Dance on Camera Journal Jan/Feb 2007

BREAK by choreographer/director/writer Shona McCullagh wins the 2007 Jury Award for DFA’s 35th annual Dance on Camera Festival. The Festival 2007 Jury, comprised of Elizabeth Zimmer, Ronald Gray, Hélène Lesterlin, Kelly Hargraves, and Larry Keigwin, unanimously chose the 14 minute BREAK as the Festival winner. Elizabeth Zimmer writes on behalf of the jury,

Using delicious New Zealand landscapes and digital imaging techniques, Shona McCullagh in BREAK creates an engaging, timeless family drama. Economy of means joins emotional truth in a taut exploration of the end of a relationship.

BREAK is Shona McCullagh’s third short film. The two earlier films HURTLE, which won the Paula Citron Award for Choreography for Camera at the Moving Pictures Festival in Toronto, and FLY, which won a Reel Dance Award, were both shown by Dance on Camera Festival in New York and on its tour.

A graduate from the New Zealand School of Dance in 1983, Shona is an acclaimed dancer who performed for Chris Jannides’ Sydney-based company Darc Swan, Limbs Dance Company, Douglas Wright & Dancers, as well as her own company Human Garden. In 2005, Shona choreographed for three feature films PERFECT CREATURE, KING KONG, and the THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE; saw her work Verge tour with the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company and choreographed for the Auckland Theatre Company’s production of “Equus.”

DFA will give Shona McCullagh a cash award of $1,500 and arrange for screenings and live dance events for her in conjunction with DFA’s Dance on Camera Festival internationally touring program. Nominated for the Jury Award were the following titles: BAHUDHA; BONE, CAUGHT IN PAINT; MINOTAUR-EX, MOVEMENT (R)EVOLUTION AFRICA; LUCINDA CHILDS; JOSEPHINE BAKER, A BLACK DIVA IN A WHITE MAN’S WORLD. Only those films that formally entered the DFA 2007 competition were applicable for the Jury Award.

To purchase any of Shona’s films:

HURTLE (Winner, Paula Citron Award for Choreography for Camera) FLY (Winner, Reeldance 2002) BREAK (Winner, Dance On Camera 2007)

please contact humangarden@paradise.net.nz

Waking Somewhere Else

By Marcia B. Siegel

Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), the 20th century’s most famous aesthete, made art in many forms. He may never have danced himself, but he contributed to a surprising number of ballets and films that became landmarks of modernism. An intimate of both the Ballets Russes and the Ballets Suédois circles in the teens and twenties, he provided libretti, design ideas, and/or conceptual triggers for Parade (1917), considered the first Cubist ballet; for the collage-satire Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel (1921); and for Bronislava Nijinska’s beach ballet, Le Train Bleu (1924). Cocteau violated the conventions of the ballet stage by grafting avant-garde nonsense and illogic onto the rationality of everyday life. He had a hand in thirteen other ballets and produced a constant stream of writings, graphics, and lyrical films, including the psychological dreamscape Le Sang d’un Poète (1932) and the surrealist masterpiece La Belle et la Bête (1946).

Cocteau was an intellectual dandy. Film historian Gerald Mast called him a “cinematic amateur.” Yet his poetic sensibility, his recurring themes of transformation, transcendence, and the interdependence of love and death, have inspired filmmakers to this day. Opium, screened at the 2007 Dance on Camera festival, was co-directed by the Canadian writer Miles Lowry and dancer David Ferguson as an adaptation of their stage work about one of Cocteau’s visits to a detoxification clinic. The film incorporates many of Cocteau’s artistic symbols and gestures into an impressionistic narrative.

A young man (Ferguson) is taken to a sanitarium by a mysterious woman who never actually returns but whose power continues to haunt him. Imprisoned in his room, he hallucinates, tries to write, sees violent visions, and finally, reluctantly, readies himself for a return to life on the outside. The figments of Cocteau’s imagination appear and fade: the candelabra and the smoking flesh from La Belle et la Bête, the whitefaced nurses with their features outlined in black, the seductive noose, the woman who caresses and betrays, again and again. When the young man finally seems to pull himself together, he gets dressed and sits at his desk, compelled to write but unconvinced that even writing matters. The scattered pages of his manuscript fly up from the floor into a neat but crumpled pile, next to his hand.

