This essay is written from my perspective as a practitioner of dance and as a video producer. My background in dance and choreography has expanded into the art forms of cinematography and editing. However, I have kept a clear dance-centric agenda in my work. For more than a decade, my research interest has been the intersection of dance and video. I have been exploring the integration of live performance with projecting images, as well as the hybrid form of screendance and the art of video installation. This article focuses on my screendance work as a whole and one particular work entitled dunes.
I will share the collaborative process of creating dunes, a site-specific screendance, from inception to production. For this purpose, I have selected this piece as a case study I produced this work in 2015; since then, it has been presented nationally and internationally as a screendance piece. Additionally, it was presented as a live performance with projected images, adding to the site-specificity of the work.
In the summer of 2015 I invited choreographer and dancer Kim Olson to collaborate in the creation of dunes. We had collaborated extensively on previous projects and wanted to explore an extreme environment together. After many discussions, we both felt strongly about exploring The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve nuzzled in the south of Colorado. This location offered North America’s tallest dunes set against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Site-specific screendance couples two dance disciplines from the late twentieth century: site-specific and screendance. In an article about site-specific dance for Emotion, Space and Society, dance scholars Karen Barbour and Alexandra Hitchmough state, “site-specific dance is generally understood as dance that is created and performed in response to a particular site, most often a site in which dance has not traditionally been performed.” Screendance is the hybrid form of choreography coupled with film or video.
Site-specific dance was first brought to the forefront of dance during the early sixties by some of the most eminent post-modern choreographers. Choreographers such as Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs started exploring alternatives ways of moving, choreographing and presenting dance. They started creating dances outside of the stage questioning the established modes of production and presentation of modern dance. Choreographies like Walking on the Wall and Roof were being created in response to these specific sites. The site-specific tradition in dance kept evolving with choreographers, like Simone Forti and Anna Halprin, who dedicated their careers to this unique dance form.
On her site-specific dances, choreographer Anna Halprin has stated: “I receive physical, emotional and spiritual nourishment from nature… I also look to nature to discover what is both meaningful in form and content for dance as art.” Currently, the art and dance world recognize choreographers that keep exploring site-specific dance as their main form of performance such as Noemi LaFrance and Stephen Koplowitz.
The foundations of screendance can be traced back to the experimental filmmaker Maya Deren. She emigrated from Ukraine at a young age and worked in various countries. She was a prominent artist, celebrated as an avant-garde filmmaker for her films such as Meshes of the Afternoon and Divine Horsemen. Deren produced A Choreographic Study in 1945; it features Talley Beatty performing his own choreography in a four-minute 16mm silent film. Talley was a member of Martha Graham’s company, and her movement influence is evident. As a pioneer of the hybrid form screendance Maya Deren explored elements of time and space. She was able to conceptualize, direct and product where the dialogue between dancer and camera was fundamental. Both elements, dancer and camera, shared the protagonist role. Additionally, with this work, Deren exposed one of the main appeals to creating a screendance, which is to carry a movement through different spaces or locations. Her editing techniques were revolutionary and still current today.
Since its inceptions, the genre of screendance has evolved tremendously and more so with the introduction of the digital technology. By the 1970s and 1980s choreographers like Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham and Aiko and Koma were exploring the medium. Furthermore, groups like DV8 and Lalala Human Steps created a robust screendance body of work in the early 2000s, which are still relevant today. Currently there are several choreographers, filmmakers and collaborative groups that are committed to this hybrid form with enormous success, such as Marta Renzi, Mitchell Rose, Simon Fildes and Katrina McPherson.
As all my site-specific screendance projects, dunes started with the inquiry of exploring the site through the movement of a dancer captured by my moving camera. At the core of my projects lie my aesthetic values; however, ethical implications also permeate my work. My background in dance and film shape my aesthetic decisions as well as my intuition and the collaborative process that takes shape during each project. The composition of each frame, the angles I select, the movement of my camera, the colors I favor and the textures I react to are all elements that inform my aesthetic. My cinematography is informed heavily by my film studies, while my dance background influences my editing.
