The mystery that drives us: Encountering director Thierry de Mey
by Allen Kaeja
“It’s the mystery that continuously drives us to the next project. What are the obstacles to solve, the curiosity to satisfy.”
Thierry de Mey
To attempt to encapsulate a four-day workshop led by director Thierry de Mey in June, 2007 in Los Angeles, California is like trying to condense the Louvre into a snow globe: richly imaginative, visually fascinating, unequivocally inspiring but still enclosed within a dome. In this article, I will focus upon the structure of creating ONE FLAT THING, REPRODUCED, 26 minutes, 2006, a major work of Thierry de Mey made in collaboration with choreographer William Forsythe.
In conjunction with Lynette Kessler of the Dance Camera West Festival, an evening of Thierry de Mey’s work was presented with De Mey giving commentary and opening dialogue with the audience at the Redcap Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. Thierry then spent three days with 40 workshop participants watching films; discussing approaches for preparation; interpretation of choreography; developing strategies for the camera; and post production processes. The third part of the workshop was viewing new projects and explorations by De Mey which include installations, Motion Capture, interactive works and multi-screen projections; seeing the work of other creators with whom Thierry has collaborated; and an evening of informally watching and discussing many of the workshop participants’ films.
On the first day of the workshop June 23, ‘07, we gathered in Kaufman Hall at UCLA, in a room that acts as a screening room, classroom and small theatre with approximately. 50 lighting instruments and stereo sound system. All forty of us assembled in a circle, introduced ourselves and expressed what our expectations were for participating in this unique and rare workshop. Consistently the answer emerged as, ‘To learn from a Master’.
Born in 1956, a very youthful, composed, soft spoken and elegant Thierry De Mey explained that the objectives of the course were to “act as a spy, to find strategies to organize, compose and create an aesthetic design and to deepen one’s understanding of how filming techniques enhance, capture, elevate and reveal the dance.”
On the second day, De Mey handed out a 26-page document that detailed various techniques of creating movement vocabularies, choreographic strategies and vocabularies. He discussed how these processes translate to techniques of shooting, editing and composition of a dance film. Thierry talked about: the value of efficient preparation for shooting; the economy of preparation to maximize the shots but minimize the costs and time/effort of the dancers; the essential presence of sound in the film; and the crucial role of lighting to the continuity and structural integrity of the film.
De Mey discussed the importance of differentiating between the dancer and the dance, between the director and the choreographer. Ultimately the ‘eye of the camera’ becomes the choreographer re-interpreting the dance and re-investigating the movement. The responsibility becomes immense for the director to honor the work and maintain the essence and integrity of the dance.
The second day focused primarily upon his discussions and preparations for filming ONE FLAT THING, REPRODUCED, (OFT). This complex choreography relies upon the dancers’ kinetic timing to carry the work forward through the choreography as opposed to music cues. The composer Thom Willems, one of Forsythe’s longtime collaborators, created the music during and for the choreography while in live performance.
Thierry felt that he had to be extremely cautious in deciding how to guide the eye of the viewer in order to maintain the integrity of the choreography and at the same time, follow the precepts of creating a film. He came to know the choreography and movement vocabularies intimately so as to be able to make informed choices on which sections or individuals to focus upon as well as maintain the fascination and dynamic of the film. As well as seeing the work live, he analyzed footage of the stage performance
In preparing for the film, he realized that there needed to be a focus on certain individuals and their journeys through the piece as well as the creation of new sections, (not included in the original stage version), to help balance the film and give new insight into the work. For example, there are 3 sections created specifically for the OFT Dance Film: two solo tables and one with many of the tables lined up in single file. He also explained that William Forsythe changed the costumes to give each dancer their own unique colour schema avoiding ambiguity – and to allow new technologies to record, translate and ease the reproduction of the work for other companies.
Thierry spent approximately one year, amongst his other projects, to prepare for the shoot of OFT. He adapted his standard practice of using two cameras to shooting with three Sony 950 series High Definition cameras. Shooting techniques included a crane, dolly and tripods to capture this work. He only had the crane for two days of the (approximately) €400,000 film. He completed the shooting of this colossal work in only five days.