The film has a curious duality of viewpoint. It projects the addict’s withdrawal fantasies, but at the same time it looks at him more objectively. Is the camera eye registering the young man’s own druggy visions? Or does it represent the doctor and nurses who check on the patient through the keyhole of his room? The atmosphere is hermetic, the visions glamorous. In the young man’s nightmares he’s being restrained and at the same time sexually aroused: the sheets snake around him, he’s embraced by black-gloved hands, threatened by his nurses, attacked by a Kabuki princess with a sword.

Although none of the characters in the film speak, voices drift in and out over the moody score by the Eclipse Quartet, with aphoristic lines from Cocteau’s writings. Over the opening credits a voice announces, “Opium is for those who dream of waking somewhere else.” The film suggests it wasn’t only opium that seduced Cocteau into escapist transports, but artmaking itself. He alternated between these two self-induced dream states throughout his life, and the film Opium suggests that during his repeated incarcerations he was seeking a creative refuge as much as a cure.

Cocteau’s works illuminate and in a sense fix the type of the tormented, addicted artist. In Le Jeune Homme et la Mort the drive to create merges with the desire for oblivion. Death offers the artist a final release, and he accepts the solution.

By 1946 Cocteau had formed a new creative alliance with choreographer Roland Petit, who was just beginning his long career as a leader of French postwar modernism. Le Jeune Homme is now considered Petit’s ballet although Cocteau conceptualized it and directed all its details—“raconté” is the word used in the credits—Cocteau “explained” the dance, decor and costumes to Petit, designer George Wakhevitch, and costumer Karinska. He surely would have choreographed it if he’d possessed a dance vocabulary, but he called it a “mimodrama,” meaning a piece in which acting style became exaggerated to the point where it resembled dance. Le Jeune Homme premiered at the Théâtre du Champs-Elysées on 25 June 1946, immediately after the first showings of La Belle et la Bète, which Cocteau had worked on for the past year. In a way, the ballet is a kind of fairy tale, a transfer of Cocteau’s cinematic mythos to a darker, more matter-of-fact stage reality. Underlying both works is Cocteau’s belief that once embarked on the journey to illusion, the poet must follow his muse even if it leads to death.

Cocteau loved film for its ability to break up time, a property he extended in La Belle by using George Auric’s score in an edited counterpoint with the filmed image. He’d already tried disconnecting score from image, to create what he called “accidental synchronization,” in Le Sang d’un Poète.) For Le Jeune Homme et la Mort he wanted an even more drastic rupture. The ballet was rehearsed to jazz piano and other classical music; the dancers devised their own counts for the movement. At the dress rehearsal Cocteau introduced J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia in C Minor, which became the final accompaniment. Setting the modern-day Dance of Death to the tune of a Baroque masterpiece added a layer of sensationalism to Le Jeune Homme‘s reputation.

The ballet was a shocker at the time, not only because of the musical misalliance. The theme—an artist’s fevered progression from creative impasse to suicide—resembles that of Le Sang d’un Poète, but instead of the distancing effect of period costumes and cinematic fantasy, both the young man and his visitor are in modern dress; they behave almost like dramatic actors. He sprawls on his bed, crushes out a cigarette with his foot, checks his watch over and over. A film noir hero waiting for a woman who’s late. But when she arrives, she teases him with a series of come-ons and rebuffs, and then, having roused him to a frenzy of desire, she shows him a noose hanging from the rafters and runs out of the room. The artist has no choice but to seize it. The breakaway set turns the attic room into a neon-lit Parisian skyscape and the woman returns wearing long red gloves and a skull mask, to lead the young man away over the rooftops.

