[Editor’s Note: This original presentation included the premiere screening of the twelve-minute dance-video work, The 12 Stages of Adventure, contextualized by the short paper below reflecting upon, first of all, Dianne Reid’s choreographic process for this work; next, how the nature of the film/video medium can reconstruct definitions of ‘dance’; and, thirdly, the extent to which her aesthetic choices have been altered or enhanced as a result of creating within this new context.
The dance video was part of Dianne Reid’s postgraduate research entitled Dance as a Media Art – Spatial, Temporal and Aesthetic Considerations of the Moving Body in Moving Pictures. The research was underpinned by the desire to explore the potential for dance to redefine itself, hence broadening its audience and accessibility as a communicative art, as a media art. In order to explore the artform’s potential, Reid argued that it was necessary to re-examine the skills, language, and resources of the dance practitioner, and, in doing so, redefine the dance choreographer as dance videographer.]
– Michelle Mahrer (1995)
It is the dance artist’s level of understanding of the film medium in all its aspects which has, to date, sparked debate about the relative success of dance on film and video. Bob Lockyer (1992), B.B.C. Director of Dance, supports a redefinition of the role and skills of the choreographer in dance film/video, when he suggests ‘it is the choreographers who should direct, and in that way, we, the spectators, would get the creators’ view first hand.’ Similarly, Lloyd Newson, Artistic Director of DV8 (the company name originally abbreviated from Dance Video 8), claims that dance on film needs improvement, implying that dance film/video is a distinct art form requiring specialist attention (see Kower, 1995: 86).
My journey into the dance film/video arena began in the early ‘nineties with a three-minute 16mm film which was projected with a live dance solo within a larger performance work entitled Betrayal. This solo section dealt thematically with those few seconds that build to an outburst of anger, that chemical flash that surges through the physical body as a result of this extreme emotion. The solo became a duet between the live dancer and her projected double.
I wanted to portray the dual nature of the emotion, on the one hand completely physically inhabiting a person while, on the other, simultaneously placing that person outside as observer to her own actions. The physical manifestation of the emotion was represented in the kicking, jumping, live dance sequence, while the film showed a parallel social context where the dancer, alone, destroys a surreal dinner table setting as she drags herself across it.
When choreographing for a live performance context, I tend to create shorter, more dense works, often incorporating the use of live voice with recorded sound in addition to video or film projection. The fact that my personal aesthetic choices tend to reflect the devices and structures of the film/video medium is the reason I am drawn more and more to dance film/video as a vehicle for creative expression.
With the camera, I can direct the eye specifically, take the viewer into the intimate space of the body, reveal the detail which humanises and personalises the performer. With the editing process, I can make the connections between the performers, their ‘stories,’ and the movement material more particular and lateral.
I am creating dance for the screen for the challenge. I am challenging the schools of thought which claim, as Peter Greenway does, that ‘dance is almost unfilmable’ (in Kower, 1995: 84), that, as Francis Sparshott (1995: 444) asserts, it ‘lacks presence,’ and that a conflict exists, resulting, according to Richard Roud (in Kower, 1995: 85), in one or the other medium being ‘violated.’ I am also challenging aesthetic notions about ‘dance’; challenging my own choreographic processes, forms and range of skills; challenging my body to sit in the edit suite for days at a time; and challenging the three-dimensional body with a two-dimensional format.
The video work, The 12 Stages of Adventure, reflects my own personal shift from choreographer of dance to dance videographer. I was involved in all aspects of the production of the work… choreography, some of the performing, operating the camera, directing the shoot when I wasn’t behind the camera, editing the picture, and directing and overseeing the music composition and sound editing. Even though my admission of extreme multi-skilling embarrasses me, probably largely due to the ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ adage, I believe this versatility is necessary for a creative holism, for a complete realisation of the artistic vision.
Yvonne Kower, in her Green Mill conference paper on dance film/video, claims there is a history of bad dance screenwork and, more importantly, stresses that ‘a distinction needs to be made between video dance and video-taped dance’ (1995: 84). In her opinion, ‘choreographers slip into choreographing dances from a theatrical point of view’ (1995: 84).
I consider that the choreographic process is not complete until the last stage of postproduction when the edited picture with edited music, sound and effects are synchronised. Many dance film/video endeavours have been less successful because they consider the process complete with the placement of the dance material in front of the camera. Even if the movement of the body within the frame and the movement of the camera have been considered, it is vitally important to plan and plant connections in content and movement pathways between the different shots.
For a performance work, the final refinement, re-arrangement and relationships of the material happen in the dance studio or performance space, working with the real body. With a dance film/video, the material the choreographer works with shifts half-way from the movement of the real body in real space and time to the movement of one filmed sequence and the next. The raw materials become clips of film, the choreographic devices become editing room skills.
Choreographic Process – Twelve Stages
The 12 Stages of Adventure is made on a video format. Apart from the obvious financial reasons for using video instead of film, it suited my purposes in terms of experimenting to have instant playback so that I could monitor the work more easily while examining the ‘shifts’ required of my creative process in work solely for the small screen.
The underpinning thematic idea, the twelve stages of adventure, is a breakdown of the structure of the adventure film genre. I was watching a television documentary (I can’t remember what) in which a film director (I can’t remember who) listed the stages he claimed could be found in almost every adventure story. In my very human desire to have the world dissected and explained in this way, I wrote them down. When I came to begin work on this project, I found the list and decided that the irony of using a film narrative structure as my creative starting point for a dance video was a delicious metaphor for my own rite of passage.