As a dancer and choreographer, contemporary movement and choreographers from an array of dance backgrounds influence me, as well as my cultural heritage. I was initially trained as a dancer in the English style of Classical Technique Royal Academy of Dance; subsequently, I was trained in Cunningham, Limon and a variety of modern dance techniques. As a choreographer I have always been drawn to more visceral expressions of dance movement like the German expressionism of Pina Bausch and the Japanese form of Butoh. These forms reveal the humanity in the body itself.
My main influences in films come from the experimental filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon, from whom I took classes at while attending the University of Colorado at Boulder. Some of the elements found in experimental films that I have been exploring in my own work are the non-linear narrative structure and the use of superimposed images. The lack of narrative or non-linear narrative structure suits the improvisational aspect of site-specific work. The use of multiple layers of images creates visual metaphors. Both of these aspects can be found in my work and are present in dunes.
My collaborator for dunes, Kim Olson, was trained like most American dancers from the nineties in conventional forms of dance, such as ballet and various styles of modern dance. Her deepest influences in movement can be traced to dance improvisation, Klein and Release techniques. Kim performed and toured as a member of Randy Warshaw Dance Company, worked as a dancer with the Donna Uchizono Company and toured internationally as a member of the Stephen Petronio Company. Petronio was the first male dancer with Trisha Brown’s company, and her influence can be found in Kim’s movement.
Kim has been highly recognized as a dancer and choreographer internationally. Critics have written about the visceral, precarious, and almost dangerous state of her performance. Fritzraven Sky, Critic from Vancouver BC / Montreal wrote: “Olson is the essence of the modern sensibility…an artist from whom we can continue to expect great things. Luminous on stage with a fragile eroticism, she is ethereal and lusty at the same time…impelling, sliding tossing her parts almost out of control and whimsically bemused by the whole.”
I was drawn to Kim’s performance in part because of the way she creates risk. Much like Crystal Pite, another choreographer I admire, I am interested in the constant conflict that movement creates in the body. Kim’s movement is a constant struggle, and due to its highly poetic resonance, her movement and choreography also engrossed me.
Our first collaboration bare was a screendance filmed on Kim’s property, 10 acres in the mountains of Colorado. The work was our first opportunity to explore the relationship between dancers, camera and environment. At the time we filmed I had no idea I was going to explore this triad’s conversation for more than a decade.
In bare, I was filming Kim and two other remarkable dancers who were part of her company, Sweet/Edge. The project included site-specific dance as well as site-adaptive material. The site-specific movement was created as we found new environments. The dancers would improvise based on the stimulus that they were receiving from the environment while I was following their movement as well as reacting to the same stimulus from the environment. In addition, the dancers were attentive to my directives. We included some site-adaptive dance phrases that Kim had choreographed previous to our filming session. For these set movements, my approach was totally different because I was no longer listening to the environment, but instead I was consciously filming set movement with a study board.
The result was a short screendance that was awarded the Best Experimental Video form Colorado Arts TV in Boulder, Colorado. Subsequently it was selected in multiple international screendance festivals. For both Kim and I, this was the beginning of a very fruitful long-term artistic collaboration. Some of our collaborations include the project Parkplatz where Kim choreographed and I created a video to open the Tanz Art Oestwest Festival. Tanz Compagnie Giessen commissioned this project, and it was performed in Giessen, Germany in 2007. Subsequently, in 2008 our work City Crumbs was selected to show at the International Tanzmesse Festival of Dusseldorf. In 2010 and 2014 we were awarded ATLAS Innovators by the ATLAS Institute of Boulder, Colorado for our other collaborations, Disappear Here and OJO.
By the time we created dunes, we knew how to collaborate. From its inception our artistic collaboration was founded in mutual inspiration, respect and admiration for each other’s work, as well as by a shared sense of aesthetics and by a deep friendship.