With its lurid sexuality, its pedestrian movement threaded with ballet steps, the work turned out to be an icon of danced existentialism and a theatrical hit that served generations of great male ballet stars. It’s been filmed with its original dancers, Jean Babilée and Nathalie Philippart, and with Rudolf Nureyev, Patrick Dupond, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Petit abridged the 16-minute ballet to half its length for Baryshnikov as the opening scene of the Hollywood film White Nights. The complete ballet has now become one of several additions to the ballet DVD library by the Paris Opéra Ballet that are being distributed here by Naxos. Recorded in a 2005 Paris performance with étoile dancers Nicolas Le Riche and Marie-Agnès Gillot, the ballet is paired with Roland Petit’s Carmen, also starring Le Riche, and the disc includes interviews in French with the choreographer, the dancers, and Paris Opéra director Brigitte Lefèvre. Nureyev’s benchmark film, with Zizi Jeanmaire as Death, was made in 1968 for French television. Released in 16 mm., it’s widely known and gives a fine account of the sharply contrasting performances—Nureyev’s feverish young man and the enigmatic, alluring Jeanmaire. Pursuing this essay, I was sure I’d seen a film of the original cast long ago and I wanted to compare interpretations. A search in the Lincoln Center Library’s Dance Collection turned up only clips from it on various documentaries. But these few moments of black and white footage showed me why Jean Babilée’s performance was extraordinary.

All the other dancers in the role of the young man that I’ve seen, live and on screen, have made much of the technical possibilities of the role. Nicolas Le Riche rips off soaring brisés, double assemblés, barrel jumps, multiple tours en l’air, strings of perfect pirouettes where he negotiates transitionless switches from one leg to the other. From these ballet feats he slips effortlessly into slow Graham shoulder falls and furious acrobatics with the furniture. Le Riche exemplifies the superb technical level of today’s Paris Opéra dancers. Gillot displays fabulous extensions and wraps herself around her victim in what’s mainly a nondance role.

But those snatches of Jean Babilée recalled a naturalism that was very much a part of both the ballet and modern dance aesthetic after the war. No one dances like this now, but we see it in films of French, English, and American dancers from the 1940s and ’50s. Babilée moves like an ordinary man—weighty, self-absorbed, impulsive—not like a dancer playing an ordinary man. His spins and leaps and slow, slow falls arise as if spontaneously out of the young man’s mundane dilemma. What starts like a recognizable situation turns sinister, then incredible. I think Cocteau must have intended this insidious transformation. No one we know of since has pulled it off. The dancerly displays and pretend realism of all the ballet’s later interpreters seem expected, banal. “Morbid beauty and unhealthy fascination,” wrote one of the ballet’s first critics. Cocteau would probably have approved that reaction.

A note on sources: The literature and filmography of Cocteau are vast. I’ve only touched on his work here. Besides the newly released films discussed, Nicolas Le Riche takes the celebrated role of the tennis player, created by Anton Dolin, in Le Train Bleu, on another recently released Paris Opéra/Cocteau revival, with Massine’s Tricorne, on a disc entitled Picasso and Dance, distributed by Kultur. Anyone interested in the subject should consult two dance-specific biographies, both published in 1986: “Jean Cocteau and the Dance,” by Erik Aschengreen, translated by Patricia McAndrew and Per Avsum (Copenhagen: Gyldendal) “The Dance Theatre of Jean Cocteau,” by Frank W.D. Ries (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press) Cocteau’s own extensive writings include memoirs, essays, and “Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film” [1946], translated by Ronald Duncan, with an introduction by George Amberg (New York: Dover, 1972). An extended reflection on Cocteau’s theater work is Scandal and Parade by Neal Oxenhandler (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1957).

For dvd compilations, please visit: www.amazon.com

 

Identifying what is particular to dance on camera

by Abigail Stopper

The success of dance performance relies on the interactive experience of the audience, an experience in which those performing make an emotional and kinetic connection that transforms the spectator into an intimate participant. Some may argue that cinematic dance destroys the pure energy experienced in live performance. More than likely, this argument is based on videos made with a static, presidium viewpoint. Dance on camera offers countless possibilities ranging from historic preservation to bold experimentation, but always acknowledges distinct qualities of time, space, location, and cultural exploration.

