Last month at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Filmmaker Mitchell Rose curated an evening of dance film shorts entitled Dance@30FPS. Audiences were treated to an eclectic collection of eight films, representing a diverse range of approaches to the genre. Two films stood out for taking on nearly opposite approaches to dancing for the camera.
Belgian director Sam Asaert’s Ballet Spiral starts with the still image of a ballerina in the wings of a theater tying the ribbons of her point shoe. The camera begins to move backward and reveals the whole company—frozen in time, caught in various states of action. One wipes the sweat off her forehead, another dodges the floating drops of water thrown from a water bottle. A man and woman in full classical ballet costume are caught practicing a lift while the ballerina next to them is in the middle of a tendu.
The camera moves forward through the wings and onto the stage, where two dancers are suspended in mid air, their legs split 180 degrees in a jete leap. The corps dancers are similarly frozen in a unison step, and a couple is hovering at the pinnacle of a lift. The camera circles the moment and we see these moves, stopped in time, from all angles. The camera then returns to the wings and continues to explore the life of the dancers off stage.
What’s technically impressive about this film is that the only motion is the movement of the camera, yet the action of the characters is nonetheless palpable. How, one asks, did the director achieve such sustained shots, from so many angles? And yet, the director has more to say about the ballet than just how beautiful some of the leaps and lifts and turns can look in stillness. The film traces a duality of the presentational ideal that is happening onstage, and the gritty reality of these people’s humanity behind the scenes.
While some dancers are about to go on and dutifully preparing for their entrances, others are lying on the floor stretching, or resting. Some of the men have not completely dressed in their costumes, their bare chests only interrupted by the suspenders that hold up their white tights. In a corner, a man and a woman are kissing passionately—an off-stage romance. In the corner, a man is sneaking a drink from a flask, and another is slouched on a stool, in a posture so relaxed, it looks nothing like ballet.
Ultimately, Ballet Spiral takes on artifice as its theme. On one level, it seeks to reveal the artifice of the idealized beauty of the presentational ballet world, which is so clearly in contrast to the backstage shenanigans of its participants. At the same time, the very technique of the photography is born out of artifice. There is no way a single camera could catch such sustained, frozen moments of action while moving around to catch it from so many angles. This effect goes beyond slow motion—to the point of calling attention to itself as highly stylized and artificially composed. In fact, one is left to wonder whether this film is even a “dance film” per se, or perhaps just a film with dancers as one of its subjects.
If Ballet Spiral suggests that there might be such a spectrum of dance film on one side and films that happen to have dancing on another, then Amy Dowling and Austin Forbord’s Well Contested Sites would stand in sharp contrast to Asaert’s work. Sites is a meditation on incarceration, filmed entirely on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay Area. The film captures a glimpse of a life behind bars while its characters perform ritualistic dances in the various cells, hospital rooms, and common spaces of the famous prison. Dowling uses dance to illuminate the desperation and isolation of incarceration, and Forbord’s film footage exquisitely captures these fragmented scenes in tight spaces, looking through bars and tiny windows. The film, like many contemporary concert dances, brings the viewer into a state of consciousness, and we then take our own ride.
Other notable films in the program included Karel van Laere’s Slow, where a man is dragged through the city of Taiwan by a winch; Sonata by Nadia Micault used exciting animation techniques to capture the dancing body. Me – Story of a Performance by Jopsu Ramu of Finland, with its fantastic production values and exquisite costuming, deservingly won the audience award that night.