Creating a Lexicon for Screendance

by Anna Brady Nuse

(re)Action by Victoria Murphy

(re)Action by Victoria Murphy

At Victoria Murphy’s talk and screening at Kinetic Cinema last Wednesday, she proposed a set of terms and definitions for classifying and identifying different forms of dance on screen. Murphy’s lexicon had similarities and differences with other proposed frameworks for screendance that have been presented and discussed at various forums and conferences in recent years. There is no doubt that this kind of discussion and debate is extremely important for the development of the genre (or some would say art form), so I would like to point out some of the main theories that exist today, and discuss how they intersect and overlap.

Screendance, cinedance, videodance, dance film… Which term to use?

In most debates about dance on screen, the first question that pops up is what is this genre called? Many different terms are in use, and in some cases they point to different genres while others are a catchall word for all dance on screen.

I think one of the best explanations of the different terms in use is by Karen Pearlman of the Physical TV company in Australia. In her article, “A Dance of Definitions” published in RealTime Arts, an Australian-based art and media blog, Pearlman reported on the dialogue at the first Screendance Conference at the American Dance Festival in 2006 around a question she raised which was: “Is dance on screen a dance art, a cinema art or a visual art?” In her estimation many of the different terms used today describe specific mixtures of two or more of these art forms at play. For Pearlman, screendance is a catchall term which could include any combination of dance and movement with “film, video, new media, installation, and future media.” The other terms are more specific in their focus. Videodance “is based in the thinking of a video art maker, a performance art maker or a visual artist will have its effect through techniques, schools, theories and premises of those disciplines.” While dance for screen “prioritises dance as its central discipline [and] will foreground the composition and exhibition of the danced movement.”

Screendance Venn Diagram by Karen Pearlman

Screendance Venn Diagram by Karen Pearlman

For Murphy’s Kinetic Cinema program “Is it Live or Is it Cinedance?” she focused primarily on work that fits within the definition of “cinedance”. For Pearlman, cinedance and the term dancefilm are the same thing. Here is her definition for the term:

A dancefilm that is working in the overlapping areas of cinema and dance will prioritise the directorial vision and emphasise the collaborative coordination of all of the elements of cinematic production from script to mise-en-scéne to sound mix.

Murphy elaborated on this definition a bit more, and named three essential elements that must be present in a work for her to consider it a “cinedance.”

  1. It must be Art (as opposed to a film about art – a documentary, or a record of art – a recording of a performance.)
  2. It is Poetic (generally wordless and journey oriented, as opposed to narrative driven, spoken-word, and destination oriented which would be a prosaic film).
  3. It is centered around Movement or a moving body (this could include choreography that is made through editing).

Another defining characteristic of cinedance that many people consider  important, is that the work can only exist on screen, and is not replicable onstage or in a live performance setting.

Categorizing films

For her screening, Murphy presented a variety of films that ran the gamut of what what is often shown at dance film festivals. Some of these fit within her criteria of “cinedance” while others clearly did not, and still others could be considered close cousins.

Of the Heart

Of the Heart

The first film she showed was “Of the Heart” directed by Douglas Rosenberg and Allen Kaeja and performed by David Dorfman and Lisa Race. A short duet set in a cornfield, with simple choreography and camera movement, “Of the Heart” was definitely movement-based art (unable to be replicated live and not about another work of art), and poetic in nature. In this film, all the criteria for a cinedance were clearly present.

The second piece Murphy showed was an excerpt from “Latcho Drom,” a film about the Romany people and their culture that journeys across eight countries. Murphy contended that this film was not a cinedance because it was primarily a documentary about culture, and therefore should be considered a work of cultural anthropology. There are some blurry lines here though, because the film has no narration, and most of the dance scenes were staged specifically for the film. Perhaps the main purpose of making the film was cultural anthropology, but the end result is quite poetic, artistic and movement-driven. It is understandable why a curator for the Dance on Camera Festival this year included an excerpt from this film in his program. Not only does it educate us about a beautiful and rare culture, it also seems to stand as a piece of art in its own right.

