Academic journal article Afterimage

Refusing to Be Captured; Camera and Dance

Academic journal article Afterimage

Refusing to Be Captured; Camera and Dance

Article excerpt

On Valentine's Day, New York University celebrated the accomplishments of Annette Michelson, an author and professor of cinema studies at NYU. Among her contributions cited was "her trenchant opposition to trends in contemporary scholarship in which the value of the art object is demoted or denigrated by an exclusive focus upon circulation, reception, and subjective response. She is committed to achieving a synthesis of theory and artistic practice, one in which the purpose of theory is both to render advanced art intelligible and, for artists, to generate new avenues of artistic practice."

This stance is admirable but "dance on camera" is one art that has had little analysis and, until recently, sparse circulation. The practitioners of this burgeoning art are largely self-taught. With the exception of the dance and films of Yvonne Rainer and Maya Deren, barely any writing exists on the century-old art form of dance on camera. Not enough presenters took the "risk" of presenting this genre; few film or dance departments recognized dance on camera as a valid course of study, so few scholars took the trouble to dig in. Uday Shankar's Kalpana, a legendary film made in India in 1947, is a case in point. This two-and-a-half-hours film has sets like those of Metropolis and dances as majestic as those made by Busby Berkeley, a dark political wit and surrealism that Hollywood never dared. Who celebrated this film that director Satayit Ray saw 17 times? Sadly Ravi Shankar's older brother Uday, with whom he toured the world, died an embittered, lonely man. Kalpana is finally getting a long-overdue celebratory showing in New York City this May after fifty-years' absence.

One could project that dance on camera has had a sadly low profile because dance is associated with women and the film industry is still largely male-dominated. The great innovator Maya Deren died young, exhausted, and wondering why her films never won much financial support or circulation. Martina Kudlacek's feature-length documentary In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2001) "is a revelation of how central dance was to Deren's being, creativity, and films, and thus to the foundations of the American avant-garde film movement," wrote filmmaker/writer Amy Greenfield.

Forty years before Maya Deren's time, the immediacy and emotional power of dance had been embraced. The lure of the body in the vaudevillian era was irresistible to directors. But when the talkies came in and actors got ready for their close-ups, directors strangely became timid about shooting the full body. Yes we had the magic years of Fred Astaire and Stanley Donen's ingenuous direction, but the subtle expression of every man's hands, hips, his walk, his rhythm was largely ignored by Hollywood. Even though every magazine and ad flaunts naked bodies, the film industry is oddly intimidated by bodies--in motion, or still. Would anyone admit to this fundamental directors' block?

Once video cameras and affordable editing software became available in the mid-80s, dancers around the world re-discovered the obvious chemistry between dance and the camera. The explosion of explorations into comic essays, surreal narratives, poetic fantasies, multi-media performance, environmental live/screen events attest to the vast potential of combining dance and film. Each dance video seems to operate within a universe of its own logic. …

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