At the time we were planning to film dunes, Kim and her company Sweet/ Edge had been working on the deconstruction of movement to bring to the frontage the authentic human response that both pre and supersedes technique. I felt like there perfect project to explore this creative impetus.
Once we arrived at The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, we found grounds to set up our camp and then went scouting. While scouting, my attention was focused on finding interesting angles, good light, places where the sand was easier to walk on, places to set my tripod on without it sinking and other similar contemplations. Simultaneously, Kim was discovering how challenging it was to dance on this surface. She was feeling the sand with her bare feet, the strong wind offered resistance affecting the quality of her movement. We were both equally concerned with the extreme heat and what seemed to be a lack of oxygen as we were in high altitudes. All of these considerations informed our plan to shoot early morning the following day.
We started shooting scenes for dunes with the first light. Once we found a location that worked for both in terms of cinematography and movement, Kim started exploring. Her movements embraced the various responses to the stimulus she was receiving from the elements. As she moved, I captured her graceful struggle across my frame. Simultaneously, I responded to the intense heat, which had started to rise, the wind in my face and the smell of wet sand. We created an intimate dialogue between the three elements: dancer, camera and environment. My job as a cinematographer was to document the movements being created in front of the camera by the dancer inspired and affected by the environment. Additionally, I was thinking on the editing process and the kind of footage I needed to create a cohesive kinesthetic account of our experience. Thus, some shots were more intentional and full of directives for the dancer.
Due to the improvisational nature of the project, both of us as dancer and cinematographer were reacting to what we were experiencing in the moment. We were exploring a phenomenological approach to creation. As the director, one of my main aspirations was to create an immersive environment with seductively enough images and soundscape in order for the audience to get lost in the experience. Sharing my embodied experience with the audience is at the frontage of my research.
Partnering with the Site
Like all partnering work, the tension changes from one partner to the other. In dunes, Kim was creating a dance with the elements, notwithstanding of them. I am particularly interested on the integration of dance and the environment. Simply transposing the choreography from the studio to a natural environment is not something that I am exploring at this moment. In this sense I avoided utilizing the dunes and mountains as background. Instead, I assigned the environment a protagonist role to share with the dancer; Kim partnered with the sand, the air, the heat and the water.
I also focused on featuring the liveliness of the site. It is common in screendance to shoot very close angles to emphasize the body. As stated by dance scholar Melanie Kloetzel: “I would argue that the long shot (and extreme long shot) has become more common as filmmakers try to highlight the environment as a key contributor to the work, not only in how it relates to the body, but also in how it exudes its own changing and moving characteristics.” I included long shots to stress the magnitude of the site. One of the challenges for me was to highlight the interconnectedness and importance of the dancer and environment alike. Kim’s movements were created in the site and in response to it. The elements inspired her movement and affected her dynamics by offering resistance, temperature and texture; the sand was moving and creating its own choreography aided by the air.
Art critic Andy Grundberg writes in his introduction for In Response to Place: Photographs from the Nature Conservancy’s Last Great Places: “Feeling a part of nature makes one responsible to it, and ultimately for it. Our responsibilities are in large part a matter of who we are.” There are ethical implications that I have dealt with during the creation of dunes, such as my respect for nature as well as my fascination with it. Having lived in Mexico City, Mexico for most of my life nature is still an extraordinary element for me. I fear it and at the same time, I feel more alive when I am in it.
Through my camera I captured Kim’s minute body set against the immensity of the environment. I changed the composition so the dancer became predominant in my frame; however, I still felt the vastness of the environment. I thought about my own mortality while filming. I questioned the dichotomy of ephemeral and permanent. I pondered about the duality of nature and humanity. I reflected upon the triad that is nature, humans and technology. A dune is a mountain of lose sand that has been formed by the flow of water and wind; it has been present for a millennium. I thought about human life in contrast to the prolonged lifetime of a mountain, a dune or a body of water. I captured these thoughts and inquiries with my camera.
