Dancing the Impossible: Choreography for the Camera

July 19, 2007

In choreographer Laurie McLeod’s film
Yes, She Said
, a bride, suddenly panicked, dives into a swimming pool to hide from her wedding and is filmed underwater, gown billowing. In choreographer Pooh Kaye’s animated Sticks on the Move, a motley cast glides and skitters down a New York street on miraculously moving lumber. In Pupa, dancer/videographer Cathy Weis shows a human figure wrapped in a cocoon of streaming fabrics that fall upward as she struggles to free herself.

What would be impossible onstage is exactly what choreographers, filmmakers, and media artists seek to create in dance for the camera. They are free to choose any setting imaginable, to defy the physics of gravity, and to show imaginary interactions with the elements. They create images of pure fantasy and use new technologies to multiply dancers or reduce them to lines and brush strokes. Onstage, film or video can interact with live performance. And, traveling easily, dance on screen is shown in cinemas and museum installations.

First, look at locale. You can shoot anywhere. German dance artist Sasha Waltz places her
Allee der Kosmonauten
, a collaboration with filmmaker Elliot Caplan, in a cramped Eastern Bloc apartment, the setting for a zany family’s interactions and violent clashes. Edouard Lock’s Amelia—with an expansive wooden floor that slopes up at the edges to become four walls—shows women on pointe spinning superhumanly fast. Lock’s reversed and sped-up movement alternates with pristine stillness. The Canadian Rockies form the backdrop for Men, by choreographer Victoria Marks and filmmaker Margaret Williams. The older men’s simple gestures take on universality through the exhilarating openness of their setting. Other works by artists like Peter Anderson and Rosemary Lee, Pascal Magnin, and Clara van Gool roam over dunes or past monumental architecture, careen down mountainsides or through bars, factories, and forests.

On camera, interaction with the elements becomes palpable. Commercial film director Kathi Prosser’s
Horses Never Lie
shows a woman/horse with feet pawing the dirt of a barn. Her whole body whinnies, her hair flies wildly as cameras pan close and far, around and above. We feel the gritty dirt and the splash of clean water as it finally washes over her. The British Horizone, directed by animation specialist Gillian Lacey with choreography by Wayne McGregor, features a duet by airborne dancers transformed into transparent clouds. Pants on fire, literally, are the first image in director Spike Jonze’s music video for California by Wax. Jonze shoots running feet in slow motion, widening out to show a man whose clothes are in flames.

Pure fantasy lends itself to the blurriness, changes of speed, and abstractions possible in film. In
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary
, director Guy Maddin shoots Mark Godden’s choreography for the The Royal Winnipeg Ballet in dreamlike images, silent movie-style, complete with wafting fog, subtle washes of color over black and white, title cards, and melodrama. How many ballerinas get a close-up with the blood-oozing marks of a vampire fresh on their necks, the deranged lust of the “undead” in their eyes? Like a musical where characters suddenly break into song, these characters suddenly lift into swooping unisons or hurtling virtuosic solos fragmented through cutting and strobing.

Modern Daydreams
, Mitchell Rose’s hero dreams he’s rappelling off a mountain in a twirling movement sequence, and in another dream, gestures alongside other dancers while all ride self-animated cherrypickers. Rose, a choreographer-turned-filmmaker who works with the dance company BodyVox, infuses his videos with a large-scale goofiness that makes you giggle and guffaw.

Long a proponent of combining video with live performance, Cathy Weis uses that alchemical mix to create viewing choices for theatergoers. Using live video feed, she shoots details of stage action magnified, doubled or from curious angles, like Scott Heron’s giant ankles or upside down head in Electric Haiku. “It makes you think about what you’re looking at,” says Weis. “Why am I looking up there? Just because it’s big? Why am I looking over there and feeling sad or happy?”

We’re getting used to seeing Computer Generated Imagery produce such airborne fight scenes, dances really, as those in
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
and Matrix Reloaded, where humans bound up the sides of buildings and over the tops of waving bamboo trees. Michel Gondry, director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, morphs one dancer into eight and back again in his music video for the Chemical Brothers, Let Forever Be. A leggy redhead wakes up into a disjointed day where she keeps multiplying into more of herself, to execute a Busby Berkeley routine in hot pink on a turning pyramid, or to jerkily dance, face covered with giant masks of her own head.

Through motion capture technology, Bill T. Jones is reduced to flowing chalk marks in
, a collaboration between Jones and techno-filmmakers Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar. From the tips of Jones’s chalk “limbs,” more arcing lines extend into the black void space. Kaiser and Eshkar’s Loops transforms Merce Cunningham’s hands and fingers into a network of lines that sometimes resemble hands and sometimes cat’s cradle patterns. Motion capture technology allows artists to render detailed movement by recording the moving trajectories of light-sensitive sensors attached to points on a dancer’s body.

Installations using dance on screen are a way for artists to reach museum-going audiences. Video artist Chloe Piene’s
, in the recent Whitney Biennial, catches the descent into wildness of a prepubescent girl in strobing slow motion. Her digitally altered cries deepen to lioness growls as she falls repeatedly, body muddied, and hair flailing. Videographer Douglas Rosenberg’s works have been screened at the Dance Theater Workshop gallery and the Brooklyn Museum. His Venous Flow, made with choreographer

Li-Chiao Ping, shows figures clothed in language—text covers bare backs and draping skirts, becoming readable only

when the camera moves in close or an extended arm becomes a projection surface. Dealing with death, the piece is all

black and white and hushed, with an occasional temple bell or personal testimony.

At MASS MoCA in Massachusetts, Laurie McLeod’s
LuoYong’s Dream
was shown at the end of a long outdoor corridor on a screen behind a wall of dripping water. The fourth of her underwater films, LuoYong’s Dream features the Buddha-faced Chinese actor LuoYong Wang, who, in wafting crimson robes, wheels a bicycle and handles smooth stones, playing out submerged images from his dreams. Serene with its focus on the play of light through water and a haunting musical score, LuoYong’s Dream creates such a visually lush space that we don’t want to leave. “I think about the viewer’s capacity for wonder and how to keep it refreshed,” says McLeod.

Given the new possibilities of dance on screen, choreographers for the camera have a multitude of ways to keep us astonished.

Lisa Kraus, who teaches dance at Swarthmore College, has written for
Contact Quarterly and The Philadelphia Inquirer.