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The attractions of ReelDance

Karen Pearlman

Karen Pearlman’s most recent dance films are Rubberman Accepts the Nobel Prize and A Dancer Drops Out of The Sky. She is co-director, with Richard James Allen, of The Physical TV Company.

Abracadabra opens Reel Dance and, as with any good password to any good world of wonders, transportation begins immediately. Phillippe Decouflé’s 1998 dance film (France) is an excellent password for this particular dance film festival, which goes right past mundane questions of ‘is it really dance?’ to the much more intriguing questions of how physical languages and cinematic languages might intersect. Abracadabra begins at the beginning of this question by linking dance to early cinema. A series of what film theorist Tom Gunning calls “attractions” are displayed. The word attraction partly refers to attraction as in circus act or novelty. Decouflé revels in this meaning, presenting danced oddities and bizarre displays with great glee. Then there is the attraction people have to the trompe d’oeil or cinematic trick of the eye. The viewer’s eyes are tricked overtly and inventively through various devices in Abracadabra, such as the use of deep focus creating illusions of outlandish differences of scale between foreground and background objects and actions. The final vignette is an acrobatic display in which the dancers do incredible things which, with enough skill, could really happen in the real world. These displays then evolve into the hilariously impossible and the audience realises a cinematic trick is being played on them. Both senses of the word attraction apply here—the acrobatics are an attraction or an act, and the moving image is itself a trick of the eye that attracts our attention.

This combination of attractions is one of the things that Reel Dance seems to propose defines dance on screen: physicality far enough outside of the norm to present itself as an attraction, combined with the many cinematic conventions that have evolved through and since early cinematic tricks of the eye. It’s not exactly a new form, but it’s an intriguing combination—making use of the conventions of cinema with dancing rather than acting as a vehicle for conveying content.

This combination was explored throughout the weekend, with many of the films drawing on particular film genres and infiltrating them with particular forms of dance. Dancers from the Frankfurt Ballet were involved in an overlong but intriguing dance in the genre of science fiction called The Way of the Weed (Belgium). Wim Vandekeybus contributed The Last Words, a magic realist fantasy film driven by physicality rather than being about it. Nussin (Netherlands), brilliantly directed by Clara van Gool, referenced gritty, naturalist filmmaking, set in a run down housing development in the middle of an icy winter. Combining this cinematic style with the tango, a most elegant, precise and aristocratic dance, created a feverish heat and chilling beauty.

Not all films were equally successful in their intersection of the capacities of cinema with physicality although the 2 films that appealed the least shared the prize for Best Screen Choreography at IMZ dance screen 99. Margaret Williams’ Dust (UK) felt like it drew mainly on the cinematic conventions of advertising with its beautiful but meaningless shots, textures, angles, cutting and sound. Her film Men irritated with its cute humanism, exploiting men over 70 and beautiful landscapes—just like a National Geographic documentary making the extremes of nature into comfortable TV.

On the other hand, La Tristeza Complice (Belgium), a film which exploited the cinematic tradition of verité documentary most subtly and poetically, was not an audience favourite. Perhaps people were irritated by the grainy degraded quality of the image and the odd marks and scratches which flashed by on the screen. However, these could be viewed as cinematic expressions of the subject matter, the elevation of the everyday, degraded and scratchy as it may be, to the status of image, and the manipulation of the dynamics of those moving images into an aria of the ordinary. Verité documentary often has odd flashes of beauty caught more by perseverance than by plan, and this film seemed to make a choreography of these images of dancers laughing, eating, smoking, arguing and passing the languages of their bodies and lives to each other. The film was itself a dance, made in the editing suite, and, since it is documenting a rehearsal, the editor’s marks—the chinagraph pencil marks for dissolves and cuts—were left on the image as clues to the working process of making this film dance.

The selections representing Australian work in Dance on Screen, as finalists for the Reel Dance Awards, were surprising and intriguing, the films presented in the historical retrospective session a bit less so. It is certainly tricky to present a whole country’s output (since the beginning of its engagement with the form) in one session, which perhaps explains why, in a festival that had a very strong curatorial vision throughout, the retrospective session seemed to lack focus and momentum.

However, in the Dance Awards screening, a much stronger through line appeared. There were very few well-known dancers or dance companies—almost none of the usual suspects. Instead, maverick filmmakers experimenting with the moving image through the device of moving bodies prevailed. There was a strong emphasis on the choreography which takes place in post production—after the dance has been danced and the film has been shot—through editing and digital effects. The tricks of the eye become trickier, more apparent, less illusory precisely because they couldn’t possibly happen in ‘real life.’ But as manipulations of the moving body they are the definition of choreography. They are the manipulation of the dynamics, rhythms, shapes and causes of movement, even though a real body could never do these ‘post produced’ moves. They are dance attractions engaging with the new form of cinematic attractions—the digitally generated tricks of the eye.

Finally, there were even magic words uttered at the closing ceremony of Reel Dance. Annette Shun Wah, chair of One Extra, expressed the hope that Reel Dance (a One Extra event) would “inspire”, and sent the spectators forth from this world of wonders, saturated with the potency of its images and ideas, to create next year’s attractions.

One Extra Dance Company, Reel Dance, curated by Erin Brannigan, Reading Cinema, Sydney, May 19-21

Karen Pearlman’s most recent dance films are Rubberman Accepts the Nobel Prize and A Dancer Drops Out of The Sky. She is co-director, with Richard James Allen, of The Physical TV Company.

RealTime issue #38 Aug-Sept 2000 pg. 15

© Karen Pearlman; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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