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Screen Time

Ever since Thomas Edison hand-tinted the swirling skirts of modern dance pioneer Loïe Fuller in the film version of the 1905, Danse Serpentine, there’s been an interest in capturing this most ethereal art form on celluloid. Flash forward, then, to 2024 and the 22nd iteration of Dance Camera West (DCW), the annual festival dedicated to the intersection of cinematography and choreography.

Founded in 2002 by Lynette Kessler and Kelly Hargraves, with Hargraves, after leaving for a few years in 2009, again helming DCW since 2018—but solo—this year’s festival takes place January 25 through January 28 at Barnsdall Art Park’s Gallery Theatre in Hollywood, a Unesco Heritage site. (Past festivals partnered with other prominent L.A. venues, including the Music Center, the Hammer Museum and BroadStage.)

Still from Incontri, directed by Chiara Becattini, choreographed by Elena Giannotti, Maiko Nishino, and Christina Marti Ninot

A veritable cornucopia of dance-themed docs, shorts and experimental movies, there will be a selection of 40 films from 20 countries. Curated from 320 submissions, each film is having its international, US or Los Angeles premiere. In addition to the selected films in competition screenings, this edition includes workshops, artist talks, and receptions to enrich the film-going experience.

Awards categories also run the gamut. From Best Experimental Short and Best Student/First Film, to Best Documentary Short, Best Documentary Feature and Outstanding Achievement Awards, DCW offers something for everyone. Indeed, since the festival’s inception, more than 1,500 provocative films from around the globe have screened, and, in the process, have also helped bridge the gap between the L.A. film and dance communities, with showcases of internationally recognized artists from past festivals paying homage to such bold-faced names as Merce Cunningham, William Forsythe and Akram Kahn.

Hargraves comes to her position with a deep knowledge of both filmmaking and the dance world. Born in Ontario, Canada, she received a degree in choreography from Montreal’s Concordia University, and decamped for New York in 1994, where she earned a masters in Dance Film at New York University. As part of that degree, she worked at the prestigious Dance on Camera Festival at Lincoln Center, albeit as, what she called, an “office person,” before moving to Los Angeles and hooking up with Kessler.

Fjord Review had a chance to speak with Hargraves about, among other topics, this year’s festival offerings, its evolution and the currently fashionable genre of dance on film.

Kelly Hargraves, director of Dance Camera West. Photograph by Lisa Shields

Last year, Bridget Murnane’s Bella snagged top honors, and has since been racking up awards. It recently had its L.A. run at the Laemmle Theatre and is currently eligible for an Oscar nomination—fingers crossed. Was this choice a no-brainer, and how is a winner selected?

The ones that stand out, really stand out, are the winners. They’re selected by a screening committee of 38, and the jury judges are generally the guest of honor. This year it’s Javier de Frutos, [artist, educator, scholar] Cara Hagan, and a local person, [choreographer] Kitty McNamee. David Rousseve has been the jury captain every year, but he’s making a new piece now and living his fabulous life.

But every year we get about 300 films and only one person—and that’s not me—it’s [co-artistic director, board member] Cati Jean who watches them all. I watch 90% of the films, but she watches all of them. So, in the minutia of producing and the reason I brought her on is, she stays in the arts while I’m writing budgets, working on the venues and doing all the logistical stuff, and she can remain present in the artistic value of each film. 

There’s a scoring system of 10 questions [that includes] production value, use of rhythm, choreography, camera work, narrative structure. Does [the film] make you want to move? Is there a kinaesthetic connection?  I still believe it’s really about choreography and dance and movement value. There may be beautiful movement, but not camera movement; that will not score as high. Really great camera work can make choreography better.

Bridget’s film was well-made, as the rest of the world has verified. It’s about Bella Lewitzky and we want to represent L.A. I love that it’s eligible for an Oscar nomination, [but] it’s a very long shot. Oscar campaigns are hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I hear you, Kelly, so now onto this year’s offerings. Opening night was to have honored Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber, but instead you’re fêting Javier de Frutos, the Spanish-Venezuelan director, choreographer and designer who was named by the Evening Standard as one of 2016’s most influential people in London. You’re also screening eight experimental shorts, including de Frutos’ Whoever You Are, a cinematic adaptation of Walt Whitman’s seminal poem, “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand.”

Bobbi Jene and Or couldn’t come. They didn’t check their calendar. That’s because you have a 3-year old and didn’t check your calendar! There’s always some craziness that makes us have to shuffle and pivot. Luckily, in a way it made sense to have Javier, as we’d been working with him this year. He taught a workshop when we had that lovely program with the Music Center with free workshops last spring. 

There were also summer screenings out on the Music Center plaza of L.A.-based artists. It was a nice counterpoint, because the festival is pretty much international and Javier was part of that jury. He is offering another workshop in Spanish, at DCW with the Cervantes Institute’s support.

Still from Whoever You Are directed and choreographed by Javier De Frutos

That same night will also include Kate Harpootlian’s Anyone Who Knows, which explores the depths of isolation and rage when faced with a disintegrating relationship, Lauren Edson’s Greyhound, about a pair of friends living in an abandoned bus station, and Marc Grey’s Life Hacks for Lovers, which features Bobbi Jene and Or trying out a “recipe for love.” Seriously, how do you manage to keep track of everything?

