The short film is a largely misunderstood, under-seen and difficult genre— or, rather, it used to be. Before the advent of streaming video on the Internet, shorts were rarely screened outside of film schools, festivals and art house cinemas. Now that many shorts are increasingly accessible to us on any day of the year on Internet platforms like Vimeo and YouTube—and many are made expressly for online release—their place within the pantheon of film genres seems more secure and yet still somehow undefined, in flux.
Some short films are mere sketches or stepping-stones to features, containing kernels of ideas longing for expanded, fleshed-out treatments. A rare few exist as standalone statements, which can create the impression of fully formed universes that we, as viewers, only enter momentarily. The 2015 Dance on Camera Festival Shorts Program offers up eleven such universes, which resemble one another only in that their inhabitants express themselves through some form of movement.
The program is a veritable crash course in the possibilities of short-form dance film. A film like Escualo, for example (directed by Martin & Facundo Lombard, 4m), which magnifies the already high-octane, rhythmically unpredictable dancing of the Lombard Twins with propulsive camera movement and jarring edits, shows us how the camera is not necessarily just a passive mechanical device, but can be an active partner in the dance.
Many of the shorts in the program illustrate the creative frisson that occurs when dance breaks out the typical environments where we usually encounter it.
Embrace(directed by Shantala Pèpe, 7m) transpires entirely through an enigmatic, real-time encounter between a man and a woman seated on a bench overlooking the sea.
Vanishing Points(directed by Marites Carino, 9m) is a site-specific dance-for-screen in which the opposing paths of two hip-hop dancers converge on the sidewalk before an abandoned building in Montreal. This simple concept takes on mind-bending complexity when the individual, break-dance-inspired movements of the duo coalesce into a single tangled labyrinth of limbs and rhythms.
Butterfly (directed by Joey De Guzman, 6m), a dark fairy tale of swapped identities, takes us on a brisk race through the woods, equal parts whimsical and foreboding.
Tagged(directed by Danielle Kipnis, 6m) doesn’t just explore its urban environment—in this case, New York City. Its two dancers, enmeshed in full-body, graffiti-plastered unitards, strive to blend into, interact with, and perhaps even become the vibrant city spaces through which they move.
The location of Well-Contested Sites (directed by Amie Dowling, 13m) is not merely a backdrop, but half the message of this harrowing, activist dance film about over-incarceration. The dilapidated ruins of the prison on Alcatraz Island make a haunting setting for dance, especially since many of the performers featured in the film have actually been incarcerated at some point in their lives. In one of the film’s most memorable images, the camera tracks back and forth along a cellblock as men slam against and bounce off of the separate walls of their narrow cells, railing against their containment and reaching for connection with each other and the world beyond.
While these films draw us into unfamiliar or otherwise inaccessible worlds, other shorts on the program use dance to delve into hidden facets of worlds we think we know, estranging us from the familiar. A Juice Box Afternoon (directed by Lily Baldwin, 8m) juxtaposes the autobiographical writings of Anne Morrow Lindbergh with the imagination of a young woman reading her words decades later. Lily Baldwin’s dancing provides a magnetic visual counterpoint to the narrative; her unmannered, uncontainable movement hints at depths of turmoil, frustration and radiance lurking just under the surface of Lindbergh’s sometimes banal, often wryly cutting observations about her life.
Washed(directed by Daphne Mero, 13m) tells a story of workers in a cavernous laundry plant, but takes their already dance-like, anxiety-ridden assembly line rituals to even further extremes. Making choreography not only of the workers’ mechanistic tasks but also of their fraught, predatory gender politics and violence, the film builds first to a shriek of alarm, and finally to an oddly transcendent, uncertain close.
Knock (directed by Thomas Pollard and Nathan Smith, 6m), similarly takes the viewer miles from its seemingly safe point of departure, as a round of late-night ghost stories told at a children’s sleepover morphs into something far more sinister—and perhaps apocalyptic.
There is a wide range of innovation and development on display within this program of shorts, but just as many reminders of the simple pleasures that make dance and film such an endlessly dynamic pairing. A Tap Dance on the Pier (directed by Geoffrey Goldberg, 2m), though made last year, is a crowd-pleasing, foot-tapping throwback to a playful style of physical comedy that would be equally at home in the silent film era.
On the other hand, the excerpts from “Children and Art” from Dancing Sondheim and “Every Day a Little Death” from Dancing Sondheim (each directed by Richard Daniels, 7m) are both timelessly simple and of-the-moment, in that they are solos or duets filmed quite straightforwardly in dance studios—but made on an iPhone, exclusively for a mobile app designed to bring dance to small screens everywhere.
Even as we celebrate and partake in the increasing availability of short films and an endless variety of recorded dance in the various small venues of our lives, we should also take advantage of the uncommon opportunity to experience such a carefully curated selection of these works communally, on the glow of the big screen. Taken together, the films of this program proliferate with possibility, pulsing with memories of the past even as they bound into the future.