Fortitude Dance Productions: Theatricality in dance film and ‘less’ being so much more

From Fortitude Dance Productions' 'Evermore'. Videography by Jacob Hiss.
From Fortitude Dance Productions' 'Evermore'. Videography by Jacob Hiss.

Access through Fortitude Dance Productions’ IGTV.
Premiered in 2020.

One could argue that at its essence, dance is storytelling. When it comes to telling a story with dance, a simple glance or gesture can sometimes say more than the most technical or awe-inspiring movement. Bettina Mahoney’s work through her company, Fortitude Dance Productions, demonstrates this power of theatricality in dance art, specifically through short dance films with strong narratives.  

Exile, set to Taylor Swift and Bon Iver’s song of the same name (2020), is a portrayal of the inner world surrounding love and loss. Although not without “big” and technical movement, the choreography prioritizes gesture, gaze and overall presence over virtuosity. Sideways head motions and hands over faces speak to shifting perception and sight (or lack thereof), for example. Christopher Michael contributed editing.  

From Fortitude Dance Productions' 'Exile'. Videography by Christopher Michael Hansen.
From Fortitude Dance Productions’ ‘Exile’. Videography by Christopher Michael Hansen.

The short film begins with a dancer (Jocelyn Mastro) moving in the shower — side to side and up and down, with a high level of passion. Water streams down on her as she moves. Combined with her white costume, I think about cleansing and purity — even if by tears (I also think about with Mastro’s pained expression). 

Further sections, with solos and duets smoothly edited together, present dancers out in nature — a more open expanse with more opportunity than the enclosed space of the bathroom. They also wear white, bringing my mind back to purity as a blank slate of possibility. 

Toward the end of the film, the movement gets more expansive and more technical, although with a strong grounding into the earth (literal natural ground for most of the dancers, as they’re dancing outside). Gesture remains present, and feels elemental to both movement and meaning in this work. Olivia Rush and Ryan Scalero also run through the woods — moving toward open space and exploration. Even something as fundamental as running can be meaningful as dance art if shaped in the right way.

Yet, the ending brings viewers back into the bathroom where Mastro had danced in a running shower — this time submerging herself in a full tub. This was a powerful reminder how healing isn’t linear, and sometimes we must cleanse of what doesn’t serve us yet again.

Evermore, also to the song of the same name by Taylor Swift and Bon Iver (2021), similarly illustrates the messy and complex feelings and actions within the context of a passionate romantic relationship. There are threads tying these two works together — the high level of theatricality and cleansing through moving in a running shower, for example. 

There is even more theatricality in this work, in fact — a storyline evident through a young man and woman talking on the phone, meeting, arguing, resolving whatever stood between them, and then finally settling in a peaceful enjoying of one another. It’s less “montage” style than Exile and more of a continuous illustration of the interactions between two people (although shifts of frame and different vantage points are part of the editing, making the film more dynamic aesthetically — filming by Jacob Hiss). 

From Fortitude Dance Productions' 'Evermore'. Videography by Jacob Hiss.
From Fortitude Dance Productions’ ‘Evermore’. Videography by Jacob Hiss.

The main “dance” section emerges with the climax of the song, the tones intensifying and the rhythm picking up speed and the movement becoming more expansive and technical. The dancers fall and recover, reach and pull closer in space through three dimensions. However fast or technical the movement, the dancers — Maxwell Ginsburg and Leslie Fitzpatrick — remain grounded and full of ease. Movement vocabulary on and over the floor brings a settling feeling, pleasing after the heated emotion coming before that in the film.

There’s movement throughout the short dance film, and not just in that climactic section, however — and it’s powerful. Subtle movement as the dancers stand close brings viewers right into the emotions between them, for example. They hug as water comes down from the showerhead, as if the water is washing away the anger they had felt and expressed. 

This structure of more theatrically-based movement in calmer parts of the score and more technical, “bigger” movement as it intensifies creates a satisfying harmony between movement and music. It doesn’t feel like Mahoney uses virtuosic movement just for its own sake, but for the purpose of story, meaning and pleasing art.  

All of these aspects also demonstrate that dance can be so much more than high kicks, multiple turns, or limbs moving in intricate patterns. As choreographers shift from the COVID standard of dance filmmaking to once again making work for the stage, that’s something to remember — that when it comes to movement, “less” can be so much more. There are so many ways to tell a story with dance, and overt theatricality can be a potent one. 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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