How do I keep track of everything? Cati doesn’t use a computer, it’s all printed out on paper; we go to her house, put papers on the floor and move them around with our feet—we’re choreographing the program order. She keeps it in her brain, because she’s a ballerina and can do that. She can remember something in a film I wouldn’t remember. Then I come in with the mean logistics. 

That’s why we need both of us. Since 2018 Cati was a board member, and this year she’s staff. When we did it back in the day, Lynette was in charge of the logistics, and I could keep my brain on artistic stuff. Be careful what you wish for, because it’s almost like the most creative thing I can do now is when I’m writing a grant. The producing of [the festival] has become my art. Writing grants is like school exams; and we got a lot of grants this year for new programs.

On Saturday, January 27, there’s the Italian experimental short, Incontri, another short, Kitchen Dances: Locked and Challa, as well as a special presentation of the doc, Fenomenal! Rompeforma 1989-1996. The directors Merián Soto and Viveca Vázquez will be on an artist panel that will discuss the development/evolution of Latin American performance art and its parallels to art practices by Latino artists in L.A. How did you find this film and why is it important?

I went to Puerto Rico for their very first video dance festival last year. I was watching this thinking, “I know that person.” There are five or six people in it that I’ve seen in L.A.—Marcus Nazario, Elia Arce, Guillermo Gómez-Peña. I think Rudy Perez [postmodern dance pioneer who passed away last September at 93] was in it, too. I thought this would be fun to do in L.A. and it would also honor people from L.A. 

I called Marcus and asked him to put together a panel. It’s a little more performance art than straight-up dance; it’s a blurry line. They’ll talk about how L.A. performance art and Latino performance art intersect and inform each other. And I’m counting on Marcus for a party. We better have some fun [because] things are hard now.

Still from say i am you, directed and choreographed by Moscelyne Parke Harrison

For sure! And the Fenomenal artist talk isn’t the only one slated this year. Have you always had workshops, artist talks and receptions?

I’ve gotten more ambitious every year, because there are a lot of dance film festivals now and there weren’t before. There are hundreds of them, if not thousands around the world. A lot of them are online, but what sets us apart is [that] we have a stellar reputation, so being in our festival matters. 

And one reason that sets us apart, is that we have a brand. The other thing, because of Covid, we were not only focusing on audiences—showing films to them, but now also focussing more on the artists and truly being an artist service organization. We have to support the making of the art—that’s why we started all the workshops and funding programs.  

Also, that’s why we started the BIPOC program. We may have 400 films in our festival, from highly funded ballet companies in Europe, to someone in East L.A. with a cell phone. There’s an evident divide. When you looked at the screen and looked at winners, we didn’t have L.A.-based people winning and people of color. They weren’t there at the top. That’s the point of all the programming we do. That’s why the awards started happening. 

Closing night, January 27, features the Talking Heads documentary feature, Stop Making Sense. Why this, why now?

We need fun and that one’s out in the world. I remembered how great it was in the 70s. Stop Making Sense is in theaters now and it’s an easy get. It falls into the theme of performance art and dance intersecting. David Byrne has always been a performance artist. It was a last-minute idea and it could lose money. 

Still from Maracatu vs Passinho, directed by Rodrigo Pépe and Priscila Paciência, and choreographed by Priscila Paciência

Speaking of money, what’s your annual budget?

When I started, the overall budget was $15,000, and it’s now $400,000. I don’t know if it will stay there—knock wood—but there have been new programs [initiated] since Covid. We got another NEA grant and another is from the California Arts Council to produce films.

I’m pretty proud of the films we’re making, and we’ll have made 12 by the end of this year. Next year will be the fifth year of funding filmmakers and producing films. I’ve also been on a few film shoots; a young Black woman directed a crew of 10 dudes. I’m proud of this program, and that’s why I spend time writing grants. 

The first year we came back to REDCAT was in 2020, and we honored [La La La Human Steps founder] Edouard Lock and [“Making Video Dance: A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating Dance for the Screen” author] Katrina McPherson. Then, everything shut down on March 8. 

We did a drive-in festival in 2021 during Covid. That was cool. I’m doing a parade in the spring—a film parade and dance parade. We’re making the films now in Kern County in the central valley. You can do things in smaller towns. It’s a performance where people are dancing down the street doing rhythmic clapping and singing and doing choreography. The company is called Migration and the film is called, Offering. It will be part of an April event.

What do you feel is the state of dance on film today and how important is it as a genre?

The state of it—it’s vastly huge, it’s prolific. Dancers realized they needed to make films during Covid, but they didn’t maybe know how to. That’s why we started the workshops. They had to transfer from stage to screen. I was teaching—I still am—this is an angle, a shot angle, depth of field. You have to teach filmmaking to people who didn’t want to know about it, but they love it now. 

The thing is—it goes like everything in dance. There’s the super commercial, high end way, and the indie do-it-yourself artist way, and I’m trying to keep both of those. Is the work from the center the most interesting? Possibly not. The work from the margins is what I find fun and interesting. 

I’m with you on that, Kelly! What do you want audiences to take away with them from the festival?

Tee shirts; we’re making tee shirts. Seriously, I want this to be a joyful celebration of dance. We strive to make films that bring energy and show new possibilities for choreography. I love it when people are inter-mingling. There’s always a group of people who haven’t seen each other, and then run into each other. It’s a good place to schmooze. We’ve added a bar and after parties at another bar—Pinky’s across from Atrium. We also do a lot of stuff at Cara hotel, so it might be there, too. But, mainly, it’s about artist and community and audience. 

Victoria Looseleaf

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.



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