Highly detailed director that he is, De Mey requested a sketch of the movement pathways of each dancer in 30-second increments to help him design the shots and understand the trajectory and arc of the dance and the dancer. Approximately 33 pages were prepared by dancer Christopher Roman. He used still shots from the stage version to prepare the diagrams for the storyboard.
Thierry talked about finding a movement ‘KEY’ on which to focus in order to understand the vocabulary of the work and build the shot list and storyboard. From the storyboard, he subsequently determined the camera angles, how to approach each shot and whether to use a crane, sticks or a dolly and whether to move through the dance, around the dancers, use a wash to reveal a scene or track away from a scene. After the shoot, the editor Boris van der Avoort layered out the shots in the first draft of the storyboard, before adding the full palette of shots.
He also asked the dancers to reveal the names that they give to each of the movements (a common practice with performers). With this information, he could understand not only the language of the piece, but also the kinetic reflection of the dancers and their attachment and understanding of a particular movement or phrase.
For one long continuous dolly shot, Forsythe walked beside the dolly giving directions to the dancers, altering the timing of the dance and adapting the timing to the rotation of the camera. 40 rolls of 40 minute cassettes of OFT were subsequently condensed in the editing to make up this 26-minute dance film. The editing process from digitization to final output was approximately 3 months.
He used establishing Master shots concurrently from the front and top that work as a base for the choreographic whole. De Mey used the crane as a staircase to connect the shots, like the landing of a plane. He also established which moments in the work could act as catalysts to change the focal direction of the audience. (i.e. during a duet, a dancer kicks and looks quickly up at his partner thus transforming the angle of the camera overhead to view the choreography from a birds eye view).
De Mey was concerned with finding the trajectory of the piece as well as the arc of its physical dynamic for both for audience and camera. He wanted to provoke a viewer’s fascination by building tension in each of the shots. He also wanted to reveal the imagistic landscape of Forsythe’s choreography and capture the piece’s energy as it naturally increases in intensity towards its climax.
One of the most illuminating aspects of the workshop was when De Mey showed us the Centre Pompidou website which dissects every aspect of the shoot and edit. Individual dancers are highlighted and tracked. Themes are revealed and followed in the work. Diagrams of costumes are online as is the soundscape. The site details exactly how many edits there are, whether they are from the Master shots or additional shots, and whether they follow a particular dancer or broad sweeping composition.
The site is extremely comprehensive and revealing. This website is scheduled to be active for general access in September 2007. What the site didn’t yet have was De Mey’s writings, drawings and storyboard, or his justification for choosing the shots and his strategy of connecting the shots. It is also missing the thoughts and writings of Forsythe. One can see this brilliant work-in-progress on the Centre Pompidou website by searching for “Lignes De Temps”.
De Mey also deconstructed some of his other films, including the chair scene in ROSAS DANST ROSAS, 1997, 57min. and the structured improvisation parameters he gave to the dancers in MA MÈRE L’OYE, 2004 29min.
He graciously gave us insight into how he developed the shots and techniques used to capture these sections, among others, and how the use of lighting or an individual was used to develop tension and counterpoint. He was very animated as he showed us footage of his Motion Capture explorations as well as his current research into installations and African voyages.
What a complex journey into a brilliant mind. Another workshop participant, filmmaker/professor Ellen Bromberg said, “We are all transformed! The workshop opened an incredibly deep window into an intelligent artist’s work. He offers his body of work as a powerful teaching tool with great generosity of spirit.”
For the culmination of the workshop, we went to the closing of Liz Aggis and Billy Cowie’s “Men in the Wall” a fascinating installation of perception and intrigue. We all then shared dinner at a long table set up outside the exhibit. I was able to steal away with Thierry for a short private interview.
De Mey feels that, “It is the way the body is presented that will help shape the future perception of ourselves. At present we are bombarded with images from the media and advertising that are reshaping how we look at ourselves and each other. [There is a] big challenge for us as a culture and as a society – how do we represent the human body, not just intellectually but instinctively!”
De Mey continues about the state of our genre today, “Currently there is an imminent crisis in dance film because the TV slots are steadily being reduced around the world (including Canada-UK). It is very much a reality, but on the horizon we have to be aware that there are more galleries and festivals presenting dance film around the world. The transition is from screen to more public presentations.” Towards the end of this interview, De Mey relaxes in his chair, his steady glance is piercing and confident, yet with humour in his eyes, said,
“The dominant principle is curiosity, fascination, investigating concepts, preparedness, identity and ultimately personal style. There is a deep sense of planning, motivated by structure, vocabulary, environment and trusting your intuition and instinct.”
