Theater archives

The Moving Camera Writes


How did I teach dance history or lecture about dance before videotaping became commonplace? I think I waved my arms a lot and hoped my words would evoke movement. I used slides, of course, although when I gave public lectures, calling out the intrusive “next slide, please” drove me wild. I rented films from university audiovisual departments, mostly from John Mueller’s pioneering Dance Film Archive at the University of Rochester; they arrived (still do) through the mail in snap-shut brown plastic boxes and had to be trotted to the post office after class. (Don’t get me started on school-issue 16mm projectors.)

When I finally built my own video collection (bought, borrowed, received as a gift, taped off the air, or handed to me in a plain brown paper bag with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” proviso), I refused to be put off by poor quality. I tried to ignore insensitive camera work, roused to ire only when a cameraperson cut a Cambodian dancer below the knees, or decided that, since two little Balinese legong dancers were as alike as peas in a pod, he’d liven up their measured pace by doubling them both—mind you, this last was taped before the eye-dazzle of MTV had reached its peak.

Although I thought I could see Martha Graham’s archival soul emanating from a small black-and-white, two-dimensional figure dancing outdoors for a stationary home-movie camera, I could see it better in the films Nathan Kroll produced for WGED-TV in Pittsburgh (A Dancer’s World, 1957; Appalachian Spring, 1958; and Night Journey, 1961). Those three (now available from Kultur on a single video) signaled a new flexibility for capturing dance. A wilder flexibility, of course, was known to film buffs familiar with Maya Deren, who created surreal landscapes in which the young Talley Beatty might lift his leg in the woods and put it down in an apartment (A Study in Choreography for Camera, 1945). In Hollywood, Gene Kelly showed how camera movement and cutting rhythm support and enhance dancing, and Fred Astaire, though he preferred to shoot a dance number without cuts, made astute use of film’s aptitude for magic (like the line of shadowy doubles in the 1936 Swing Time‘s “Mr. Bojangles”). But these movies told stories, of which dance formed only a part.

The PBS series Dance in America, launched in 1976 by Jac Venza and still going, showed how a music-sensitive producer like Merrill Brockway, a dance-knowledgeable director like Emile Ardolino, and a wizard editor like Girish Bhargava could take pre-existing dance to a large television audience without stripping it of the impact it had in the theater. If George Balanchine wanted an edit “at the bottom of a breath,” Bhargava knew how to place it at the end of a measure, just before the next downbeat.

You can read about all this and more (and watch Beatty jump) in a big, invaluable new book, Envisioning Dance on Film and Video, edited by Judy Mitoma and our own Elizabeth Zimmer (Routledge, 336 pps., $95 hardcover; $40 paper). It contains 55 essays, including advice on copyright and video preservation. It comes with a two-hour DVD—assembled by Dale Ann Stieber and keyed to the text—that allows you not only to relate words to images, but to experience the phenomenon of video time. Watching an excerpt from the videodance collaboration Touched, by British choreographer Wendy Houstoun and director David Hinton, by the time two minutes pass you feel as if you’ve seen five, so dense is the on-screen club of roiling bodies (no feet) and narrative potential. On the other hand, it takes almost four minutes for Eiko to worm slowly out of her swaddling of grasses in Husk, while Koma keeps his camera low and extra close (it’s balanced on a tennis ball), and you’d guess far less time had gone by.

The topics range over archival films, documentaries, and new and imaginative collaborations like those being made in Britain (analyzed by BBC producer Bob Lockyer) and the Canadian ones Philip Szporer discusses (oh, for their government support!). Virginia Brooks’s timeline and her meaty “From Méliès to Streaming Video: A Century of Moving Dance Images” lay out key developments and issues in the iffy waltz of dance and camera. I love that many of the essays (notably Beth Genné’s “Dancin’ in the Rain: Gene Kelly’s Musical Films”; Brockway’s “Accompanying Choreography: A Director’s Journey”; and Evann E. Siebens’s “Dancing With the Camera: The Dance Cinematographer”) offer nitty-gritty analyses of techniques and their effects. Even the lesser writings contain one or two thought-provoking insights into process.

How do you make a three-dimensional medium look less flat in a two-dimensional one—or celebrate flatness? How do you transform a dance conceived for a rectangular stage for the camera’s funnel-shaped visual field? In “Watching Dance With a Remote in Your Hand,” Matthew Diamond, director of the Oscar-nominated Dancemaker and a former dancer, writes, “Shooting dance is not so much hard as it is insanely delicate. Wrong angle, wrong shot, wrong edit, and the whole thing falls apart.” I’m not tossing my flawed old tapes; bad dance is bad dance no matter how ingeniously filmed, and wonderful dance comes through somehow. But when choreography and film mate at peak performance, both arts are enriched.