a transformation has taken place. Film is not merely the camera ‘recording’ dance. As a medium, it has its own character, its own form of corporeality, texture and temporality. It is out of this body, the body of the film, that the more familiar dancing body emerges—perhaps defamiliarised, transfigured, hopefully enriched.

Dance Lumiere, Luminous Movement: Dance Created for the Camera, curated by Erin Brannigan, Dancehouse, Melbourne, Dec 12, 1998

RealTime issue #29 Feb-March 1999 pg. 30

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 1999