The much-derided American film Center Stage (2000), about a group of hot-blooded teenagers undergoing the rigours of ballet training, contains one of my favourite moments of dance in cinema.
A student who chafes at the school’s humourless regimen of discipline and repetition is expelled from class. Outdoors, she expresses her anger by smoking furiously. Then she throws down her cigarette and casually extinguishes it with a perfectly balletic movement of her arched foot with tipped toe.
Dance and cinema have always been very close – and I don’t mean only in the glorious genre of the musical. Today, there has been a counter-reaction in the polar opposite direction by dance aficionados: away from mainstream popular forms and into the often unjustly obscured byways of dance documentation and/or experiment.
But now, at a time at the dawn of the 21st century when we are seeing a veritable explosion in “reel dance” or “screendance” festivals, screenings, events and writings (see, for example, The International Journal of Screendance), it’s important to keep all lines in this trans-cultural network alive and communicating.
From its inception, cinema has tended to approach dance in two fairly distinct ways. On the one hand, ordinary gestures, such as walking or working, are stylised into dance – think of Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), for instance, where even the ugly sounds and motions of industrial machinery can magically give rise to the rhythm of song and the transport of dance.
On the other hand, films discover dance in aspects of everyday, social life that are already highly ritualised and disciplined. This is why sports movies and war films, with their spectacle of choreographed movement, are often so similar to musicals: preparing for the big game, toning up for battle and putting on a show are all trials of physical training and eventual public performance.
Dance truly crosses the high and low culture of movies. From a pop success like Saturday Night Fever (1977) to an esteemed art movie like Beau travail (1999), we see the same dramas played out in relation to dancing bodies. The moment of dance offers grace and liberation in an otherwise grey, intolerable world. And that liberation has the power to spill over into everyday life, energising John Travolta as he struts to an imaginary rhythm down the street.
But, by the same token, dancing can also be a rather sad reminder of the monotony and restrictiveness of social routines. Hence all those films that show the joylessness of formation marching or military exercises, as in Leni Riefenstahl’s epic documentaries of Nazi events.
Short, experimental dance films and videos have long sought to escape the confines of a proscenium arch and to unfold amid the open spaces of landscape and architecture. This much was evident from some of the most striking inclusions in Australia’s ReelDance event of 2002 – organised by Erin Brannigan, a major figure in the burgeoning screen-dance field internationally.
In Annick Vroom’s short film R.I.P. (2000), the experimental impulse moves indoors, to domestic space. It wittily depicts people’s starkly different modes of grieving (careful reverence, catatonic withdrawal, wild abandon) within a drama of home and family.
The social rituals of bodily movement come up for loving exaggeration and sharp parody in Miranda Pennell’s Tattoo (2001), which choreographs a military drill, and Brett Turnbull’s The Linesman (2000), a Jacques Tati-like portrait of a soccer player. Key music videos that work this area include Christopher Walken’s immortal dance turn in Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice”, directed by Spike Jonze.
One can also embrace a purely abstract notion of dance, where the play of movement belongs no longer to bodies but to the very elements of cinema itself, such as camera movement, colour and grain. Those familiar with the magnificent, multi-media work of New Zealand-born artist Len Lye are unlikely to forget the rhythmic and plastic vibrancy of his avant-garde animations.
At the absolute limit of any definition of dance-film, we find the remarkable and entrancing Birds (2000) by David Hinton. What begins as a cute, observational documentary in the National Geographic mode quickly evolves into a dizzying montage of birds in flight. Is this natural choreography, a stylised treatment of the everyday, or sheer, lyrical abstraction?
At the ecstatic height of dance fever in film, it is simply no longer possible to tell the difference.
© Adrian Martin August 2002