With an emerging genre, a new festival begins in Asheville
By Elizabeth Watkin and Ursula Gullow
A camera circles around a pair of dancers, gliding over the valley of a leg and hip to frame a lone shot of iconoclastic choreographer Merce Cunningham, who breaks into a solo dance on cue. In this particularly revelatory scene from the BBC film Points in Space (1986), the viewer relies on the camera’s perspective to glean information about the performance. Rather than simply documenting the dance, the camera is an active agent in the translation of performance for the viewer. It is one of the first instances of screen dance from the inaugural Frame + Form Screen Dance Festival last February.
A first-of-its-kind for Asheville, the Frame and Form Screen Dance Festival featured work by six international video artists, a panel discussion, and workshop in addition to the Cunningham documentary. The two-day event, presented by the Media Arts Project, in collaboration with Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, explored screen dance – a newly coined genre that uses the medium of film and video to create cinematic experiences of dance and movement.
Since the advent of film, artists and performers have found persuasive ways to document their work, and the videoed performances of artists during the 60s laid the groundwork for what is considered screen dance today. Predecessors of the genre include Carolee Schneeman, whose Meat Joy (1964), contains frenetically edited sequences of bodies in motion used from footage of a live public performance. Another early example is Meredith Monk’s minimalist Turtle Dreams (1983), which was arranged specifically for public television.
In screen dance, video is not only used as a tool for documentation but is an integral aspect of choreography and storytelling. “The genre dissolves the walls of the theatre,” says event organizer, Sara Baird. “We lose the electrifying experience of live performance, but we gain a different set of choreographic possibilities.” As the festival revealed, use of location, editing cuts, sound design, differing angles, and distance of shots all become part of the dance and the choices the choreographer must make.
Following Cunningham’s Points in Space was a tightly curated program of contemporary and international screen dance videos, beginning with the visually luscious Stabilia (Mariama Slåttøy, Norway) portraying a woman filmed within the confines of a cylindrical, dilapidated structure. Accompanied by an emotive soundtrack, the dancer and viewer are hurdled into a dizzying routine that is punctuated by moments of her lying incapacitated on the floor.
In Body Language Zone (Kim Saarinen, Finland) a male voiceover describes the breakdown of physical contact while the dancer, a woman dressed in a drab business suit, contorts, writhes, and jigs in various office settings or is seen moving through various outdoor locations. Props such as staplers and photocopies are incorporated into the comedic choreography. The effect is to make the familiar strange and alienating, the verfremdungseffekt as it is known.
The boundaries of waking and dreaming are blurred in Sun Sets on Sunday (Vladimir Gruev, Bulgaria) as a young woman moves through a city on bus and foot. A camera that at certain points takes the role of a second dancer films her dance. This second character is male and very little of him can be seen, so his identity remains a mystery. As the young woman moves through the city, this dancer/camera follows her, makes contact and manipulates her movements. It is often difficult to tell whether the intent is erotic or predatory.
In Saeta: The Mourning (Rosamaria E. Kostic Cisneros, United Kingdom) traditional flamenco dance is contemporized via rhythmic editing of a dancer’s stomping feet and hands. Mirrors (Emilia Izquierdo, U.K.), a looped video animation based on the real movement of dancers, was a sharp contrast to the other more visceral and human films of the night. Unlike the other films which each provided rich accompanying soundtracks, Mirrors was silent, thereby enhancing the robotic and impressionistic gestures of the videoed characters on screen.
The Frame+Form Festival was conceived and organized by butoh artists Constance Humphries and Sara Baird who often collaborate to produce dance performances, workshops and festivals in Asheville. Humphries has extensively explored choreography for video, often setting up a camera to film herself. “I tend to shoot a lot of footage and edit and develop the piece over time,” says Humphries, who also frequently composes her own soundtracks. “It can take me up to two years to fully complete a piece.”
As research and documentation of screen dance persist, so too shall the Frame + Form Festival. Humphries and Baird are planning a bigger event for 2018, which will include visiting artists and a more extensive line-up of local and international work.