Film at Lincoln Center, New York, NY.
February 10-13, 2023.
Dance film didn’t originate in the COVID lockdown era, yet it certainly proliferated then. Many dance companies and independent choreographers called upon the form in order to keep all involved safe, and the process aligned with public health protocals. The result was a notable blossoming of dance film, with the dance field as a whole putting out a plethora of styles, atmospheres, themes, and meanings through the form.
In 2023, COVID lockdowns are a thing of the past – yet dance film is very much not. The form created and presented at this moment can be a window into where the form has been and where it’s going, given all that’s transpired since 2020. At the 51st Annual Dance on Camera Festival, that window showed a plethora of possibility — stylistically, in meaning and much more. Presented by the Dance Films Association and Film at Lincoln Center, the four-day dance film festival is the longest running in the world.
The works, although all quite unique, also shared a thread of strong meaning within human experience: sociopolitical, in our relationship with one another and with the earth, and much more. With the festival exhibiting 30 new films, the four “shorts” described below are but a taste of the smorgasbord of the style and meaning – in and through movement – that it offered.
Reminiscences, by Virginie Brunelle, although abstract, feels strikingly human; movement serves as a means to convey the unspoken hurts and missed connections, but also deep love and magnetism, that can transpire between two humans. It begins with one dancer dragging a table across a dirt road, but not only the table; a woman clings to it, resisting the downward pull of gravity as it slants. The outdoor lighting feels like that of sunset after a stormy day.
We viewers meet other couples after that first one, the camera panning them in and out of close, intimate view. Sometimes we get that intimate distance, sometimes we get the totality of their kinetic exchange through a wider view. Like yin and yang, this in and out maintains a dynamic balance – all things in harmony. Yes, there’s harmony, but also unease and agitation – and that balance is a tenuous one. The couples make and miss connection: conveyed in movement with counterbalancing weight, spines snaking toward and away, a hand between lips that could have met in a kiss.
The movement is also earthy and grounded, with no fear of getting right into the dirt (clothes can be washed, but emotions stay stuck if not moved out). The “impure” can reveal as well as cloud from vision. There’s urgency and attack, but – at times – also the sweet softness of true tenderness. The work ends with a sense of exertion, perhaps from the continuous work of genuinely being with and nurturing each other. One duet partner rolls across the floor through the initiation of her hips. The other looks ahead and we hear his breath – slightly quickened and textured, but full and rhythmic. The work of connection, of walking and moving with, continues.
Baye and Asa’s Suck it Up poignantly investigates the pressures that toxic masculinity, and modern culture generally, places upon men. With some humorous moments, some absurdist ones and some dark, challenging ones, the film leverages theatrical movement to shine a clear light on the issue. The first frames show us viewers a spotlit gentleman – oozing bravado. Then we see another gentlemen moving frenetically, his abandon absolutely full. Rock music supports their energy in separate ways.
Their stillness and movement, respectively, are in stark contrast. Emphasizing such a binary, they’re in black and white. They later move together, in a plain space that feels like a gymnasium. From sweet moments of physical comedy, to jazzy movement vocabulary in unison, they kinetically relate in a pleasing variety of ways.
The movement is layered, at times technical but also feels very honest. Gesture is a key part of that layering in the movement vocabulary, and also quite effective for conveying these individuals’ emotional state: from feeling closed off to agitation to anticipation. Interestingly, with the topic at hand, I do think about how I always enjoy watching virtuosic, strong men dance, with the sheer physical power that they possess. That’s here, yet they’re more human than athletic.
Back in the gym later, over them is ad audio for products, and other clips with similar messages – to make men more conventionally masculine, attractive and virile. They again move frenetically, as if trying to keep up. It’s a rat race that doesn’t stop, and they don’t stop. They don’t seem easeful, or accepted and welcome as they are. It’s as if they have to constantly work at being something different.
To end the film, one of the men takes a camcorder and begins filming himself, but also his surrounding world – turning that expectant, critical gaze back on itself. Reversing the gaze in that way – looking critically at, and asking questions of, the things that constantly do those exact things to us – might just be how we winnow away its power.
