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The camera dances in the American Dance Festival's international film series 

Hästdans på Hovdala

Photo by Kajsa Lindqvist

Hästdans på Hovdala

Putting a work of dance on a screen changes it, as is evident at the American Dance Festival's 19th annual INTERNATIONAL SCREENDANCE FESTIVAL. The curated film and video series of dance performances and documentaries continues over the next three Saturdays at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art.

Instead of being anchored to seats, as at a conventional dance performance, the audience is free to view the work from different perspectives, as a moving camera circles around groups of moving bodies. The camera can take us closer to the performers than we can get in real life. Or it can take us out of the theater entirely, into a world where site-specific works inhabit rocky wastelands and gritty urban landscapes.

"I think if a film is well made, you get the feeling that you're right there with the performers. But that doesn't always happen; film can be really distancing," says choreographer and director Alia Swersky, whose BENEATH OUR OWN IMMENSITY screens July 12. "Are people getting the experience of coming down the hill in that dust? Do you get the feeling when my dancer takes dirt in her hand and just flings it?"

Curator Douglas Rosenberg says that film doesn't just document works of dance; the camera becomes an active participant. "This gestalt of bodies in motion, landscape and cinematic technique creates this other thing—another work of art that stands alone," he says.

Rosenberg thinks that work like Swersky's, which explores the physicality of a hilly mountain bike trail beneath a Seattle superhighway, "takes site specificity and multiplies it."

"In a dance performance in a theater with pictures of mountains and fake boulders, there's an element of make-believe," he continues. "When dancers are moving across rough terrain, kicking up dust and banging into each other, there's physicality—and actuality—to it."

In some cases, you could say the camera dances as well. In SILENT PLACES, a Romanian film in which five strangers grapple and collide on an arid wasteland, the camera is never still. "It's a real participant in the work," Rosenberg says. "We used to say that cameras flatten everything out when filming dance. In this piece, it's just the opposite."

Dance on film goes back at least as far as Thomas Edison's first experiments with the moving image. A hand-tinted version of Loie Fuller's Serpentine Dance was produced in the late-1800s. But innovations in the form escalated after commercial video equipment became available to consumers in the 1980s.

Now, dancers can strap GoPro cameras to their arms or legs before a performance. "They get points of view that occur inside a dance and use them to create a kinetic experience," Rosenberg says. "Point of view is really a shifting notion. It's always changing as new techniques for seeing come into play."

Choreographers know that making and staging a dance work is already hard. When film or video is added, the technical difficulties increase—and not always in predictable ways.

Swersky thought she and cinematographer Sebastien Scandiuzzi would quickly complete her 10-minute screendance after what she calls a "hardcore" one-day shoot. "Originally I just said [to Scandiuzzi], 'Here's the footage, you edit it,'" she says.

But when it became clear that the two didn't share the same vision, they had to work on and off for more than two years, creating 10 different edits of the film. "Initially, I confused wanting a record of the dance with making a film about it," Swersky says. "I had to get over that and realize I was making a new, original piece."

"You learn by trying what you know," says choreographer Sharon Leahy, "and abandoning it when you see it doesn't work in this medium." Leahy danced with Greenville's Green Grass Cloggers at the start of her career; her evocative folk dance film, CARRY IT ON, screens July 12.

For the documentary HÄSTDANS PÅ HOVDALA (July 19), director and cinematographer David Fishel accompanied New York-based Equus Projects to the ruins of a castle in the Swedish countryside. Fishel's job was to document the group—rain and shine—as it created a dance theater piece over 13 days with six autistic teenagers, five horses and the company's four core dancers.

"Creating a [dance] project in less than two weeks is one thing," Fishel says. "Making a narrative about it is another. And working with horses who are spooked quite easily is a huge thing on top of that."

In the July 5 documentary THE DANCE OF THE SUN, Swedish choreographer (and former ADF student) Ami Skånberg Dahlstedt returns to Japan to reunite with her mentor, classical Japanese dance teacher Nishikawa Senrei.

Interspersed between their interactions, Dahlstedt performs works from Noh, Kabuki, Nihon Buyo and Butoh dance forms. "Dance of The Sun and Hastdans are from vastly different parts of the world," Rosenberg says, "but both give us the ability to witness relationships between groups of people who would not be having them outside of dance."

This article appeared in print with the headline "The moving image"

  • ADF’s film festival shows it can require complicated steps to make a dance performance movie

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