Location, location, location…

“She had these strange dreams where the land forms took animal shapes and the animal shapes took on human characteristics.”– Daniel Conrad in reference to choreographer Aszure Barton, Afternoon of the Chimeras, Canada, 2006, 15m

Daniel Conrad’s film sliced the envelope for site specific work when he took his artistic team on a month’s camping excursion to capture footage of humans interacting with a natural environment. The movement, choreographed by Aszure Barton, reflects the lush qualities of its surroundings and the camera adopts a respectful relationship with nature as well as with the dancers. Dancers materialize from rock formations and spring up out of the brush once Conrad has approved the perfect natural lighting and hiked to the exact camera angles. More than a formal stage setting, the image presented to the viewer is delicately crafted, allowing the director to transport the viewer to a stunning new world.

Cultural journeys

“You have to work with what people’s experience was and what they are willing to say about it.”– John Bishop, director of Seasons of Migration, USA, 2006, 56.08m

Season’s of Migration explores the effects of Cambodian immigration to California through language and dance. The film introduces the audience to this experience and strives to build a stronger community that might otherwise remain silent. In a society that is increasingly shaped by immigration and the resulting political questions, such a film becomes a tool in communicating between diverse cultures. Though the choreography is infused with a more Western vocabulary, its roots reside in classical Cambodian dance, an art form that was nearly swept away during political unrest in the mid 20th century. Therefore, the film surpasses a position of historical testimony and relays the experience of today’s history. How is Cambodian culture being transmitted to that of modern America? Through the intertwining of classical western dance and traditional Cambodian dance, we begin to see how the two cultures coalesce. What a treat to have access to this exploration without being forced to wait for the company to tour.

Shaping spaces

« C’est une ancienne usine d’électricité en France à côté de Paris qui venait d’être abandonné. Quelque chose comme une semaine avant il y avait du monde et après, ils ont tout vidé. Elle était encore habitée, elle est un lieu incroyable. »– Nataly Aveilan, dancer in Minotaur-Ex, France, 2001, 9m

(“It was an old electrical factory in France, near Paris, that was abandoned. One week before there were people, suddenly it was all cleared out. The factory still felt inhabited, it was incredible.”)

Minotaur-Ex by Bruno Aveillon exhibits the extraordinary effects of the camera in a raw space. Filmed in an old electrical factory, the footage succeeds in carving out a definite space by catching the dancers from all angles. This includes a beautiful overhead shot depicting a spiral created on the ground by a dancer’s body. Despite the fact that the space must be large in reality, the artful footage condenses the space to create a visually implied ring, therefore making a direct allusion to the title and the combative movement. To achieve this illusion, the camera switches perspective quickly, much like the dancers themselves, to drastically intensify the energy of the space and the movement. The participation of the camera in the movement invites the viewer into the realm of action. This strategy can be referenced to the fight scenes of large budget productions. Therefore, the space is not only defined by what the camera shows us, but also by the pre-existing cinematic vocabulary.

Historical testimony

“The title Apollon Musagète means leader of the muses.”- Dominique Delouche, director of Serge Lifar Musagete, France, 2005, 88m

The dance world is marked by legends of illustrious choreographers such as Serge Lifar, who led their muses through the glory days of pointe shoes and tutus. Yet documentation of their journeys is too often restricted to lessons and histories passed down through the generations that become less and less relevant as time wears on. Film can deceive this ephemeral nature and when created with an attentive nature, can capture the delicacies of the legend. Though this film lacks a wealth of footage of Lifar himself, it seizes the traces he left in his muses. As the aging danseurs and ballerinas tell their tales and instruct their young pupils, the camera positions itself to catch the twinkle in their eyes. The film serves as a historical document as well as an emotional memoir to the ferocity of the Russian ballet. Therefore, rather than engaging the camera directly into the choreography, Monsieur Delouche focuses the camera as observer of the dancer’s tender emotions and provides testimony of the passionate love between Monsieur Lifar and the ballet.