I recognized what makes this site an extreme environment. Walking through the lose sand was a challenge. This is an environment where most could not function, the arid sand and intense temperatures explain why this area is not populated. Kim was dancing and running in the depth of the dunes, her physical and mental stamina were tested by each step. Kim’s struggle was tangible. I captured it while the heat kept rising.
The conditions offered by this environment provided a fertile field for experimentation. Kim walked up hill sinking her bare feet in the deep sand; she created movement incited by her interaction with the roughness of the site. My concern lied in capturing the embodied experience to share it with my audience. I captured various distinctive types of shots, long shots, medium shots, etc. I fragmented Kim’s body to depict the action of her hand moving sand. I followed her movement with my moving camera. I panned and tilted my camera to denote her against the mountains. I panned away from her and filmed the sand by itself, the sky and the mountains without a dancer to provide perspective.
Kim was wearing an unusual costume as a dress: a white parachute from Versailles during the Second World War. It was both heavy and light simultaneously. It offered us more elements to explore. The wind blew strongly as we found patches of wet sand. The parachute got wet and even heavier on one side, while the other side flowed gracefully. Kim dragged her “dress” across my frame running, falling, and recovering. The conflict between her body, the costume and the environment had been intensified by the angles of my camera. I was concerned with the interactions between her movement and the environment, her body and the costume, her presence and my camera.
Surrounded by the enormity of the dunes I felt humility, and I mostly felt the deepest respect for nature. Perhaps Grundberg was right about his statement on responsibility to nature because as I started feeling more connected to nature while filming, I also felt more responsible for it. We were careful as not to leave traces or not harm the environment. The beauty of nature was intensified by the presence of a strong yet fragile dancer. The intense blues from the sky contrasting the color of the sand and Kim’s skin tones. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains witnessed our dance as they stood behind us framing our exertion. Acknowledging the importance of nature in our current way of life becomes a subtext in the work. I keep questioning the ephemeral and permanent dichotomy and wonder if the permanency of the dunes will ever become ephemeral. I recognize the danger that nature faces in this political climate. I reflect on my efforts to save, capture, or perhaps own the ephemerality of the dance in transforming it into something more permanent, like a video. I simply have questions.
In my experience, editing is an extension of the choreographic process. Here, I can manipulate space, time and effort. Like Maya Deren’s choreographic study, I can transpose movement in space by use of sequential editing and like Stan Brakhage, I can layer images to create visual metaphors. In editing, these are some of the concepts I wanted to share with my audience: the fragility of humanity against the grandness of the environment, the strength of the female dancer, the constant dialogue between dancer, site, and camera, the traces left by humanity in the sand, the beauty of nature and the splendor of the human struggle.
The selection process started by watching the entirety of the footage, subsequently, as I was getting familiar with it, I started eliminating the clips that looked problematic. From each clip I was considering the light, the composition, the clarity of intention from my camera as well as from Kim’s movement. Once I had selected the best footage, I let the first editing draft occur as a stream of consciousness., I responded to the memory of my experience phenomenologically; I remembered how the sand felt in my feet and how the wind was blowing. I recalled how difficult it was to get to the top of a dune and how the heat was beating us down. I also remembered feeling insignificant against the expansive dunes. The ephemerality of a human life becomes more evident against the permanency of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, similar to the contrast between dance and film. I felt alive, content and curious.
During the second editing draft, I made more cerebral choices, which supported the conceptual backbone of the project. I wanted to avoid presenting only the shots where Kim looks proportionally at a disadvantage, so I include close ups and shots where her presence felt important. I also selected footage displaying the immersive environment in solitude, with no dancer, no human around, instead I show traces made by Kim’s presence. By selecting shots where my camera is actively moving I invite the audience into a kinesthetic journey with us. Once again, many questions come to mind. I ponder upon the current relationship that we have with our environment, I think about the consequences of our actions.
