Starting at the Beginning: Introducing Dance Film to College Students
by Sharon Wyrrick
When an expressive form integrates multiple mediums, it is difficult to find ways to articulate the diverse creations of its practitioners while preserving what holds it together as a genre. What is dance film? The very fact that this hybrid has so many names: dance film, screendance, dance with camera, videodance, choreocinema, etc., tells us it is not easily pinned down. May it continue to be so! My pleasure and challenge this year, as visiting faculty in Theater, Film, and Media Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, has been to introduce the campus community to dance film. Collaborating with DFA and the Dance on Camera Touring Program, I curated a screening series while concurrently teaching a Dance for the Camera course.
St. Mary’s College is a small, undergraduate, public liberal arts institution of 2000 students with a commitment to a broad education across disciplines. My eleven Dance for the Camera students reflect the department’s offerings with several film majors, theater majors, and dance minors – currently, the College does not offer a dance major.
I took on the liberal arts mission by connecting subject matter to historical roots and across disciplines. Given dance and film’s shared link of movement as an expressive tool, and early filmmakers’ interest in filming dancers, this is an obvious fit. I have used readings, viewings, writing assignments and creating dance film as my tools. For screening films of historical interest, the College’s library resources were a boon. For more contemporary work, I used streaming video, a small personal collection, and the films acquired through my collaboration with DFA creating a screening series of tremendous range in both films and filmmakers. This was key in introducing the form to those with no prior exposure. Then, while there is never enough equipment or technology, working in small groups and with support from the College’s Media Center, we’ve had adequate resources for producing modest dance film projects. My personal challenge has been putting all these elements together in an intricate, cohesive weave.
VETERANS, Margaret Williams and Victoria Marks
Drawing from the well of resources at DFA, I chose to focus on those who have worked for some time in dance film, such as David Hinton, DV8 Physical Theatre, Victoria Marks, and Mitchell Rose. This choice wasn’t for name recognition only, but for recognition of a different kind. I wanted to identify the choreographic thinking in the storytelling. I am grateful to the inspiration of David Hinton’s podcasts (available at South East Dance) and how they connect the history of film to the joint venture of choreographers and filmmakers working to find a common working language.
Many excerpts from current works are available on sources such as YouTube and Vimeo. I chose to select only full works for viewing in the class, both a personal commitment to considering artworks in their entirety and to counter the students’ cultural space where experiencing fully-formed artistic works may be infrequent. Combining a screening series with the course has been fruitful. There is the practical consideration of a guaranteed audience, and it has also given the series a leg up within the greater educational mission at the College. The series took the form of three, once-a-month, lunchtime screenings – each featuring a film of about 30 minutes, and then an evening-length program of seven short films. To see the complete list of films, visit DFA’s Touring Program.
NORA, Nora Chipaumire, David Hinton & Alla Kovgan
With a few weeks left in the semester and several screenings scheduled, the word is still out on the overall impact of this adventure. The students will each complete a fully, self-produced dance film. More people are stopping me to chat about what they’ve seen and what’s upcoming. In class, after having worked our way through the history to current times, I did a little backtracking and showed a few excerpts from WEST SIDE STORY. One of the students exclaimed, “That’s not dance film! They’ve just transferred the dancing from the stage to the street.” This was quite a change from the beginning of the semester, when students insisted that any time dancers were on the screen, it was dance film. Could I chalk up a small victory?
At our last screening, a viewing of DV8’s THE COST OF LIVING, an audience member quipped that she wasn’t sure this was dance film – there just wasn’t enough dancing. I confess to wishing for an easier way to help new audiences answer the question “What is dance film?” But, if having this wish come true means relinquishing one bit of its grand diversity, I’ll say, no thank you! Let’s keep moving on this.