Dance Camera West (DCW), the festival dedicated to the intersection of cinematography and choreography, was co-founded in Los Angeles in 2001 by Lynette Kessler and Kelly Hargraves, proving that the art form has come a long way since Thomas Edison hand-tinted the swirling skirts of modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller in the film version of the 1905 Danse Serpentine. And while the festival has undergone several directorial changes since its inception, Hargraves once again became its executive and artistic helmer since 2018.
But with Covid-19 wreaking havoc on all aspects of life in the past year, DCW also had to rethink its delivery of showcasing the best dance films from around the world. Indeed, over two nights in a Santa Monica parking lot, viewers were offered a safe, socially distant large-screen cinematic experience from the comfort of their cars. Chosen from 260 entries from more than 35 countries, the 16 works in two different programs were either a world, United States or Los Angeles premiere.
Ranging from dance in vast landscapes to those sheltering in place at home, the films reflect these daunting times while offering a peek inside the artist’s understanding of confinement. Among the many highlights was director/choreographer Rachel Barker’s Sedimented Here (United States) filmed in Moab, Utah. Talk about a visceral escape, the film explores the relationship between the moving body and the outdoors, with the gorgeous elements of Canyonlands National Park a backdrop to a trio of superb dancers —McCall McClellan, Jared McClure and Abby Trinca. Breathtaking in scope, the film was a study in athleticism and courage, especially when the performers came precipitously close to the edge of the primeval-like canyons and cliffs.
Another stunning American film, Liminality, directed by Jennifer Akalina Petuch, with direction, choreography and an astonishing underwater performance by Annali Rose, was, pardon the pun, a dive into what the filmmakers called Odette’s deep-sea afterlife. Meditative, powerful yet flowing—with Rose’s sinewy arms and balletically articulated feet—the film confirmed the notion that we’ve decidedly evolved from Esther Williams, Hollywood’s erstwhile aquatic star.
Director Mariana Palacios, working with choreographer Adrián del Arroyo, supplied her intriguing 4 (Sweden), an experimental short melding live music and dance in what has been described as a “retro-futuristic quest for knowledge through pulse and rhythm.” Featuring extended piano techniques reminiscent of John Cage (performed by Palacios and Juan J. Ochoa), the work also showcased sharp, angular moves by the pliant dancers Sabine Groenendijk and Benjamin Behrends. In other words, sci-fi meets dance noir in this formidable 11-minute work.
Another standout: ID, directed and choreographed by Australia’s Cass Mortimer Eipper for Transit Dance Company. Shot in an abandoned industrial warehouse that could have been home to crackheads, the work featured six sneaker-clad dancers in frenetic mode, their undulations both angsty and touchy-feely, making one long for the days of veritable human contact.
Also from Australia: Garry Stewart’s The Circadian Cycle, which was filmed in a myriad of striking South Australian locations. Drawing vocabulary from Australian Dance Theatre’s “The Beginning of Nature,” Stewart made use of the dancing body as metaphor. Surveying morphology, biological rhythm and animal behavior—and while it’s a far cry from Jiří Kylián’s 1983 masterpiece, Stomping Ground—the ritualistic work is ambitious and compelling, not only in its photogenic vistas, but also in the close-ups of the committed dancers.
Director Henrique Pina, with choreographer Olga Roriz, served up the delicious solo, Dusk (Portugal), featuring a daring Magalie Lanriot encountering architect Paulo David’s Mudas Contemporary Art Museum in Madeira Island. Securely harnessed (shades of Elizabeth Streb), the gravity-defying dancer compels with aerial moves that both contrast and co-exist with her environment, whether man-made or spectacularly cloud and sea-riven, while her on-the-ground gambits were equally persuasive.
Pina’s other entry, Beast, though less appealing, again makes use of architecture, in this case Eduardo Souto de Moura’s humongous Braga Municipal Stadium. With choreography by Victor Hugo Pontes, the film that teetered between protestations and revelry, never really came together, its male sextet in mostly street dance mode, their hoodie-clad countenances eventually yielding to full nudity.
A pair of German films, Earth Odyssey and Lost Horse, were also somewhat lacking. The former, directed by award-winning Adi Halfin, whose Home Alone for Batsheva Dance Company was a viral hit, tasked dancers from different countries with choreography set to music composed and sung by Israeli’s well-known Asaf Avidan. A typical Zoom-like creation, the dancers cavorted on rooftops and in home environments—kitchens, hallways, dens and the like—with the entrance of a toddler walking into view a happy intrusion. Avidan’s song, intended, no doubt, to sound anthemic, was more anemic, as the endless dancerly flailings grew a tad tiresome.
Halfin’s Lost Horse, a duet featuring choreographers/dancers Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber (who filmed themselves), though not as dreary—and having more emotional heft than Odyssey—was a study in young love. Documenting “the good, the bad and the ugly,” the work provided a more intimate look at the permutations of ardor. Avidan, who actually did lose a horse, again supplied the sound track.
Another duet, Forest Floor, Robbie Synge’s film (United Kingdom), featured the director/choreographer and disabled performer Julie Cleves sitting quietly together on the ground as they navigate the physical challenges in the rural setting of Abernethy Forest. Bringing to mind the heroic double amputee dancer David Toole, who died last year at 56 and performed in DV8 Physical Theatre’s “Cost of Living” (2004) before shooting to prominence at the opening ceremony of the London Paralympic Games in 2012, Forest is a modest yet remarkable statement considering different bodies.
Argentina gave us Being, written and directed by Pablo Destito and Agustina Videla, an excursion into tango with choreography by Videla. Showcasing the Social Tango Company with original music by the Social Tango Orquesta, this work presented dance as an unpretentious respite. Another large group offering, The King, directed and choreographed by Jonathan Redavid (United States), was a Broadway take on Elvis Presley, replete with Chase Benz as Elvis and oodles of jiving and jitterbugging movers, as well as genuflecting fans.
Less effective, but not for lack of trying—or funds: Second Seed, by director/choreographer Baye & Asa (Amadi ‘Baye’ Washington and Sam ‘Asa’ Pratt, United States), is an elaborate dance horror film made in response to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film, Birth of a Nation. With a full orchestral score by Jack Grabow performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the film’s jump cuts and swift scene changes (depicted by title cards), jumbled together in this ambitious, but overwrought (re)telling.
Completing the programs: director Holger Mohaupt’s Where The Spiders Live (United Kingdom) and Escape. The latter, directed and choreographed by L.A.’s site specific queen, Heidi Duckler, whose eponymous troupe recently celebrated 35 years, was made in collaboration with Felipe Díaz Galarce and was shot both in L.A. and Concepción, Chile during a time of civil unrest. Featuring an array of scenes, from harrowing Chilean street protests to a SoCal park bench and an empty swimming pool, the film boasted three fine dancers—Tess Hewlett, Ryan-Walker Page and Himerria Wortham—stalwart souls all.
Opening night saw Pina and Halfin snagging awards for Outstanding Achievement, while Synge and Stewart each copped a Best of Fest Award. Acclaimed choreographer Hofesh Shechter took home an award for Best Screen Adaptation of Clowns, which was shown earlier in the festival. Brava, then, to Dance Camera West and here’s to another 20 years, because nothing, not even Covid, can keep a fine dancer—or filmmaker—down.
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