Thierry deMey is also an internationally recognized composer. His music has been performed by numerous ensembles, including the Arditti Quartet, Hilliard Ensemble, and London Sinfonietta. He has composed numerous works for groups he co-founded including Maximalist! (‘85-‘91) and Ictus, and has also scored various choreographies for Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Wim Vandekeybus and his sister Michèle Anne De Mey. Besides OFT, his films include ROSAS DANST ROSAS (Keersmaeker, 1997), and 21 ÉTUDES À DANSER (De Mey, 1999). Since July 2005, Thierry De Mey has been artistic director of Charleroi/Danses along with Pierre Droulers, Michele Ann deMey and Vincent Thirion.Allen Kaeja is co-artistic director of Kaeja d’Dance with his life partner Karen Kaeja and has been invited to create the first dance film course in Canada at Ryerson University. www.kaeja.orgToronto’s Moving Pictures suspends operations by Philip Szporer
Toronto’s Moving Pictures Festival of Dance on Film and Video, a significant
presence on the international circuit since 1992, has suspended operations,
as we know it, says co-founder and former artistic director Kathleen Smith.
But Moving Pictures, which was dedicated to the intersection of movement and the media arts, is not entirely dead, she states. Something new will appear in the future, with a new aesthetic approach, but “it’s premature for me to talk specifically about our plans,” she said in June. The festival certainly helped to push the boundaries of what the genre – for the screen, and beyond – could do.
For now, with no MoPix on the books, there will be no cross-country dance film tour, always an adjunct to the big festival in Toronto. According to Smith, who is currently producing films full-time for a company called Hellhound with director Alison Murray (currently they are in post-production with a documentary about itinerant carnival workers), a lot of the highlights tour stops that MoPix developed have managed to go on to independently present their own events, with filmmakers, choreographers and broadcasters continuing to send their work to various events. “Which thrills us no end,” she says. “We’ll be helping others as necessary but there is not a coherent plan. People seem to be more capable and willing to curate their own events and we share our curatorial resources with them if they do need some help.”
When Smith and co-founder Marc Glassman first created Moving Pictures back in the early ’90s, it was a vibrant time in the arts. “Barriers were breaking down between artistic disciplines and the time seemed right to create an event that would bring together dancers and choreographers with directors and cinematographers. Our desire was to create a meeting ground where artists, producers and critics could meet to be inspired and make new work,” Glassman recalls. “ [It was a time] when it was possible to imagine features by Peter Greenaway or Guy Maddin incorporating dance into narratives that would win awards at prestigious festivals, and one-hours by David Hinton and Bernar Hébert could be hits with broadcasters world-wide.”
But, over the years, public and national broadcasters, from Canada to Europe to Australia, grew increasingly reluctant to fund projects. Apart from Moving Pictures suspending operations, most recently Dance Screen at the Place in London and SK Stiftung Kultur: Videotanz in Cologne, Germany, shut down (although other festivals have popped in England, like Moves in Manchester). Glassman acknowledges there were exceptions, of course. “But for every Judy Gladstone (Canada’s Bravo!FACT) or Bob Lockyer (now retired from the BBC), there were too many examples of timid broadcasters and arts administrators who failed to fund dance and other art films.”
These current realities are a distressing reminder of the struggles this genre faces, says Toronto-based dancer-choreographer and filmmaker Jenn Goodwin. “It may be a time that broadcasters are moving away from promotion and support of dance on film, when really they should be stepping in to inquire, advance and invest in this area.” Moving Pictures not only showed dance film work from all over Canada and abroad but also helped develop filmmakers in this genre, promoted their connection to international festivals, producers, innovators, and promoted and allowed for growth of the artists and their work. Goodwin was one such beneficiary. “It’s very rare in any field where you can find an organization that will do that so consistently and so generously,” she says.
Because of Moving Pictures, Goodwin says she was able to continue to make dance videos, and further develop relationships with broadcasters such as Bravo!FACT, Channel 4 (UK) and create relationships with mentors such as David Hinton. “From these relationships came other commissions and thus other films and videos and thus the further development of me as a filmmaker,” she says. “It made me so much more aware of the medium, other artists working in the field, and I was able to learn, enjoy work and create partnerships and collaborations through that knowledge and awareness.”
