Since the earliest experiments of Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers, dance and the moving image have evolved side by side, both as distinct art forms, and as a highly contested, unruly and thrilling hybrid: the dance film.
“Dance film” may not even exist as a singular, definable entity. Agreeing on a name for the would-be genre is a thorny enough process; “dance film,” “videodance,” “dance for camera,” “moving picture dance” and “screendance” are all widely used, and, depending on who you ask, refer to slightly different philosophical approaches. This proliferation of names, in itself, should serve as a warning that “dance film” is not so much a unified genre as a hydra-headed, ever-expanding refraction of one art form through the lens of another.
Dance is the medium of our most sacred ceremonies and our most profane entertainments, through which we negotiate the most profound ethical and spiritual concerns as well as the simplest human needs. Over the course of the twentieth century (and what has transpired so far of the twenty-first) the boundaries between different dance forms and practices have become increasingly unstable, driving us to continually reconsider the core principles without which dance ceases to be dance. Dance is no longer necessarily a response to music, nor is it automatically the conscious invention of an artist. Dance for the camera takes an even greater leap and does away with the physical presence of the dancer.
In dance for the camera, the film itself, not just the human figures it represents, must dance. Images of the body in motion are, perhaps, no more integral to the whole than the movement of the camera or the timing of the edits. What kind of dance are we then left with, when the performance takes place within two dimensions, and the dancer’s body is not the sole vehicle of motion, but only another element in the scheme?
As some of the pioneers of screendance like Yvonne Rainer and Maya Deren have shown us, within a dance film, a hand wriggling its fingers in close-up can take on the formal gravity of a soloist on a stage, and a series of timely cuts and repeated images can allow a jump to soar indefinitely into space. Live dance is a disappearing act—temporary, unrepeatable, blink and you’ll miss it. Film, a medium of fixed images and set durations, is, in many ways, its direct opposite, but the merging of the two mediums gives rise to an art of electrifying contradictions.
A dance for the camera is a potentially eternal document of ephemeral experience, a mechanical play of shadow possessed of an impossibly vital human presence. The boldest dance films savor, rather than resist or disguise, these unresolved tensions. The terrain between these two mediums is proving to be a seemingly inexhaustible resource— a space where new dances become possible.