An interview with Ellen Bromberg on this month’s 8th International Dance for the Camera Festival at the University of Utah.
Videodance is sometimes greater, sometimes lesser, but always different from the sum of its parts.
—Richard Lorber (1977)
When Ellen Bromberg, a professor of modern dance at the University of Utah (U of U), started the International Dance for the Camera Festival in 1999, it was the first festival in the genre outside of New York. This is the biennial festival’s eighth year. It includes public screenings, a cash-prize student competition (judging is already in progress) and hands-on workshops taught by Katrina McPherson, a Scottish filmmaker who literally wrote the book on dance for the camera. McPherson’s Making Video Dance: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Dance for the Screen is a practical how-to manual packed with useful advice on how to start with a creative idea and end up with a dance film.
“This is her first American residency so this is a big deal,” says Bromberg, anticipating McPherson’s visit. “She’s a leading dance filmmaker internationally. The films will focus on McPherson’s work, and she will be there to discuss her works.” Bromberg first met McPherson at another dance film festival. “We selected her film for a first prize, and that’s how I met her,” Bromberg says. “It was a very formal event. Lots of people in suits and here comes Katrina in red tennis shoes looking like a dancer. It was so fantastic to see her because she’s the real deal, a young person making art.”
A lot has changed in the world of video since 1999. Nowadays, people look at dance on computers all the time, but YouTube didn’t start up until 2005. Last fall, the U of U launched a new Screendance Certificate for graduate students interested in (as the website puts it), “exploring the relationship between the moving body and the moving frame.” Bromberg has written a history describing the baby-steps of the program: “In 1998, I was invited to the University of Utah as a visiting artist for one semester a year to teach a course in media for dance. When I arrived, I found two VHS cameras and an analog editing system. There were 14 graduate students in the class. Only two of them had email accounts, few had ever picked up a camera and most were plagued by incredible technology anxiety.”
Dance for the camera (a.k.a. screendance or videodance) is not as simple as just aiming a camera at someone dancing. Although recording a dance performance is a useful way to document a work (especially since there is no really good way to write down a dance to remember it later), the result is often an aesthetic disappointment. The trick, McPherson advises, is to invent a new language specifically for the screen. She writes, “What we are creating is not a dance, nor is it a video of a dance, or even for that matter, simply a video. Our ambition must be to find and communicate ideas that can only be expressed through this art form that combines the media of dance and video, using a style and syntax that is unique to video dance.”
In McPherson’s view, the camera becomes a performer and collaborator, and also a potential source of magic. She writes, “Filming dance usually involves many people, too little (or no) money, difficult environments and tight schedules. Added to this, you are also hoping that magic will happen, for the sole purpose of the shoot is to create the images and performance that will make your video dance unique”.
The physical act of shooting and editing can lead to an “aha!” moment when the chemistry between the two art forms gels. McPherson writes, “I relish the moment of sitting down in front of the edit system, just me and the editor, ready to start shaping a new video dance. After the very public and heavily populated pre-production and filming, this feels like a much more intimate and directly creative part of the process”.
Bromberg says that the workshops are likely to include a range from rank beginners to experienced filmmakers. “Very often the dancers are really excited because it gives them different ways of seeing. It becomes an interesting transformation in how they see what they do. Worlds start opening up for students so there is great potential in it.”
I mention to Bromberg that at past Dance for the Camera festivals I have seen some amazing films with images I can’t get out of my head. She agrees wholeheartedly, saying, “There are good and bad dance films but when things work, when you find the work that really goes to a different level, it has an image resonance that stays with you.”
Amy Brunvand is a librarian at the University of Utah and a dance enthusiast.