But the loss of one quality international showcase here in Canada hasn’t deterred Allen and Karen Kaeja, co-artistic directors of Kaeja d’Dance, from launching a new festival initiative this autumn. MADance (Movement and Dance) Screen Salon will premiere on October 26, 2007, at the Drake Hotel in downtown Toronto. They speak calmly and with assurance, on the telephone from their home, about the annual event that will consist of two juried screenings. The first will feature films created by artists from the Greater Toronto area and the second will spotlight a slate of Canadian-based dance film artists. The festival will exert a strong influence on the development of dance filmmakers and dance media audiences in the city, say the Kaejas.
Allen Kaeja is acclaimed for the eight dance films he co-directed with Mark Adam, including ZUMMEL and OLD COUNTRY, and more recently for his collaborative work with Wisconsin-based dance media artist Douglas Rosenberg. And the Kaejas’s track record in producing work is impressive: their award-winning dancefilms (in which Karen has been featured as a dancer) have toured the world, been screened in over 65 international and national festivals since 1997 (in 15 countries), as well as being scheduled on television networks internationally.
The idea of producing an annual festival idea flows from informal screenings the Kaejas held at a Queen Street bar in Toronto a couple of years ago. But perhaps more importantly, an ambitious idea like this stems from the duo’s mission in art and in life: “to unleash a vision… to be expressed through contemporary dance.”
The Kaejas see the idea of the MADance Screen Salon generating more creation in the field. “Everything we do is an organic move forward,” they say. The couple tells of first putting out calls for submissions from strictly Toronto-based dance filmmakers, because they wanted to “really support people in our city,” said Allen Kaeja, who is teaching a dance film course at Toronto’s Ryerson University in the fall term, “Deadlines are fascinating motivators. It gets [people] moving.” But few applicants responded to the first call for entries. MADance’s roster will include completed short works of 12 minutes or less from established and emerging creators in the field of dance on screen from across Canada. Another stipulation is that films must include a Canadian based choreographer, director or performer. The Kaejas also anticipate that the festival will embrace discussions with a variety of facilitators, filmmakers, choreographers and film buffs after each screening. But they explain that they aren’t interested in boosting the festival to include international entries just yet. “One day at a time” is their philosophy. “There’s a 100 percent chance it would be yes [to increase the scope of the entries in the future]”, says a sly Allen Kaeja. “But it’s also a 100 percent chance I don’t know.”
Karen Kaeja notes, “Passion leads us.” And programs like this one have their own momentum, she indicates. The couple prefers to see this venture as “a little snowball” that can grow. She adds, “We don’t want to get scared (by the magnitude of a larger festival).” They needn’t worry. From all perspectives, Canada’s dance film landscape – where the collisions between choreography and the camera continue – seems to have just received a much-needed boost.
And for dance filmmakers like Goodwin what matters is being given a voice, a venue and an opportunity where Moving Pictures left off. “I am not sure of the extent of their event and if they will mentor and help develop artists as MoPix did, but whatever the case, they saw and are filling the void… and they are just the ones to do it. Long live movies that move!” For more information, visit the company website, www.kaeja.org.
Philip Szporer is a filmmaker (THE HUNT, BYRON: CHIEF MOON: GREY HORSE RIDER and critic based in Toronto who worked as a scholar in residence this summer at Jacob’s Pillow.New Initiatives of DFA
Alliance with on-line distributor CrushedPlanet
DFA is working with the creators of HBO’s Emmy-winning series “Taxicab Confessions” who have created a new online environment to stream dance films. They are looking for original dance films for broadcast on Crushedplanet’s channel, “Stream of Theater”. Films can be any length, as long as they are ground-breaking and have a strong point of view.
CrushedPlanet is an unrated and uncensored site created by artists for artists to distribute their work. The network will carefully select and distribute innovative, provocative or intimate content for a worldwide audience.
There are 15 different channels on the network, each dedicated to illuminating a specific artistic expression. Stream of Theater is a channel for plays, dance, musicals, one-person shows and performance art. Many of the most innovative and compelling works are not available to the general public because people are unaware that they exist. Now many amazing dance and theater pieces will be brought to the viewer by way of the internet.