I began part-time rehearsals in late January 1998 with two other dancers, which increased to five over the next month. I wanted to reflect the universal aspects of the theme and decided I needed a diversity of input, a range of personal and performance perspectives. Each dancer contributed his or her own personal adventure story based on real experience. I asked them to relate their experience in answer to a series of twelve questions, each of which reflected the linear stages of adventure.
At this point I should list the stages for you:
1. The place where you are… something is missing.
(The question posed was “Where were you – place, time, context?)
2. The call to adventure.
(How did it start?)
3. The response to the call… usually fear.
(What was your reaction to this?)
4. Meeting with the mentor.
(Who helped you?)
5. Crossing a threshold into the new world.
(How did you get there?)
6. Tests, allies, and enemies.
(Who or what did you meet there?)
7. The approach… facing the fear.
(How did you feel about them or it?)
8. The supreme ordeal.
(What did you have to do?)
(What was the result at the end?)
10. The road back.
(How did you get back?)
11. Resurrection… another ordeal.
(Did anything happen on the way back?)
12. Return with the elixir.
(What did you bring back or end with?)
Most of the movement material in the work was created drawing on elements of six stories (including my own) and from the words ‘grab, search, discard, measure, sob, ricochet, wait’ which I chose arbitrarily as sources for both physical action and emotive metaphor for the twelve stages. I selected a sentence from each performer’s story and choreographed a sequence of movement to accompany the words.
In rehearsal I used various improvisational structures to explore the material potential. I cut and spliced fragments of material in lateral ways as a means both to create a history between the performers and the material and to shift my creative eye to the video format. For example, I created pathways of material by placing the dancers, eyes closed, in a location other than the studio (for example, a stairwell) and asked them to traverse this landscape without the assistance of sight.
Through a process of tracing and retracing these pathways, we created remembered kinaesthetic events which we could then take back into the studio. The resulting pathways contained play with shape and time as well as gravitational problems which made for more interesting and dynamic sequences than may have emerged in the open, controlled, seen studio space.
By removing the sense of sight from the movement experience, I was able to amplify the other senses and to enhance the integrity of the dance, to colour it with the dancers’ real fears and discoveries. One sequence, which is performed as a solo in the video reflecting ‘the road back’ stage, was the result of quite a long process of lateral abstraction. The creation of the final material became like a choreographic Chinese whisper.
From the instructional words ‘grab, search, discard, measure, sob, ricochet, wait,’ each dancer created a discrete gestural sequence restricted to the upper body. ‘Big’ variations on these sequences were created by extending them to whole body movement that used more extreme changes of level or locomotion. I then asked one of the dancers to perform her ‘big grab and search’ phase in slow, controlled motion whilst two other dancers, with eyes closed, attempted to ‘read’ as much information about the moving dancer’s body as possible through touch alone. Viviana Sacchero’s closed-eye solo in the video is the journey her body took while ‘reading’ two other dancers’ movement phases in succession.
This technique of removing vision from the creative equation is one used by American improvisational performer Lisa Nelson, with whom I had worked and performed in 1997. In the exploration of her artistic practice, she, too, has moved into the creation of dance video in addition to her improvisational performance work. She states:
The dancers I worked with are all ex-students of mine and/or people I have worked with before. This familiarity meant there was quite a degree of trust during the process, allowing me to experiment with improvisation and text. By incorporating their stories I was imbuing the dance with their personal memories and experiences. This, combined with the incorporation of their ‘grab and search’ material, resulted in a sense of shared ownership of the work and a shared creative experience.
Rehearsing and shooting part-time over eight months (a relatively long period in dance project terms) also enhanced the dancers’ familiarity with and connection to the material.
However, the most significant factor in terms of adding ‘presence’ to the filmed performance was the mounting of a live performance of the work in August 1998. By placing the work in front of a live audience, I was not only able to give the dancers performance experience with the material and the opportunity for some audience feedback, but I was also able to try a possible structure for the work. Until that point I had many connections and possibilities for the final form, but no set decision in mind.
It also pushed the process along in terms of having to have the musical themes and ideas fleshed out. This made the work with the composer on the final picture edit a case of selection and editing rather than composing from scratch. I incorporated projection of some of the footage I had already shot with the live dance and was able to try ideas about connections between movement images, and identify what footage I still needed.
My personal rite of passage into the realms of camera operator and editor was exciting although most difficult on the body. I came home from two days crouching and crawling with a camera in the freezing cold at Anglesea with back spasms and the week of storyboarding and editing made my chiropractor three visits richer.
Although these roles were not physically comfortable, they opened new dimensions for me in the possibilities for creating dance. By recognising and reproducing the choices I was making aesthetically with camera shots, I was setting up a more creative and efficient process for the editing. I was aware of and directing which directions the movement travelled through the frame, which parts of the body were followed, how and when the camera moved, how technically to find continuity in backgrounds in different locations, and what aspects of those locations matched the intent of the material. I was choreographing the camera to perform in the editing room. In the words of performer and director, Matthew Maguire (in Steinman, 1995):
Yvonne Kower (1995). ‘Being There: Dance Film/Video History – A Perspective,’ Is Technology the Future for Dance? Green Mill Papers (Canberra: Ausdance)
Bob Lockyer (1992). Video Dance Lectures
Michelle Mahrer (1995). ‘Being There: Dance on Screen – The Projected Image,’ Is Technology the Future for Dance? Green Mill Papers (Canberra: Ausdance)
Lisa Nelson (1995/1996). ‘The sensation is the image. It’s what dancing is to me,’Writings on Dance, Issue 14, Summer, pp. 4-15
Francis Sparshott (1995). A Measured Pace: Toward a Philosophical Understanding of the Arts of Dance (Toronto: University of Toronto Press)
Louise Steinman (1995). The Knowing Body: The Artist as Storyteller in Contemporary Dance (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books)