In succeeding drafts, I had other considerations that dealt with the translation of dance into film. Dance and film share the elements of time and space. Time is easily translated from dance into film. In both, you can manipulate the speed, retrograde, start at any given point of the phrase, and use repetition. Space, on the other hand, offers a challenge. In dance, space is tri-dimensional accounting for a vertical, a horizontal and a sagittal plane. A screen is only bi-dimensional (vertical and horizontal), so adding the third dimension is always a consideration in my work. There are various ways of adding the sagittal plane or depth that the screen is missing. These concerns need to be present during the filming as well as the editing process. In filming dunes, I made sure to create frames with strong background and foreground to accentuate the depth. I also asked Kim to enter my frame from behind my camera and to travel in diagonal. I intentionally selected clips with depth of field as well as combined long shots, medium shots and close ups and superimposed images in order to add the third dimensionality to dunes.
Eliot Caplan mentioned during one of his screendance workshops the importance of capturing the real sounds made by the dancers during the filming sessions in order to feel closer to them. He was referring to the dancers breathing, the way their bodies sound as they touch against different textures or each other, the sound of a step or a slide. Thierry De May expands this concept and invites additional sounds into the mix to create a more complex texture.
During the filming of dunes, I used the advice from both of these accomplished video artists; I kept the original audio I captured during the shoot and added sounds that did not corresponded directly with the action. I also incorporated a soundtrack created by composer Jeff Mohler. This resulted in an immersive audio track that carried the action. Sound helps disguise the roughness of some cuts; additionally, it accentuates the rhythm and provides structure. I personally prefer adding the sound track at the end of my editing so I can work independent from the sound structure. Like most experimental filmmakers, I believe that the rhythm of the film needs to be found in the edit itself.
In her book Cutting Rhythms: Intuitive Film Editing, filmmaker Karen Pearlman states, “If we actively see and hear and feel the world’s rhythms, what we are actually seeing, hearing, and feeling is movement. Editors need actively to perceive and shape the flow of time and energy through movement to shape a film’s rhythms.” When editing dance I find myself looking for the cadence of the movement, the end of a phrase, the weight transfers of a step. Weight provides a road map for my editing. I use choreographic tools to edit. I manipulate the speed of some movements, the orientation or facing of some clips, I repeat, reverse, fragment or delete other moments. I re-choreograph the event.
Editing was not different from choreography. I introduced Kim as she walks down a dune with a close up of her feet sinking in the sand. The next clip is a long shot where Kim is revealed full-bodied as she slowly walks holding a white fabric on her arms. After that, she drags her legs leaving traces on the wet sand. Kim has an amazing ability for performing a wide range of dynamics with her movement. She slashes, then glides and soon after she dabs and wrings effortlessly. Her body is in constant conflict with itself and with the environment, the triadic intersection of body, environment, and camera are present. I cut the movement right before it ends transitioning into another part of her body, another angle or a different movement all together. I am far from using sequential editing; instead, I let my instincts find a movement lead. At some point I try to follow her movement with my camera. I lose parts of her, but I capture the kinesthetic sense of her movement. Her movement informs my filming as well as my editing. Ideally, in turn, it will affect the audience.
There is something really compelling about Kim’s movement. It could be the way she fully commits to it, the clarity of her intention or the level of skill she displays. I simultaneously capture her power and her pathos, her ability and her despair. Like Pina Bausch, I am more interested in what moves people rather in how they move. Kim moves me; her dance is visceral and honest.
During Inside Dance, choreographer Akram Khan shares his thoughts regarding how much discipline and energy is required to achieve relative stillness. I relate to this reflection. As a mover, I prefer to move and find it challenging to stand still. This inclination for action affects my filming and editing alike. As I film, I have to remind myself of the importance of stillness hence I look for empty frames (without the dancer) and locked shots (without the camera moves). I intentionally include stillness during Kim’s movement. Alike Khan, I have experienced the depth of stillness in the middle of a chaotic choreography. This is a powerful choreographic tool, and it translates in film. The pause invites me to reset, to start anew. Furthermore, it allows the audience to have a moment of reflection.
