When the Camera Is Your Partner
Six choreographers on making work for film.
The LXD: Legion of Extraordinary Dancers in the episode on Hulu, “I Seen a Man.” Photo courtesy LXD.
Cameras are everywhere these days—in our phones, our computers—turning us all into potential filmmakers. For choreographers, it means envisioning their dances in terms of the frame as well as the proscenium.
Dance Magazine spoke to six choreographers who have made works for the camera in a variety of settings.
Christopher Scott trained in tap, but he’s gotten a lot of juice from the street and hip hop. Having lived in Hollywood for half of his 28 years, the actor/dancer/choreographer keeps heating up screens—small, large, and electronic—with stunning moves.
Indeed, Scott has danced and choreographed for the Step Up series and been a regular presence on So You Think You Can Dance. But it’s the Hulu web series The LXD: Legion of Extraordinary Dancers, that is allowing Scott to further his relationship with the camera.
Created, written, and directed by Jon M. Chu (of Step Up fame), LXD is co-choreographed by Scott and Harry Shum Jr. Launched in 2010, the series has so far featured over a hundred dancers on 30 episodes. Each episode features a myriad of genres, from sensuous contemporary duets, high-octane b-boying, and twitchy hip hop to lightning-fast tapping, extreme pointe work, and large group numbers.
Scott, who also plays the character Copeland, says the dancers’ “super powers” are their own abilities, while Alice Brooks’ cinematography helps give the show its look, whether dreamy or in-your-face. “The kind of subtleties you can put on film are different than what you can put on a stage,” says Scott. “It’s a lot more intimate with just the camera and the dancer. So your eye has to become a camera lens, instead of thinking about one wide shot, which is what dance onstage is.”
Scott is not big on frenetic editing and knows when to keep the camera still. He says he shoots robot dancer “Madd” Chadd Smith to highlight isolated body parts. “A lot of times the camera interferes with the dance. It’s about the moves, and it’s important to see the beginning of the move, the middle, and the end. Jon likes letting the dancer be the dancer and doesn’t try to overcompensate with the camera.”
Scott believes in treating dancers like actors. “We give them a tone and everything is scripted. They understand what their character is going through. Once we put the dancer on camera, they’re prepared to tell the story that was written. We set up the emotion, choreograph the dance, and let the artist take it from there.” —Victoria Looseleaf
Sweden and NYC
Dancer/choreographer Pontus Lidberg began his love affair with film in 2003, when he was commissioned by Swedish National Television to create a short dance for the camera. The final product, Mirror, acquainted him with film’s ability to transform movement into narrative, opening up a world of possibilities. His most recent film, Labyrinth Within, won the jury prize for best picture at the Dance on Camera festival in New York in January.
One of the major differences between stage and film, he says, is artistic control. “When you choreograph for stage, you pretty much put everything out there,” says Lidberg, who has made dances for the Royal Danish Ballet and Beijing Dance Theatre, among others, as well as his own company, Pontus Lidberg Dance. “The audience decides what to see, who to watch. When choreographing for film, I make all those decisions. The tiniest smile or subtlest detail can be highlighted in the frame.…I can create this very specific universe, which you just cannot do onstage.”
In his award-winning film The Rain (2007), large, luscious, yearning dancing—in street clothes—leads up to gorgeously tactile, erotic scenes. A series of fleeting encounters builds to a climax, until all of the characters are dancing their deepest fears and longings, connected by the powerful force of the rain.
Wendy Whelan and Lidberg in
Labyrinth Within. Photo by Martin Nisser, Courtesy Lidberg.
Lidberg likes to leave room for the dancers’ own interpretations. While working with New York City Ballet star Wendy Whelan on Labyrinth Within, he advised her to become the character rather than “act” the role.
“Acting is a different profession and requires separate training. I don’t expect my dancers to be professional actors. But they are chosen to embody a certain time, a certain place.…My films wouldn’t work if the dancers didn’t commit to their characters.”
Just as there is a certain talent to performing live, Lidberg believes there is a special talent to working with film. “Some dancers are better at projecting onstage; dancers for film need to be more subtle. Some have it all, of course. Like Wendy!”
