“PRIME MOVER” Screening Raises Questions of Merit & Worth of Dance Films

On Monday night, Kinetic Cinema kicked off it’s fall season with a program of films at Chez Bushwick called “Prime Mover: Dance on Camera From Chez Bushwick.” The program was originally curated for the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow last May, and was shown in a slightly shortened form for us here. The selections were incredibly varied, from 3-D animation studies to installation art to dance for the camera to performance documentation, and the overarching premise was that it was all movement-based media created by artists associated with Chez Bushwick.

After the screening, a lively discussion ensued among the audience about what we had just seen. Because the program was so varied in its scope and content, the discussion immediately headed into, what is dance film, and can all of these works fit under this one heading? It’s a discussion that comes up at every screendance/dance film event I go to, and like all the others, this one also headed into the dangerous area of what is “good” and “bad” dance film. Rather than slipping down this slope, I hoped to lead the debate more into the direction of “mapping” the genre, as Claudia Kappenberg describes in her paper Does Screendance Need to Look Like Dance?  presented at Screendance:State of the Art2 at the American Dance Festival last July. In this way we could get a sense of where individual works are located in the intersection of media arts and dance, rather than make subjective value statements.

snowwhite-annlivyoung-sm.JPGThe work that spurred the most controversy was a video of a performance by choreographer Ann Liv Young called “Snow White Paris.” The video was basically a straight ahead documentation of the live performance, with one camera set up at the back of the theater in a fixed wide shot the entire time. The curator for CCA-Glasgow made edits and pulled out 10 minutes of excerpts from the full performance. The reason why the work was chosen for this program was that Ms. Young – who rejects the title of video artist for herself – makes DVDs of almost every performance she does and sells them at the hefty price tag of $55 a pop. In this sense she seems to have adopted an art world business model in which she documents her performance art and then uses the documentation to create value and revenue for the work. Still, despite this unique relationship Ms. Young has to media, many of the audience members at the screening objected to the inclusion of “Snow White Paris” in this program. To some, it had no value because it said nothing about the cinematic potential of dance on camera, and one audience member felt like performance videos sully the reputation of screendance and turn people off to the genre.

In Kappenberg’s paper she proposes a map for screendance based on the Laban Effort Graphic that distinguishes between works that are oriented towards the visual arts and those that are oriented towards cinema. While it seems like a small thing, this distinction has surprisingly important ramifications on audience members’ expectations when watching screendance. The audience on Monday was primarily made up of dancers and dance filmmakers whose expectations were to see works that displayed cinematic values, ie. a distinct camera viewpoint, a narrative arc, and sophisticated editing. If “Snow White Paris” or some of the installation-based videos had been shown in an art museum as they were in Glasgow, the audience response would have been very different. In the visual arts a work’s value tends to be based on overall visual composition, documentation (of time-based works) without camera manipulation, and an open point-of-view that leaves more space for the viewer to make decisions and create their own interpretations of the work.

If anything, Monday’s screening emphasized for me the importance of curators to help audiences understand where the screendance works they are showing are located on the greater map. Context is everything. We have to assume that audiences will come with expectations and pre-conceived notions about what they will see. It is the curator’s job to make sure that their own expectations are made extremely clear, otherwise audiences will not know how to interpret the material presented, and subjective value judgments will continue to fly. I don’t believe performance videos like Ann Liv Young’s should be excluded from screendance programming, but I do believe that they need to be shown in the right setting and with the right contextual information surrounding them. I’m glad this piece was included in the Chez Bushwick program, and for the discussion and illumination it provided us. Many thanks to the great audience members on Monday, and to Jonah Bokaer, founding director of Chez Bushwick, for bringing us such a provocative and stimulating program!

Let me know what you think! Have you been frustrated by works you’ve seen at dance film screenings and festivals? Would your feelings about these works have been different in a different setting, ie a gallery or art museum, or installation? 

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5 Responses to “PRIME MOVER” Screening Raises Questions of Merit & Worth of Dance Films

  1. Tony says:

    Hi Anna
    Great meeting you monday. I found it funny when those audience members were upset by the inclusion of Ann Liv Young’s submission. How transgressive! I am sure Ann would be upset to know her work was deemed unkosher.

  2. Doug Fox says:

    Hi Anna,

    Which 3D animated dance videos were shown?

  3. Anna Brady Nuse says:

    Jonah showed an excerpt of his “underscore”, an animation that is part of a live performance work. The 3-D figure performs movement that looks impossible for a real human to do, and then Jonah performs it live, replicating the moving image almost exactly.

  4. ann liv young says:

    hi there. i am just writing to say that jonah showed THE WRONG version of Snow White paris. there is a version with a camera man on stage. that was the version that was suppose to be shown. i made that very clear to him.


  5. Anna Brady Nuse says:

    Dear Ann Liv,
    Oh no, I’m so sorry we saw the wrong version of your work! Many apologies for the mix up. The good thing was that the work we saw spurred a great conversation. I hope to see the other version some day.


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