How Did I Get Myself Into This? The gestation of a new festival
by Greta Schoenberg
It was one week before showtime when Dance Films Association invited me to write about the motivation for starting a new dance film festival in San Francisco. At that time I was definitely questioning the reasoning behind this massive undertaking myself.
The rewards are certainly not financial and I couldn’t say the idea stemmed from a lack of career fulfillment. As is typical of a thirtysomething dancer transitioning from the stage into the unknown, I’m already trying on many hats. I perform an intricate daily allegro through my roles as dancer, choreographer, filmmaker, producer, Pilates instructor, ballet teacher, and school administrator. I’m also happily married and want to retain some sort of sanity, especially as my husband and I are now six months into a very special new production, scheduled to make her premiere in July!
photo: Weiferd Watts
What drives me in everything I do is the potential for building community as a platform for collaboration. From a young age I organized my cousins and neighborhood friends into performances of dance, theater and song for our parents and pets. I wrote plays and choreographed dance pieces, casting them with an appreciation for the skills each artist could contribute. As a dancer, although I loved the thrill of being an occasional soloist, I always gained a deep sense of satisfaction from ensemble work and the process behind it.
Later in my career, while transitioning from classical ballet into freelance contemporary work and teaching, I gained exposure to dance film by working as an assistant to my longtime friend, Swedish choreographer/filmmaker Pontus Lidberg. Although I had already started to dabble with my home camera and made a few films as a novice, I learned about the professional craft of filmmaking by working continuity on his sets and supplementing my education with film production classes in San Francisco.
As Pontus became more and more successful as a filmmaker I accompanied him to other cities, attending festivals, interviews, discussion panels and award ceremonies, absorbing what I could about an urban center with a dance scene as strong as San Francisco’s also needed a central organization for dance film.
It became obvious that an urban center with a dance scene as strong as San Francisco’s also needed a central organization for dance film. So I tapped into my early producing instincts and simply did what came naturally.
Early in 2008 I launched a surprisingly successful trial event called
Motion Pictures at a friend’s art gallery. It was an exhibition of my short experimental dance films paired with dance photography by my husband Gregg Schoenberg. I was thrilled that, in what I expected to be an intimate evening for our friends and family, complete strangers somehow heard about the opening and came buzzing with questions, analysis and excitement. They seemed fascinated with what I was doing with dance and film and it was clear they had never seen the genres combined in this way before. The feedback fired up my crusade to get more exposure for this under-appreciated art form. I wanted to educate an otherwise sophisticated public about the rich history of dance on camera, while providing a better local platform for innovation and discussion among current artists.
The establishment of a valuable partnership with dance videographer/editor Ben Estabrook helped me gain confidence, both as a filmmaker and as a presenter. His technical knowledge filled some intimidating gaps for me, and I could move forward knowing that our films and presentations would be clean and professional.
I started a dance for camera website and spent a full year gathering entries from local and international contacts before launching the second Motion Pictures event, a similar evening at the same gallery. The response to the films was so immediate that I was asked to present the program in three other venues within three months. The last of these being the Ninth Street Independent Film Center, whose director Skye Christiansen was looking for a program for Bay Area National Dance Week.
A former dancer, Skye and her organization supported me through the process of building these film programs into an international festival. It was her suggestion to combine my ideas for screenings, guest lectures and filmmaking workshops into one exciting annual weekend, and to simply call it the San Francisco Dance Film Festival.
Although it had crossed my mind to someday create a festival, singlehandedly curating and producing a multi-day, multi-venue event didn’t seem realistic. However, with the continued support of Ben, with marketing help from my husband, and the addition of new friends such as graphic designer Randall Heath joining our team, it began to look possible.
The 2010 inaugural festival was a huge success and we’ve been riding the wave ever since. Ben and I were especially excited by our filmmaking workshops that gave us an opportunity to teach a little of what we’ve learned together. We wanted to encourage others to try making their own films, demonstrating the possibilities that open when disciplines intersect.
For our second year we expanded to two venues and three nights, including more films, guests and workshops. Randall developed a beautiful new website, and created uniform branding for our marketing materials. Ben and I premiered an ambitious new film called THE NIGHTINGALE, our first attempt at narrative filmmaking. The film took two years of steady work parallel to the development of the festival. We were stretched a little thin, but it was important to us to stay artistically active in the field rather than become solely producers.
We opened the 2011 San Francisco Dance Film Festival in relative calm. Like a proud mother I watched eager new faces fill the seats, many of who took the time to thank me afterward for what we were bringing to the community. With my collaborators established in distinct but equally crucial departments, I was able to let go of some of the roles I played in the beginning and enjoy the fruits of our collective labor.
As I approach actual parenthood through this continuing process, I can see the similarities. In just a few short years I’m amazed to have created something that has taken on a life and momentum of its own. We’ll see what happens, but just as with having a child, I can already see the work will be worth it – and the motivation is obvious!
Greta Schoenberg earned a BFA in Ballet from the University of Utah and went on to dance professionally in Europe and San Francisco, where she is now a choreographer, filmmaker and producer of theSan Francisco Dance Film Festival . Her dance films have been screened throughout the Bay Area and abroad.