I FALL, directed by Dan Thorbrun and with choreography from Fallen Angels Dance Theatre, is a bracing, emotionally intimate illustration of a journey through addiction into recovery. A man and woman dance outside. Just as with Suck it Up, their movement has a technical foundation – yet more than through a technique it feels like they’re moving as humans, with shaping and rhythm. A voiceover begins to tell a story of addiction: from the beginnings of self-medicating to the point when one is no longer in control.
“What I was really seeking was coziness, an embrace,” the woman says in voiceover, as she puts her arm in her partner’s sleeve. Poignantly, this moment seems to underscore what will really fill the emptiness. Later, indoors, music and movement crescendos in speed and intensity. They embody the lack of control that the voiceover describes: frenetic, continuous, and with a sense of something external keeping them moving when they might have wanted rest and stillness. Even so, dejected, their energy remains low and fully released.
Toward the end, now outdoors again, they move through something that feels like a climax: with simultaneous, non-unison movement and fresh partnering. Then, quiet permeates. On an outdoor athletic court, the man reflects on himself as a “young lad”. A boy stands over him – bridging time and opening questions of what could have been, what could be. “The will to survive is strong,” says the woman. She walks forward into an open road, back to the camera, expressing hope that she can “stay clean.”
She also notes that she just has to take it “one day at a time” – and I daresay that many viewers know the deep truth of that. The credits roll after this moment — an ending that brings a resonant feeling of continuity (she’ll keep stepping forward, because she has to) as well as a sense of her own agency. I could see some viewers calling the film overwrought or overly literal, but to me, it’s clear, honest and deeply meaningful. It doesn’t need to temper hard truths through abstraction.
I was waiting for the echo of a better day is an innovative, memorable illustration of movement, humanity, and nature interfacing. Jeremy Jacob directed the film while Pam Tanowitz contribruted choreography. It opens with a single dancer in a silky blue unitard, moving with just as much silkiness. Traversing and re-traversing defined movement pathways, Tanowitz’s movement vocabulary closely reflects the score’s textures and rhythms. Soon, the soloist dances overlooking a large, lush green field and sparkling lake – all bathed in a dusk light. This natural setting feels significant – and indeed it is, we come to see.
In a brighter midday light, she walks along a dirt road with a field on each side. Her movement feeling improvised, but also codified, she exudes absorbed exploration. The possibility she finds in what her body can do feels as wide and lush as the fields around her. To some viewers, this section might feel like it’s dragging – yet it feels meditative. Refreshingly, in this day and age, there is no sense of urgency or needing to accomplish: only to investigate and to be.
One by one, more dancers join her: some in her same blue, some in yellow. Even while the movement contains such angularity, clarity and precision, it still retains that sense of play and exploration. Nature, after all, is ordered chaos: irregular yet balanced. Indeed, it’s nourishing to see humans harmoniously interfacing with nature – even if the moving and being of those two entities are qualitatively different. Frames of trees and sky underscore what nature has to offer and what is at stake in its protection.
Other key relationships on exhibit are interpersonal (human-to-human). One section in particular speaks to social relations, with performers cooperatively making shapes and formations. A solo in the midst of those group sections underscores the place of the individual in those relations, and the dynamic tension between the individual and collective. The alternating between group and solo sections, as well as dusk settling in again toward the end (bringing us full circle from the beginning), also instills a cyclical feeling. Indeed, both humanity and nature run by cycles.
There’s not always harmony in those cycles; discordant tones rise in the score, and frames cross-fading from each other imbue greater tension and strife. As the credits roll, I reflect on the film’s title. The cycle of a day, of a season, of an interaction, of a life: their resonances “echo” into future repeats of the cycle, and we can only hope that those resonances are bright and peaceful. Whether or not, we can make new “better” echos amongst each other and in our surroundings. Short of all that intellectualizing, the film offers an aesthetic feast in which the senses can revel.
Either way, those are big ideas to be mined from a 20-minute film. The moving body coming together with purposeful concept, structure and design makes that possible – even if we experience those things through a screen. In fact, with certain works that can all happen specifically because we see them through a screen. Of course, we can’t know exactly where dance film will go from here. Yet, if the 51st Annual Dance on Camera Festival is any indication, it’ll be multifaceted, exciting and with a voice vital for the world to hear.
By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.