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Friday Film Focus 2, 2-2: Dance Film Takes Direction
All-access at Dance on Camera

By Kelly Hargraves
Copyright 2001 Kelly Hargraves

In the space of a two-hour film program I had traveled to the stages and studios of several countries and been given an all-access pass. In the comfort of a film theater, complete with spilled popcorn on the floor, I was able to watch the process and product of an international collection of choreographers from close up. The allure of dance film is its ability to bring the vitality and emotion of live performance into the casual comfort of the cinema.

Based on the 2001 Dance on Camera Festival held last month in New York, there are as many types of dance films as there are, well, dancers. This year's installation attracted 176 entrants from all over the world and prompted an expanded format. Under the direction of the Dance Film Association's Deirdre Towers, the festival has grown to include "Best of Fest" winners and classics at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, special showings and discussions at the Puffin Gallery, workshops, and an open video library of all the films entered. Films ranged from historical and anthropological documentaries to experimental shorts. The only constant is that all these films are by, for and/or about choreography.

The "main stage" of the festival is the Walter Reade program, curated in association with Lincoln Center. Over three weekends this prestigious location and well-versed audience were treated to a variety of films that included documentaries such as the National Film Board of Canada's "Showgirls," a documentary about three dancers from the Black jazz hey day in Montreal; "Bomba," the story of a Puerto Rican family whose members have dedicated their lives to nurturing this indigenous dance form; and "Swing, Bop and Hand Dance," a history of dance in African-American life. Other docs featured ballet stars like Eric Bruhn and the Bolshoi Ballet. Added to this was a fantastic program called "Treasures from the Cinematheque de la Danse" which showed clips from the early 20th century that highlighted dance's role in the birth of cinema.

Contemporary tastes were filled with the "Best of Fest" films such as "Rest In Peace," featuring the "Het Hans Hof Ensemble" and directed by Annick Vroom. RIP's strength was its clear telling of the tale of three siblings who must bury their parents. Both choreographers and filmmakers worked to integrate the dance into the story and into the surrounding atmosphere. Shot in a stunning mansion, the choreography utilizes the set as impetus for movement and emotion. The stairway becomes a launching pad, the dining table a platform and the cups and saucers objects of intention.

In a workshop for young people held at the Lincoln Center Institute, Vroom explained her strategy of making a dance film and demonstrated in just a short time how seemingly unrelated gestures and intentions could be honed and clarified to create character, story structure and dramatic arc. Her cinematographer also demonstrated the best way to bring this story to life through articulate shot choices.

Canadian Laura Taler's "A Very Dangerous Pastime" is a dynamic doc which juxtaposed a split screen of film clips from Canada's greatest dance companies with commentary from athletes, comedians and musicians who explain the thrill of dance and why audiences shouldn't be afraid. Archive footage from the 1950s that attempted the same adds a humorous tone to the stunning choreography and cinematography of the clips. Other festival winners include "Arc," a moody, three-chapter telling of transformation.

Dance On Camera also serves as a showcase for programs developed in the last few years to foster dance film production. The Dance for the Camera/Dansblik program, produced by the BBC for television, offered several short humorous films such as "The Linesman" and "Men of Good Fortune." The Pew Charitable Trust/UCLA Fellowship program produced some fine documentaries and various as yet to be completed projects.

Documentaries such as Sharon Kinney's "From the Horses Mouth," which follows Tina Croll and James Cunningham's project of the same name, are a prime example of how dance film helps develop the art form of dance by not only allowing wider audiences access to a performance, but also access to the words and thoughts of the choreographers and dancers involved.

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