During the creation of dunes, I used layered images on two different occasions: the first time I superimposed moving water into the dunes. The effect is such of moving sand denoting erosion or pass of time. I first set down the footage of the dunes and over it I superimposed water footage taken in a close by site. I modified the opacity of latter to the point that I could see both images simultaneously.
The second time I used this technique to present two, three and four layers of Kim as she dances furiously across my frame. To me, this visual metaphor represents the duality between ephemerality and permanency. In order to attain this multi-layered clip, I shot Kim with a locked camera as she danced half a dozen times through the frame. I gave Kim the instruction to start behind my camera and to keep going until she fell down the dune.
Long after producing dunes, I reflect on it. dunes is one of my first site-specific screendances and it provided me with a road map to other similar projects. To date, I have produced a dozen of site-specific works based on the same principles. Each project has been different due to the new collaborations that I have formed with other artists and to the diverse locations that I have explored. What has not changed is the core of my intentions.
Each work presents a different challenge; however, all of them are based on the intention of sharing an embodied experience of place with my audience highlighting the dialogue between dancer, environment and camera. Additionally, it is my aspiration to share a sense of respect for nature by revealing the intricate connection between human and nature. Unlike photographer Hansel Adams, I do not seek the beauty of nature in isolation, quite the opposite; I find the duality of human/nature more compelling and far more interesting.
“Anna Halprin: Performances,” Anna Halprin, 2016, accessed December 2018, https://www.annahalprin.org/performances.
“Arts.21 | Dance Theater,” YouTube video, 5:49, posted by DW News, July 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kZ8zui9x0c
Barbour, Karen, and Alexandra Hitchmough. “Experiencing affect through site-specific dance.” Emotion, Space and Society 12 (August 2014): 63-72. Accessed December 2018, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.emospa.2013.11.004.
Bench, Harmony. “Maya Deren: A Prologue.” The International Journal of Screendance. 3 (2013), accessed December 2018, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18061/ijsd.v3i0.5694
Crystal Pite interviewed by Kirsty Wark, “Can art effect change? Kirsty Wark meets choreographer Crystal Pite,” YouTube video, 5:56, posted by BBC Newsnight, April 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYv1vQ-5wKk&t=128s
Grundberg, Andy. “Introduction.” In In Response to Place: Photographs from the Nature Conservancy’s Last Great Places, by The Nature Conservancy. Boston: Bulfinch Press; Little, Brown and Company, 2001.
“Inside Dance: Akram Khan,” YouTube video, 4:06, posted by “Sadler’s Wells Theatre,” September 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=juRffNv0JUg
Kloetzel, Melanie “Bodies in place: location as collaborator in dance film.” International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media 11, no. 1 (2014) 18-41, accessed December 2018, DOI: 10.1080/14794713.2014.927712.
Pearlman, Karen. Cutting Rhythms: Intuitive Film Editing. London: Routledge, 2015.
SweetEdge, Kim Olson 2010, https://sweetedge.org/kim-olson/
2. “Anna Halprin: Performances,” Anna Halprin, 2016, accessed December 2018, https://www.annahalprin.org/performances.
3. Harmony Bench. “Maya Deren: A Prologue.” The International Journal of Screendance. 3 (2013), accessed December 2018, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18061/ijsd.v3i0.5694
4. SweetEdge, Kim Olson 2010, Accessed January 2019, https://sweetedge.org/kim-olson/
5. Crystal Pite interviewed by Kirsty Wark, “Can art effect change? Kirsty Wark meets choreographer Crystal Pite,” YouTube video, 5:56, posted by BBC Newsnight, April 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYv1vQ-5wKk&t=128s
9. “Arts.21 | Dance Theater,” YouTube video, 5:49, posted by DW News, July 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kZ8zui9x0c
10. “Inside Dance: Akram Khan,” YouTube video, 4:06, posted by “Sadler’s Wells Theatre,” September 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=juRffNv0JUg