This year Lidberg is the resident artistic director of Morphoses, which will present his world premiere at Jacob’s Pillow in June. The evening-length piece draws from Labyrinth Within and integrates film with new onstage choreography and music by composer David Lang. —Vani Ramaraj
With four seasons of So You Think You Can Dance under her belt, Mandy Moore has learned a lot about how to make the camera work for her. When choreographing, she keeps in mind the studio audiences and judges, but is even more aware of how her big vision will look on a small screen. “When you’re choreographing for camera it’s usually such a tight frame.” At SYTYCD, she says, “they want the close-ups and body shots. It’s not all about the movement, but the intention and the look between the two people.”
Moore says that when choreographing duets, she trusts that the SYTYCD production team will make it look good, especially with the 360-degree shooting. However, with the ensemble pieces, she says, “I’ll think ‘I want the steady camera to come from stage right, follow, then reveal the group.’ So for that I’ll collaborate with the director.” It helps when the director has been on the other side of the camera. About Nikki Parsons, the director of SYTYCD, Moore says, “She’s an ex-dancer and she really knows how to capture movement and line and feeling.”
Moore constantly seeks the balance between showcasing the artistic side of her choreography and the entertainment value of the show. “It’d be awesome to choreograph everything for camera and be moody and beautiful and arty. But the producers want to get the faces, the costumes, the cool tricks and neat lifts.”
There are plenty of other challenges too. “You learn a lot about yourself when you’re forced to create quickly with little time on set. You have to come up with all the things that could go wrong before you shoot it. Time is money on camera. Along the way you learn what does and doesn’t work and figure out what makes you and everyone else happy.”
Last season’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” duet was one of Moore’s all-time favorite pieces, particularly because of the way the camera “enhanced the movement,” says Moore. “When Neil lifted Melanie and put her over his shoulder, Nikki countered and went the other direction, so it was magical and even bigger than before.”
Moore recently finished choreographing for the feature film The Silver Linings Playbook, which includes a duet between Hollywood stars Bradley Cooper and Julia Stiles. “There were so many different ways to shoot it. You learn a lot by being on set and watching playback and listening to directors and cameramen.” By talking to the camera people in a very specific way, she says, “I got what I was hoping for.” —Emily Macel Theys
Melanie Moore and Neil Haskell in Mandy Moore’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Photo by Adam Rose, Courtesy FOX.
Adam H. Weinert
“When I’m working with dancers in the studio, I want to get up there very close,” says Adam H. Weinert. Looking at dance through the up-close eye of the camera seems like a natural choice for this choreographer.
Weinert first ventured into film with Match Box Dances (2011), four short, site-specific pieces. He approached them “like Polaroid photographs created in a fleeting modality.” Surpassing his expectations, the film has been screened at several festivals worldwide and has received over 632,000 hits on Vimeo.
The choreography for the Match Box Dances includes segments from Weinert’s stage works, as well as new material created for locations in Brooklyn he scouted out last year: a raised entrance to a warehouse, a four-block long fence, a bricked-up façade with a series of yellow posts, a derelict lot with the Manhattan Bridge spanning the background. The underlying beat of city life carries through in costumes of urban grays and taxicab yellows. Chance interference—passing cars, a bicyclist, a nonchalant worker opening a door into the middle of a dance—become part of the world of the films.
Naomi Reid Davis and Roarke Menzies in
Match Box Dances. Photo by Michael Hart, Courtesy Weinert.
Weinert was sympathetic to the strain of filming on the dancers. “It can be painstaking to be asked to do something over and over again, especially out-of-doors. Dealing with light variability, you have to work fast—or slow.”
After the close collaboration with cinematographer Philippe Tremblay-Berberi, the geographic distance of post-production proved difficult. Tremblay-Berberi edited in Montreal; the choreographer continued his work in New York. “I felt I had made a dance in a certain way,” admits Weinert, “and then it comes back from the editing room and he’s made what to me feels like changes in the choreography. But to him, of course, he’s editing the piece he shot. It requires a lot of trust.” Enough trust that they’re eager to continue their collaboration.
“Next time we’d like to explore the relationship between camera and performer,” says Weinert. He wants to stage the camera angles—and also stage the “character” of the cameraperson. “Is the ‘character’ of the camera just an outsider, someone walking down the street, or is it the person she’s dancing with?” —Cynthia Hedstrom
São Paulo, Brazil
Morena Nascimento and a team of collaborators have created an intriguing conversation between dance, light, and sound in her video Clarabóia (a Portuguese word for skylight). Its focus is a luminescent body—hers—whose movements appear to hang in midair. Nascimento is a human kaleidoscope, morphing and plunging the viewer into a perplexity of illusion.