Toying with time

“It was always designed, even on stage, to look like a film. In my mind, I wanted it to look like one of Cocteau’s old black and white films like “Blood of the Poet.” David Ferguson, dancer/choreographer in Opium, Canada, 2006, 24m

A blanket flies out of view into the air. After an unusually long pause, it settles back down upon the two nurses caring for Jean Cocteau. An altered sense of time is evident throughout this film that portrays Jean Cocteau’s time in a rehabilitation facility during which he wrote his famous novel, Les Enfants Terribles. The jolting, mechanical movement of the nurses and the dreamlike sense of reality contained within the rehabilitation room force the audience to abandon traditional conceptions of time and enter into the mind of the writer. Though we historically know that Mr. Cocteau wrote the book in seven days flat, this fact is not necessarily revealed in the film. Therefore, as pages to the book magically appear and skim the floor, we are left wondering if time has ceased to exist. If we look at the evidence, this would be the case in the urgent process of Les Enfant Terribles. *

Abigail Stopper was a DFA intern during Festival 2007 and will graduate from Scripps College in Spring, 2007.

STOMP THE YARD multi-million dollar winning dance flick

Say what you like, Sylvain White, a son of a pro-basketball player and a French stewardess who studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, is dancing with his dancers, when he is not preaching the merits of college and team playing. White was raised mostly in France and came to America where he studied film at Pomona College in southern California and worked at Propaganda Films alongside Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze.

Sylvain White discussed his film on National Public Radio, “Stepping is new to most people, but it has been around for over 100 years. I grew up in Paris, France so I was really foreign to this world in many ways. What really impressed me when I went to step shows, the practices, that I saw in black colleges in the south was the level of dedication and tradition within it that was just amazing.” “People say to me all kinds of things. Americans say my work is very edgy, very European. It’s very commercial, it’s very American. I kinda like that because I grew up with both cultures (European and American).” Regarding White’s cinematography. “To make the film feel different, I studied a lot of sports movies and the way football is shot and also some Korean Kung fu films. Stepping is interesting because it is a dance form but sometimes it also looks like a martial art as well. I tried to apply these different techniques and bring the audience within the performance because Stepping is really about the unity of the group. And I wanted the audience to feel as though they are a part of the team, especially when they are going into the competition.” Elston Gunn from AintitCool website interviewed Mr. White.

EG: “I’ve always thought dance really lent itself to the nature of cinema. It’s about as visual as you can get even if the camera is kept still. What do you think sets STOMP THE YARD apart from other dance films? How did you shoot it?”

SW: I really went to work on the dance scenes. I applied tailored shooting techniques to each dance sequence. I studied everything that had been done up till now, starting with the classics, and really tried to break new ground. I also studied how some classic Hong Kong films shot fight sequences and re-adapted the technique to dance. The result is quite impressive, if I may say.

EG: “Why do you think a lot of dance films today do not connect with the audience?”

SW: “Well, they often feel artificial and the dancing contrived. But in this case you’ll almost feel like you are watching a documentary.”

What the critics say…

“The direction and camera work of Sylvain White is so deft that many times I found myself holding my breath as I felt pulled into the movie as if I were the one flying around and moving my feet.” Kathy Bledsoe, “Pass the Popcorn” 

 

“We have drugs, gangs, guns, and rock n’ roll, but dancing is a form of street toughness? What’s next, to-the-death tickle matches?” OhmyNews.com, Brian Orndorf

“Too transparent and unintentionally silly to accept all of its faux-sincere message-making.” TheMovieBoy.com, Dustin Putman

“A step up from the run of fare ordinarily targeted at the so-called urban audience…But it doesn’t step up far enough.” One Guy’s Opinion, Frank Swietek

“Frenetic, raucous, exhilarating fable about finding your place in a group.” www.susangranger.com, Susan Granger