Thoughts on Curating – How to Bring About a Shift in Perception

This summer the American Dance Festival (ADF) will be hosting the second Screendance – State of the Art  conference. Once again dance filmmakers, curators, educators, and critics will come together on the Duke University campus to discuss the art form and exchange ideas. This year’s topic is curating and its relationship to screendance. I’m quite passionate about this topic, so I can’t resist taking a stab at  a paper proposal to submit to the conference. The deadline for paper proposals is April 11, 2008. For more info, click here.

I credit almost all of my understanding of what screendance is, to watching curated programs at various dance film festivals. The genre is very hard to describe, because dance for the camera could mean anything really. The very definition of film and video is moving pictures, and dancing is only a slightly more specific word for moving. Creating special programs of films that are organized around a specific idea helps to provide a lens for viewing work in a different way. By grouping films under a new name, you can embue them with meanings they didn’t necessary have before. For instance if I put clips of Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates, and Maya Deren’s Ritual In Transfigured Time all together in a program entitled “Films as Visual Poetry, Great Symbolist Poets of the Silver Screen,” what happens to the way you look at these films?

Films as Visual Poetry: Great Symbolist Poets of the Silver Screen

clip from “Mystery Train” by Jim Jarmusch

clip from “The Color of Pomegranates” by Sergei Parajanov

“Ritual in Transfigured Time” by Maya Deren

Perhaps you have seen all of these films before in different contexts, but now you are seeing many similarities and connections between them you have never thought of before. The through-line of a poetic approach to film making becomes very obvious, and yet, you may not have thought about this connection if you hadn’t read the program’s title.

This ability to create new meanings and connections between things is especially important for promoting a relatively obscure genre like screendance. In order to educate viewers and attract new audiences we need to give them a window for entry and help them connect with the form. We are a media savvy culture, in which the average viewer can identify the genre and conventional structures of any given media clip in a matter of seconds. Screendance is just different enough to feel strange and foreign to the typical viewer, but only a slight shift of perception is necessary to make it seem familiar and identifiable.

Bringing about this slight shift of perception should be the goal of all curated programs. For my monthly Kinetic Cinema series, the goal is to help make dancers and members of the New York dance community aware of the role media plays in their artistic work. We are all bombarded with media images and messages everyday. This constant deluge of information has to filter down into the work of dancers and choreographers too. I wondered why the dance community in New York seems to be lagging behind our European contemporaries in embracing media with dance, and I realized it may be because dancers here just haven’t thought about it consciously. With Kinetic Cinema I invite different members of the dance community to curate programs and draw upon their own media interests and influences. In this way the curators discover the knowledge they already have about media and dance, and can present their ideas in a way that other dancers can relate to.

By these standards, Kinetic Cinema has already been successful. Many of the curators I’ve invited have never curated a screening before, and yet their programs have blown me away. February’s curator, Brian McCormick, displayed a knowledge of video art and new media platforms like Second Life that far surpasses my own. This month, Malinda Allen presented one of the most entertaining and inspiring programs of dance films and videos I’ve ever seen, and she has never seen the work of Maya Deren before (a filmmaker widely regarded as the mother of modern dance film). Each of these artists presented programs that gave me and all the members of the audience new perspectives on dance and media we had never had before. Bringing about new perspectives and thought connections makes a seed bed for creativity. I believe that these programs will inspire more dancers to make work for the camera, and the artistry and sophistication of their work will be higher, because they are connecting consciously to their own knowledge about media and how it works.

A guest curator series is just one way to bring about a shift in perspective for a particular audience. I’d love to hear of other examples. Please share your ideas and experiences here, and help us brainstorm more ways to bring screendance to the fore of the media landscape!

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