Another genre that seems related to, but not exactly cinedance is the movie musical. Murphy showed two examples from this category: a dance number from the 2003 film “Chicago” and a song number from “Across the Universe” by Julie Taymor. In analyzing these films Murphy found them to be both music and movement-driven, which makes the cinedance distinction really exist in the eye of the beholder – dance film enthusiasts will see these numbers as dance-driven, while music-lovers will find them music-driven… Also, many musicals, including “Chicago” are narrative films with spoken language and a  prosaic structure. Murphy observed that the song and dance numbers in musicals are usually dream-like interludes that take place out of real time and space and have a poetic structure. For Murphy, movie musicals are hybrids, in that they are prosaic/narrative films with poetic interludes that could be considered cinedances.

Why bother?

If you are obsessed with dance film, as I am, you probably notice dance pop up all the time in mainstream media – in commercials, music videos, movie musicals, experimental films, and even in the middle of sitcoms. All of these are established genres in which dance has and continue to thrives in today, so why bother establishing a separate category for dance film that no one knows about?

This is a debate that many dance artists and film-makers are engaged in, and it often comes back to one’s personal self-identification as an artist. Some makers come from visual arts backgrounds and have been drawn to dance and working with dancers, but they do not consider their work to be different from video art or experimental films. Some makers come from film backgrounds, and happen to specialize in making films with a lot of dance and choreography in them, but they call their work music videos, commercials, or musicals.

What has been emerging more recently is a strong contingent of makers from dance backgrounds as choreographers and performers turned film-makers and videographers. It is this this group of people that are very invested in claiming a genre of their own in which dance and movement is of primary importance. The trade off for this unwillingness to conform to already existing genres is that makers contend with a lack of recognition in the market and among audience members and funders. I believe that it is just a matter of time and persistence until the perfect conditions for a tipping point are in place, and screendance will break through into the common lexicon.

If we look at current trends in the cultural landscape, we can see that we are now living in a video age. All of the major art forms are being subsumed by this dominant medium of our time. Art museums must devote more and more space to video art, music videos are consumed more than the songs they are promoting, and dancers are starting to create work for video in conjunction with their performance work, or in some cases instead of. Video is an essential component of any marketing strategy today. To reach and sustain audiences, dance companies must make videos. Out of these practical reasons, dancers are also finding new artistic possibilities in the medium, and exploring all that a camera and editing has to offer.

We are still at the dawn of screendance. While it may seem like an obscure genre today, the ranks of artists working in the form are growing, and with them will come wider audiences and recognition. The names and terminology for the form will likely change, and the distinctions will become more clear, but what is certain is that this is a separate category of it’s own. Someday it will have its own body of theoretical knowledge, complete with its own Hitchcocks, Brandos and Lucas’s. Things are muddy now, but out of this apparent chaos will come form and shape, a process that Murphy, Pearlman and others are working hard to bring about.

About annabradynuse

I am the Director of Movement Media at Pentacle. I publish Move the Frame, a blog about all things dance and film related. I am a dance film-maker, choreographer, and renaissance woman!
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8 Responses to Creating a Lexicon for Screendance

  1. Simon says:

    Hi Anna

    You might be interested (if you aren’t already!) in Claudia Kappenberg’s blog:

    Her recent posts have been sharing her work relating to the ‘choreographic’ as a means of understanding screendance.



  2. Jeff says:

    …And don’t forget ‘Dance for Camera’ or ‘Dance for the Camera’ which I’ve heard used quite a bit.

    • pentacleblog says:

      Yes, ‘Dance for Camera’ is a popular term. Some argue that it is limiting, because in some work, like animation and gaming for instance a camera was never involved…

  3. Thanks for this post, Anna, great to see these ideas still in circulation, and especially to see them developed and commented on!

  4. Rebecca says:

    My suggestion would be to put “screendance” in Wikipedia as soon as possible!

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