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the challenge: teaching dance screen

erin brannigan: take 7 dance dvd


 Liz Aggiss, Motion Control Liz Aggiss, Motion Control
photo H. Murray
THE UK TAKES DANCE SCREEN VERY SERIOUSLY. SUPPORT FOR DEVELOPMENT, PRODUCTION AND PRESENTATION HAS BEEN STRONG OVER THE PAST 30 YEARS THROUGH PROGRESSIVE PROGRAMMING AT CHANNEL 4 IN THE 80s, LONG-TERM COMMITMENTS TO COMMISSIONING LOCAL WORK AT BBC TV, AND A RESPONSIVENESS TO CHANGES IN THE FIELD WITH THE ARTS COUNCIL OF ENGLAND’S CAPTURE INITIATIVE WHICH OPENED UP FUNDS TO ARTISTS WORKING IN SCREEN CONTEXTS BEYOND THE SHORT FILM FORMAT. TAKE 7, A DVD AND STUDY PACK ON MAKING DANCE SCREEN FOR STUDENTS AND TEACHERS, IS ANOTHER GREAT IDEA AND INNOVATION THAT IS, UNFORTUNATELY FOR OTHER POTENTIAL MARKETS, UK SPECIFIC IN ITS TERMS OF REFERENCE AND SLIGHTLY AWKWARD IN ITS METHODS.

The DVD is a collection of “seven pioneering British dance films” that can operate as a discrete teaching tool. It includes classics such as Boy (directors Rosemary Lee, Peter Anderson, 1995), Birds (David Hinton, 2001) and Dust (Antony Atanasio, 1998). These fine examples will yield much in a pedagogic context. It is excellent that the films are being made widely available, although the image quality is surprisingly poor. The scarcity of dance screen resources is largely responsible for the lumbering pace of critical discourse surrounding the field, something RealTime has tried to correct and this is acknowledged in the resource list accompanying the Study Pack. The DVD offers a few comments from the filmmakers that range from the specific to the general and there’s an easily navigable chapter interface.

Naturally enough, in the booklet there is little reference to the important work done in the US and France in the field prior to the boom in the UK, with the historical background jumping from early cinema to musicals to the UK in the 70s with a nod to Maya Deren and Merce Cunningham. Minimising the close association of dance film with the cinematic avant-garde across the 20th century means that contemporary work is attributed with inventing much more than it actually has. The dissociation of dance screen from cinema theory and culture in general has lead to a lot of reinventions of the wheel. But Take 7 is clearly aimed at UK dance students being introduced to the field and practice of dance screen and in servicing this market, there is an emphasis on dance per se and on recent UK product.

The Study Pack covers the seven films by concentrating on specific aspects of filmmaking eg location, treatments, score/sound. The focus is on the practicalities of filmmaking and always in reference to live dance performance and spectatorship; how and why the processes differ in relation to screen choreography. This enables a fairly comprehensive ‘how-to’ guide much in the tradition of Katrina McPherson’s Making Video Dance (Routledge, London, 2006). The Study Pack is made up primarily of questions—one set written by Liz Aggiss, a dance filmmaker and lecturer, and another set by a dance education expert, Justine Reeves. These appear to be addressing two different readerships, one being A-Level dance students, but the questions repeat, overlap, and cross-reference. Reeves’ ‘tasks’ also refer to other UK dance work which would be unavailable to students outside the UK.

It ultimately seems a shame that there is so little engagement with the ‘ideas’ presented in the films that form the basis of this resource. The large majority of the tasks focus on the ‘how’ with little encouragement to connect this with the ‘why’, and this in itself indicates the problems surrounding the kind of ‘crash courses’ in filmmaking that are required. In dealing with the basic technical requirements, the bigger picture is neglected. I have to admit to being slightly baffled by A-Level and, in Australia, HSC studies in dance screen. The choreographic approach to filmmaking is such a complex field and so aesthetically specific—and it is not as if there is a HSC filmmaking syllabus. That students have to understand and apply choreographic compositional processes not only to dance but also film/video seems an enormous ask. It is worth noting that many of the films included in the UK collection are directed by successful fimmakers who engage with dance screen amongst other genres (David Hinton, Antony Atanasio, Peter Anderson). But it is also worth highlighting David Hinton’s comments that the art form has not yet become too prescribed so that there is still the opportunity for newcomers to jump in the deep end a la the Sex Pistols, armed with their three chords.

It is of course important that students in the performing arts engage with interdisciplinarity and the attraction of the moving image for dancers and choreographers is undeniable. That they can bring something special to filmmaking is certain and is exemplified in the work of choreographer/director Miranda Pennell who is represented in the DVD, and whose Australian peers include award-winning artists such as Sue Healey and Tracie Mitchell.


Take 7 DVD and Study Guide, available through www.southeastdance.org.uk

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg.

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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