CrushedPlanet’s unwavering mission is to feature original content from top artists and emerging talents, while allowing those artists to retain all the rights to their work and receive the majority of fees paid to view work. CrushedPlanet will offer viewers a new generation of creative content and become a destination for the most compelling entertainment on the web today. Send submissions to: CrushedPlanet 21051 Costanso Street, Woodland Hills, CA 91364. For more information, contact: email@example.com.
Developing dance filmmakers in China
Jia Wu, a 26 year old choreographer from the Beijing Dance Academy and a 2007 graduate of UCLA, is developing a curriculum and touring program in China to be launched this fall with the help of DFA’s resources and award-winning videos. Jia Wu started professional training in dance at the age of five and began to perform as a soloist and principal dancer shortly thereafter.
In 2001 Jia got her B.A in Chinese dance performance and choreography at Beijing Dance Academy (graduating with honors) and worked as a full-time dance instructor in the Dance Department of Music School at South China Normal University. In 2004 Jia came to the United States to pursue her MFA degree at UCLA. Her current work applies Dance on Camera and Asian dance elements as well as Asian aesthetics to interpret modern issues such as globalization, feminism, and racialism.
Jia received awards for outstanding performance and choreography at the Chinese National Dance Competition in 2000 (Shanxi Province), the most prestigious dance competition in China. Her collaborating works received the Best Performance Award in the International University Music Festival in France in 2004, her work on Dance on Camera was selected into Dance Camera West, and a DanceWeb Scholarship from ImPulsTanz Festival in Vienna.
2007 Choreography Lab Scholarship in Jacob’s Pillow Festival, the Evelyn and Mo Ostin Performing Arts Award, the Edna & Yu-Shan Han Scholarship, and the Clifton Webb Scholarship from the School of the Arts and Architecture at UCLA. She has received commissions from Chinese National TV Company (CCTV), Hu Nan Province TV Company (HNTV), Guang Zhou City TV company (GZTV) and other institutions.
Part of the mission is to develop a curriculum for dance on camera that could be picked up the over hundred schools in China that follow the lead of Beijing Dance Academy which include Peking University, Beijing Normal University, ShangHai Dance School, Fudan University, Shang Hai Vision Art Academy, Guangzhou Dance School, Si Chuan Dance Academy, and Hong Kong Performing Arts Academy.
Jia Wu can advance the work advanced by John Clifford and Lisa Nagle from the University of California, Irvine have met two trips to Beijing, showing dance films and talking about multi-media. The first College Dance Film Festival was hosted by Beijing Normal University in 2007. The Second Digital Dance Festival will be held by Beijing Dance Academy in August or Sep 2007. The 2nd “three minutes Olympic DV & Cartoon competition” is underway as a means “to build a better platform for masses’ involvement in Olympic, carry forward the idea of Humanistic Olympic, and leave more abundant cultural legacy with digital contents.“ Jia Wu will begin her campaign this October in Beijing. Any financial contribution for this new venture is tax-deductible and would be most appreciated.
The Dance Card of SouthSide Film Festival ‘07
by Deirdre Towers
Argentine Tango, Salsa, Samba, Tondero, Huaylarsh, Capoeira, and Dance on Camera were all on the Dance Card of the four year old SouthSide Film Festival (SSFF) June 19-23, 2007 in its home base Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. SSFF board member/programmer, Graham Stanford started thinking about using dance as a theme when he attended the dance on camera screenings hosted by DFA touring partner Tim Cowart of DeSales University in the spring of 2006. Graham, who with his girlfriend Cat is hooked on tango, and board member/ programmer Jeffrey Scott Riedy assembled a broad sweep of dance films with dance as a salvation (WAR DANCE); something in between an adolescent tantrum and a purging (CARGO), an anarchistic attempt to express the unconscious (BLUSH), or a way to slyly connect urban and rural lives (REINES D’UN JOUR).
Several innovations of SSFF are worthy of adoption. The subjects (chosen out of a hat) for a 4-day documentary workshop were all local businesses. The students were all new to the medium; but both subjects and filmmakers proudly showed the results of the workshop run by Clayton Garr and Mel Halbach of Filmtreks (www.filmtreks.com). We are exploring doing the same with the 2008 Festival and the subjects being NYC dance companies, studios, and businesses.
