When the Dance on Camera Festival (DCF) beckons with its annual call for submissions, there’s generally a current of excitement that ripples through the dance-film community. There’s the allure of New York of course, but having your film screen at the festival’s home base at Lincoln Center is not only noteworthy but a thrill. This year’s forty-first anniversary edition, produced by the Dance Films Association, boasted an international array of short films, archival pieces, documentaries, a retrospective of Shirley Clarke’s pioneering work, two programs of short films billed as “installations” (more on that later), as well as artists’ talks and other related exhibitions.
The festival’s administrative team is a new one – Christy Park, the DFA Executive Director, Liz Wolff, the DFA Festival Co-Curator, alongside longtime Film Society at Lincoln Center Festival Co-Curator Joanna Ney – so perhaps it’s too soon to gauge the direction they’re setting for the event, both for its own American dance filmmaker constituency, but also for participants from abroad. A festival should be a golden opportunity to see lots of material and get a better sense of the state of the art, mingle with colleagues and meet presenters in the field. At this edition, which ran from February 1st-4th, it appeared there was little attempt to highlight foreign filmmakers or bring participants together in meaningful dialogue. An exception was a brief meet-and-greet that was quickly eclipsed by a screening and a book signing at other venues. No programmers from international dance-film events were present at festival events. Nor were the press in evidence. Perhaps the most egregious oversight was not providing all filmmakers with nametags – only one tag was given per film. Most events were sold out, which was good for the festival, but because most filmmakers didn’t have a festival pass many didn’t see the films of their colleagues.
Canadians were nonetheless well represented on screen. Gabrielle Lamb’s En Avant, Jacob Niedzwiecki’s Who By Fire, Thibault Duverneix and Victor Quijada’s Gravity of Center, Duncan McDowall’s Painted, and the short film Marlene Millar and I co-directed and produced, Dafeena, were featured in short film programs or screenings before features or documentaries. Our homegrown films stood shoulder to shoulder with offerings from the UK, France, Mexico, Russia, Japan, Spain, Australia, Italy, Sweden, Germany, Israel and the USA. A couple of highlights that I managed to see included the documentary Lads Go Dancing, a Swiss production by filmmaker Steve Walker about the Bern Ballet collaboration with rock band Kummerbuben, and the beautifully shot Menuett, by Finnish filmmaker Jukka Rajala-Granstubb.
The Shirley Clarke schedule of films – including Donna Cameron’s 1990 documentary portrait, Shirley Clarke: In Our Time, as well as Clarke’s own Dance in the Sun (1953), adapted from choreography by Daniel Nagrin, In Paris Parks (1954), Bullfight (1955), and number of her other short 16-mm films – was significant. During Clarke’s lifetime (she died in 1997) her films and career rarely got the attention they deserved. The DCF retrospective coincided with the HD release of Cameron’s documentary as part of a tribute to Clarke’s life and work. Clarke began her artistic career as a dancer, training with the matriarchs of modern dance, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Hanya Holm. She turned to cinema and become a leading member of the independent filmmaking community in New York, co-founding the cinema-verité collective Film-Makers’ Cooperative alongside Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker. Friends and collaborators included John Cassavetes, Agnes Varda and Maya Deren. Her faux documentary The Connections, about a group of heroin junkies, won the International Critics Prize at Cannes in 1966. The film ran afoul of the censors, due to its charged language. Her documentary Portrait of Jason (1967), about gay hustler and aspiring nightclub entertainer Jason Holliday, remains one of the most respected LGBT films. She was one of the few women working in the field at that time and was not always taken seriously, feeling the sting of discrimination throughout her career. Even receiving an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel (1963) couldn’t enhance her clout in the film industry. In fact, she found it difficult to get financing for her films and was increasingly marginalized. Although she influenced many filmmakers, there has never been a significant re-release of her films.
Not surprisingly DCF heavily supports and promotes American-made films, and as such provided a window into the financing for dance films stateside, which is limited at best. Many of the films credit university departments for their funding, while others seemed to be self-financed as no sources of funding whatsoever appeared in the credits. The Canadian ones were tagged with nods to either BravoFACT (clearly the last round of dance films to get funded by the foundation) and/or the Canada Council for the Arts, as well as other sources, and that alone speaks to a commitment to support this important and essential art form in our country.
I sensed that quite a number of the films screened were DIY projects, which is not necessarily a bad thing; however production values were wildly divergent and unjustified length was a serious issue – many pieces just went on and on with no sense of montage. Directors of photography were largely absent from many of the American offerings, which leads me to question what perspective these dance filmmakers are espousing: does capturing dance eclipse film language, so that even the basics of medium shots and close-ups aren’t explored? Too many of the films on view had no sound design or live sound recording, just a wallpaper music overlay, which makes me wonder if filmmakers are losing a grasp of these skills. Are we riding a wave of copycat production wherein bad practices are repeated? Or is it simply a case of people having easy access to a camera?
Where is the power of camera movement and cutting rhythm? Creating dance film should be a collaboration between choreographer and filmmaker. Matthew Diamond’s 1999 Oscar-nominated documentary Dancemaker was screened again at this year’s festival. It’s important to remember what he once said about the making of dance films: “Shooting dance is not so much hard as it is insanely delicate. Wrong angle, wrong shot, wrong edit and the whole thing falls apart.”
At the DCF “installation” stream of programming, I was expecting/hoping for an interactive gallery experience. But at the lovely 25CPW Gallery Space on Central Park West, the festival chose a bare white wall on which to project two clusters of films, never even turning off the gallery’s glaring lights. The festival program indicated that these films “inherit an experimental traditional whose origins can be found in European avant-garde movements of the twenties. Some are themselves experimental in nature, some are not; but they are challenging, meditative, and brave.” I’m not going to throw about criticisms of this or that film, but the vast majority of what was shown didn’t meet the context for the series. Sitting on the concrete floor for ninety minutes each time didn’t add to the experience.
Critic and writer Deborah Jowitt once wisely said something to the effect that bad dance is bad dance, no matter how imaginatively it’s filmed, and wondrous dance can still survive even the worst of renderings. That may be true, but with so much expertise at our disposal, it’s imperative that the goal of filmmakers be more than just achieving the marriage of two art forms.