rescuing dancefilm from the margins

chirstinn whyte: erin brannigan, dancefilm

Dancefilm: Choreography and the Moving Image,

Dancefilm: Choreography and the Moving Image,


Formulating an academic approach to this field of study has been a more recent development, with groundwork laid over the last 10 years by a variety of approaches and writers. However in the introduction to her new book, Dancefilm: Choreography and the Moving Image, Erin Brannigan notes a ‘stand-off’ between dance and film discourse, with an often unclassifiable hybridised form left languishing in the theoretical margins. Brannigan manages to integrate both strands in a deeply rooted field of critical thought, making reference to Walter Benjamin, Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze among others. She also nods to contemporary dancefilm practitioners—David Hinton, Miranda Pennell and Gina Czarnecki—with examples of work on an accompanying website. The book comes into its own, however, as an historical tour-de-force, probing deeply into cultural causes, presenting the reader with a spiralling timeline of critical nexus points.

Brannigan sets the scene by arguing convincingly for the emergence of, in Bergson’s phrase, ‘modern movement’ as symptomatic of the neurasthenic, turn-of-the-20th century city-dweller’s state, set within a wider historical context of technological transformation. Here, the primacy of the pose in classical ballet and still photography gives way to a notion of constant flux. This notion is presented as the defining characteristic of both modern dance and moving pictures, which are as inseparably entwined in Brannigan’s reading as the twin strands of a double helix.

Placed centrally to this argument is the work of solo performer Loïe Fuller, whose serpentine spin weaves through the cultural milieu of fin-de-siècle Paris, reflecting and expanding on the ideas of Mallarmé, Valéry, the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès. Neither ballerina nor showgirl, ‘La Loïe’ was the first artist regardless of gender to claim the title of director/choreographer, manipulating billowing fabric around a shrouded body as lighting effects conjured a continuous stream of allusion—flowers, butterflies, fire and snow. Complete in herself as a one-woman ‘moving image,’ Fuller is positioned by Brannigan as prefiguring the thematic and operational territory of both avant-garde film and postmodern dance.

The threads of this lineage are traced along multiple pathways, finding resonances between the work of Jean Renoir, René Clair and the Dadaists and writing on non-narrative cinema, such as that of Hungarian theorist Béla Balázs on the expressive potential of the close-up. The latter is explored in depth, with the abstracted play of bodily detail—the twitch of a finger, the ripple of a spine—central to much contemporary dancefilm cast as ‘micro-choreographies,’ small-scale, transformational experiments in ‘movement-for-movement’s sake.’ Brannigan also traces the historical roots of Delsartism—a gesture-based system of actor training—noting its role in the highly physical performance style of silent-era stars such as Lillian Gish and Charlie Chaplin. Tracking the pathways of this tradition through the pedagogy of the Dennishawn school and the Graham Studios, Brannigan winds her way towards the psychologically charged, non-linear montages of Pina Bausch and Wim Vandekeybus, finding particular significance en route in the gesture-heavy waking dreamscapes of Maya Deren.

A figurehead for the mid-20th century Greenwich Village avant-garde, Deren’s writing on a choreographic dimension to filmmaking is highlighted as central to an understanding of the field. Deren’s notion of “horizontal form”—where the feeling state of being-in-the-moment is explored in depth—provides Brannigan with a template for analysis not only of experimental film, but also for the Hollywood musical, here cast as “longer format vertical film form.” In contrast to much pre-existing, production-led analysis, Brannigan approaches this territory by highlighting the phenomenon of highly nuanced transitions between performance modalities. Focusing on a central—often female—physicality, she contrasts the precise, self-contained technical style of Ginger Rogers with the long-limbed, ground-covering expansiveness of Rita Hayworth, while casting the hyper-expressive sensuality captured in Marilyn Monroe’s close-ups as micro-choreographies in themselves. However Brannigan finds fullest expression of Deren’s ideas in the work of choreographer/director Bob Fosse, with Liza Minelli and Shirley MacLaine barely keeping in check an edgy over-exuberance, spilling out into highly stylised song-and-dance numbers.

Deren’s input is also tracked through convergence points where avant-garde film and dance intersect, noting her influence on the work of artists such as Shirley Clark, Amy Greenfield and Norman McLaren, before arriving squarely at the writings of Judson Church alumnus Yvonne Rainer and the movement research of fellow downtown Manhattanite Trisha Brown. Rainer noted that “dance is hard to see,” and Brannigan observes that Brown’s exploration of uninflected sequencing— characterised here as “anarchic phrasing” and as a lack of conventionally “privileged moments”—pushes technical boundaries in registering the “in-betweenness” of a work such as Watermotor (1978), ultimately captured in otherworldly slowed-motion by Babette Magnolte’s cinematography.

In her concluding chapter, Brannigan makes the case for a hugely disparate “cinema of movement,”—identifiable throughout genres from abstraction to advertising—bringing together the body-centric notion of ‘somatic intelligence’ and Jean-François Lyotard’s concept of “somatography.” The latter emerges as a highly significant element of Brannigan’s theorising. Described as “a writing on/of the body,” it provides graspable language for a notoriously slippery phenomenon—kinesthetic engagement with screen practices such as framing and edit. Brannigan goes further, arguing that this also allows for a kinesthetically framed viewing experience, sited within the “sensitive field” of filmic mise-en-scène and completing an improvisatory circuit of multisensory transference between moving image and audience—a “call-and-response” grounded in non-verbalised levels of body-based exchange.

Tackling a large-scale agenda from a meticulously researched and unapologetically dance-centred perspective, Dancefilm is a much-needed resource for the serious scholar. Viewed in addition to Karen Pearlman’s recent focus on a choreographic approach to editing in Cutting Rhythms (2009) and the appearance of the International Journal of Screendance in 2010, we could be forgiven for thinking that these are promising times for raising awareness of a significant field.

Erin Brannigan, Dancefilm: Choreography and the Moving Image, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011

RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 26

© Chirstinn Whyte; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

14 June 2011