Another successful component of SSFF is their collaboration with Weston Woods, a division of Scholastic Books, which presents their films for children along with a display of their books. Over twelve hundred of the Weston Woods titles include dance, according to search engine on their website. Visit http://www2.scholastic.com.
Yet another idea from SSFF is very tempting. Just imagine the following idea being thrown to dance filmmakers. SSFF collaborated with Haydenfilms’ to offer a Director’s Contest known as the Image over Word competition. The idea is simple “We give you the script, you give us the story. We give you the challenge of creating compelling stories using our unremarkable script. The script is intentionally difficult and frustrating to see how creative you are at making something out of nothing. This exercise forces you to explore, learn and experiment with the other tools cinema provides the storyteller: composition of frame, camera movement, lighting, sound, color, props, etc. Intended as a springboard for filmmakers to have their work seen by industry professionals and for audiences to be able to subjectively compare one filmmaker’s skills over another. To view and vote for this year’s submissions, www.haydenfilms.com/iow.”
Bethlehem was the home to The Bethlehem Steel Corporation (1857–2003), which was one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the world and was one of the most powerful symbols of American industrial manufacturing leadership. The year that Bethlehem Steel Corporation closed its doors, the merchants in the part of Bethlehem known as South Side debated a suggestion of Inger Olsen (Comfort & Joy) to use one of two skating rinks for a film festival. Jeff Vaclavik (Deja Brew) knew that one of his customers, Graham Stanford, was a local filmmaker, who had just made a short film “What’samatta’…U!?!”. SSFF took off immediately and the merchants in SouthSide are all behind the venture!
SSFF clearly decided not to repeat the mistakes of Bethlehem Steel. James C. Collins, in the book “Good to Great,” compares the long term decline of Bethlehem with the rise of Nucor but also suggests that cheap imports were not the only reason for Bethlehem’s decline. The failure of management to innovate, embrace technology and improve labor relations contributed to the company’s demise.” SSFF is definitely open to innovation, technology, and labor relations so friendly you wonder what is in the Brew from Deja Brew, the Festival headquarters. Every guest was made to feel as The Guest of Honor. Mitch Teplitsky who received post-production funding from DFA a few years ago for his documentary SOY ANDINA stayed the week of the festival because the atmosphere was so friendly and inspiring.
The Bethlehem Fine Arts Commission led by Barbara Diamond and Robin Beaty congratulated the SouthSide Film Institute and Film Festival for being chosen to receive the 2007 Tribute to the Arts Organization Award. “This award recognizes the SouthSide Film Institute and Film Festival’s prodigious efforts to encourage and promote independent films and filmmakers, which have considerably enriched the arts and quality of life in Bethlehem. By providing access to independent films for the public, creating a venue for film enthusiasts and filmmakers to come together, and mounting a children’s film series, you are developing an appreciation for film as an art form and contributing to a thriving arts scene in Bethlehem that benefits the Lehigh Valley.” Kelly Hargraves, whose CARGO, was shown in SSFF received a festival t-shirt and photo and couldn’t stop exclaiming that is the nicest gesture a festival ever made. The best news is that the SSFF crew didn’t object when I threatened to kidnap them to come to NYC and run the 2008 Festival.
Few film festivals single out dance as a theme. Tiburon Film Festival in California gave dance a highlight this March. We are grateful for the recognition of dance on camera. Support SSFF! Enter your fiilms. Visit: http://www.ssff.org. The 2008 focus is Scandinavia & North Atlantic Isles and the 2008 Genre: Dogma films.
Don’t miss NUREYEV: THE RUSSIAN YEARS
to be shown on PBS on August 29, 2007. A BBC production in association with Thirteen/WNET New York, NUREYEV: THE RUSSIAN YEARS was written and produced by John Bridcut, with Peter Maniura as executive producer. Acting as consultant on the program is Julie Kavanagh, author of the new biography “Nureyev: The Life” (Pantheon), to be published in October. Special funding for this program was provided by the Irene Diamond Fund and the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust.
Join us January 2-13, 2008
DFA’s 36th annual, internationally touring
Dance on Camera Festival & Symposium