“The word clarabóia—clara and boia—means clear and floating, which is exactly the sensation I wanted,” says Nascimento, a São Paulo–based choreographer who has worked with Pina Bausch and continues to guest with Tanztheater Wuppertal. “I felt as if I was inside a womb.” She didn’t plan it as a video, but as a work done live for a site-specific piece. She chose a glass pane of roughly 10 square feet through which the audience sees her improvise from below.
The fact that the glass window already framed the performer’s actions led easily to making a video. Originally she was thinking of a video to accompany the performance. “But video is so different from what we see when we go to the theater,” she says. “I wanted to zoom in on the subtlety of movement, and use the audience’s imagination. Sometimes I felt I was doing one of those perfume commercials. Actually Claraboia is not about the image, but the idea of transparency.”
Is the piece influenced by the work she’s done with Pina Bausch? “There are so many layers to her images—fashion, photo, cinema—and that is something that I searched for in my own work,” says Nascimento. “It was not that she taught me to see, but I could project those things already inside of me. At the same time Pina is daring she is also Cartesian, traditional, understanding exactly what the spectator is seeing. When I explore what angle I want, I need to know what the public is witnessing. If I am with my back to the public, it is because I am conscious of how I will appear to the audience. Where is my front? How am I designing my space? There is never anything casual. That is like Pina.” —Holly Cavrell
Morena Nascimento in her
Clarabóia. Photo by Carlos Canhameiro, Courtesy Nascimento.
Growing up, Trish Sie and her brother—lead singer Damian Kulash of rock band OK Go—saw Pilobolus perform at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. “It was mind-bending for us,” she says. So when Pilobolus approached OK Go with a desire to collaborate, they were thrilled.
Sie is the choreographer and director for this unabashedly dorky band’s quirky, off-the-wall music videos that have gotten millions of hits on YouTube. The result of the collaboration with Pilobolus is the Grammy-nominated All Is Not Lost, a kaleidoscopic video shot from underneath the stage. In addition to choreographing the band’s music videos, Sie is a championship ballroom dancer, owns a dance studio in Florida, and has worked for TV, commercials, and short films.
Still from the Pilobolus/OK Go film
All Is Not Lost, choreographed by Trish Sie. Photo courtesy OK Go.
All Is Not Lost
was shot at Pilobolus’ studio in Connecticut last spring. “We got in a room and started playing,” says Sie. Her initial choreographic impulses were redirected when she saw how it looked on film. “I had thought handstands or jumping were going to be interesting because of how it would play with perceptions of gravity. But bodies lying, sitting, stretching across the glass—that was more interesting onscreen.”
For previous OK Go videos, Sie had the band members themselves dance on treadmills, or with trained dogs. So choreographing with a professional dance company was a whole new ballgame. “They are just so expressive and uninhibited,” she effuses. “The things their bodies do were incredible to watch.” The initial vision of a large 20′ x 30′ Plexiglas stage was too costly, so instead they used a small 6′ x 8′ stage. But it may have been a blessing in disguise. The dancers move in and out of the screen on the small square, but to viewers, the square doubles and quadruples onscreen. Each tiny box is filled with a different group of bodies, varying in shape, size, gender, and color.
Sie takes what she likes about choreographing for the stage and applies it to her video work. “One of the reasons I like to shoot in a single shot or with minimal edits is that I prefer not to tell people where to look,” she says. “Onstage, people look wherever they want, and unless you film dance with a wide shot your audience loses that choice.”
Sie feels that most dance doesn’t translate magically to film unless you think outside the box. “The energy of being in the room is not the same in pixels, so the camera has got to capture things that live performance can’t. Otherwise, you’re seeing a flat, slow, less emotional version of something that happened in a room that you weren’t in.”
Sie has learned to leave time to practice, test ideas, shoot it, and see what works. “Don’t get married to certain ideas. Try ideas and see what the camera thinks of it because it has opinions too!” —Emily Macel Theys
Photo of Trish Sie by Nic Sadler, Courtesy Sie.