Continuing the Conversation
Erin Brannigan’s Dancefilm: Choreography and the Moving ImageBook Review by Terry Sprague
As we continue to piece together the puzzle that is the ever-emerging genre of dance on film and video, Erin Brannigan provides us with a foundational piece of that puzzle in her recently published Dancefilm: Choreography and the Moving Image (2011). Brannigan re-frames and weaves together the writings of dance and film theorists and historians to construct what can be considered dancefilm’s origins, early history and development. In particular, Brannigan addresses issues related to the objective, formal elements that comprise dancefilm such as the nature of the close-up shot, gesture and its relation to text-based, narrative storytelling as well as abstract movement. The majority of the dancefilms she discusses were created in the early- to mid-20th century along with some works from the 1970’s -1990’s. Thoroughly researched and elegantly written, Dancefilm proposes an “interdisciplinary terminology” and offers a model for discussing dancefilm as a form. It is less successful in shedding light on how dancefilm generates meaning and operates ideologically.
A significant contribution of this book is how it charts the concurrent birth of modern dance and the cinema in the early 20th century. Brannigan builds a case for ways in which this period of “intense innovation” was likewise the moment when dancefilm was being invented (20). She traces dancefilm’s roots to the works of innovators such as the Lumiere Brothers, Isadora Duncan, Francois Delsarte and, to a greater extent, Loie Fuller.
For Brannigan, Fuller is the “logical precursor” of Maya Deren, to whom an entire chapter is devoted. Deren’s works and writing, along with those of Yvonne Rainer, provide terminology and the historical framework for Dancefilm. Of particular interest are Brannigan’s discussions of Deren’s cinematic strategies. “Vertical film form” describes non-narrative, “poetic film,” which does not progress “horizontally” with the logic of a narrative. “”Depersonalization” refers to the situation in which performers become figures “across whom movement transfers as an ‘event,’” and who are subsumed into the choreography of the film as a whole (101).
In a chapter devoted to the close-up shot, Brannigan analyzes the ways in which close-ups in dancefilm have offered profoundly different perspectives. She uses as examples early cinema, silent film, Adam Roberts’ Hands, Anthony Atanasio’s Dust, Trisha Brown’s Watermotor and Man Ray’s Emak Bakia to illustrate ways in which close-up shots can tend toward the abstract; transform the inanimate; anthropomorphize; and challenge centralized, stable hierarchies. She coins an expression for close-up dancefilm shots: “micro-choreographies.” On one hand, what we see in a close-up shot is not “micro”: if the image is a body part, that part fills the screen. On the other hand, “micro-choreographies” aptly describes the ways in which dancefilm finds choreographic material even in the smallest and most subtle movement of bodies and objects.
In a chapter on the musical, Brannigan writes eloquently about how dance generates a verticality that overrides the linear drive of the form, and about how the body of the film star links the various elements of the filmic performance. However, this chapter also exemplifies what is missing in many of her discussions. Brannigan’s clear, detailed descriptions of performances by Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe and Ginger Rogers lack recognition of the gender issues generated by those performances. Commenting that Rogers is light on her feet, making her “easy for Astaire to maneuver,” she describes how Rogers shadows Astaire, never breaking away “into her own steps as Astaire often does.” Even a middle-of-the-road feminist might yearn for some discussion of the meanings generated by those performances (148).
Dancefilm’s focus on form more than content/meaning is also revealed in this statement: “short dancefilms of the last two or three decades, which have been discussed as revolutionary, are only recent arrivals to – and draw directly from – this heritage [the musical]” (144). The examples she uses include dancefilms such as Pascal Magnin’s Reines d’un Jour (1996). Reines does indeed feature formal elements such as dancing bodies and music, as musicals do. However, the ambiguity in the implied narrative, the way gender is represented, and the overall aesthetic differ greatly from those of commercial Hollywood or Broadway musicals.
At a time when the number of books written about the field of dance on film and video can be counted on one hand, Brannigan’s recent publication is a significant contribution to the field. She has provided us with an historical context, terminology and other tools for discussing dancefilm. She has assembled a particular cast of theorists, historians, choreographers, filmmakers and dancefilm artists. She has provided a platform upon which further development of screendance can spring. Can we now step forward, respond to and acknowledge her offering, and continue the conversation?