Many choreographers today are looking for ways to engage the audience beyond the stage. Site-specific work and film are just some of the ways dance artists are keeping their work both fresh and lasting. Glance from the Edge is an international collaboration between Bulgarian co-directors and choreographers Kosta Karakashyan and Stephanie Handjiiska, American director of photography Kevin Chiu and composer Jude Icarus. After wrapping the principal photography, the team sat down to debrief together about the inspiration, process and goals for the project.
Kosta: We had an interesting 10-day shoot that developed the concept for the film in unexpected directions, so I think it’d be helpful to give a synopsis first:
Glance from the Edge is a short film about six individuals who find themselves swept across twelve Bulgarian landscapes as they struggle to establish relationships, place, and belonging. Through the medium of dance, the interwoven stories of loss and growth offer a glance from the edge of the human condition.
Glance from the Edge is a short film about six individuals who find themselves swept across twelve Bulgarian landscapes as they struggle to establish relationships, place, and belonging.
Kevin: To the choreographers, what were the themes that drew you to choreograph in the ways that you did?
Stephanie: Glance from the Edge is, in part, a reflection on the unending journey of searching for identity. I feel that the choreography—and the film itself—represents this arc of rising and falling, of displacement, of losing and finding oneself. Because of this, a lot of the choreography explores the human in a state of transformation and change, though it also works quite a bit with tenderness and vulnerability.
Ultimately, the choreography follows internal beats and impulses in the body, which I believe reflect our thoughts and emotions.
Kosta: For me, the impulse for the choreography came from the sensation that each location gave us. Stephanie and I did preliminary research about the history and significance of each site and how we could engage with it with our bodies. Through the pre-production process, certain narratives and human relationships started to form, so we guided the movement towards telling this story that the four of us started to see take shape.
Kevin, you talked a little bit about capturing the energy of each location before. Can you elaborate what the challenges and surprises were for you as the director of photography?
Kevin: Much of the challenge was trying to capture the scale of the locations we had without an initial opportunity to do an in person scout. We only had very limited photo references for each location so when we arrived, we quickly had to adapt the choreography and camera movements around what was possible in the physical space.
Every location became a surprise in this way because the opportunities to create the perfect synergy between the dancers and the space quickly became revealed through our exploration of the locations and experimentation with blocking.
Back to you two: how do you create choreography for someone else’s body and movement quality while still communicating your own ideas?
Kosta: In the process of research and development, I used a lot of broader games like asking the dancers to create phrases that had to include certain movements but had flexibility or working from their improvisation. We used unison for the scenes that needed to signify power, serenity or unity and more unstructured movement for the scenes that showed the dancers going off the edge.
Stephanie: To create choreography I personally tend to start with a lot of deep impulses and sensations within the body and then have the dancers translate those feelings through their own physicality. I like to explore each artist’s own unique world and focus on things that are important to the performer. As humans, we naturally connect to certain ideas, and we want to physically express and discuss them.
Jude, as the composer how did Bulgaria’s energy seem to you? If Bulgaria had its own soundtrack, what would it sound like?
Jude: I admittedly feel a bit strange answering this question as an outsider, but I’ll give it my best shot. Bulgaria seems to me like a place between times but without direction. It is staggeringly ancient, but it feels as though it has been dragged through history, with bits and pieces getting caught in different places and eras. It is undeniably beautiful yet tempered, as ancient nations often are, by a kind of resignation to the whims of a world beyond its control.
The soundtrack would be a 2000s Eurodance remix of a folk song sung by a talented but forgotten foreign pop star. Is it a bop? Absolutely, but one that makes you sad when you listen to the lyrics.
Stephanie: Going off of that, how do you conceptualize the music for this film before composing it?
Jude: Because of the nature and scale of this project, there are two distinct processes at play when it comes to composing the score.
The first is a relatively straightforward pairing of moods and scenes. Each set piece can be looked at as its own contained narrative that is either enhanced or subverted by the music and sound; the music should always be telling you something that you wouldn’t otherwise know or wouldn’t feel as strongly. As such, one of the first steps in my compositional process is understanding the overall “point” and purpose of each scene as well as its internal narrative beats. This allows me to parse out what exactly the music needs to be saying for each scene, and consequently, how it should sound.
For example, one of the scenes is a romantic duet in a lavender field outside Pavel Banya that’s meant to be an almost perfect, dreamlike moment. In order to communicate that sense of ethereal unreality in the context of human closeness and tenderness, I’m composing a score built on processed vocal loops and harmonies. The human voice creates a sense of connection and intimacy, while the processing and layering creates an atmospheric floating quality.
For the second process, I take a step back and look at the entire film—and thus the entire score—as a single holistic piece in order to find through lines, themes, parallels, and arcs. Both aesthetically and narratively, the film and score should feel either consistent or deliberately disparate. Scenes that further the same plotline or deal with similar themes should connect somehow, whether by reusing and re-contextualizing melodic material or by building upon the same instrumentation or harmonic structure.
There are two scenes, for example that portray a character on a power trip, one in a positive context and one in a negative context. For those scenes, I reused many of the same drum and synth sounds, wrote slightly modified versions of the same progression, and repeated a specific melodic motif. Though the pieces sound more or less completely different, there is nonetheless a sort of felt connection between them that unconsciously weaves the scenes together, providing a meta-narrative context that accents the parallels and divergences and binds the film together more cohesively.
Kosta, how do you find that your instincts as a director inform your performance and vice versa?
Kosta: For this project it was definitely challenging directing, choreographing and performing at the same time, but I was lucky enough to have Stephanie as an equal. In the past, I’ve counted on my assistant directors and choreographers to stay on top of the vision when I was performing. This time around, we had one unified vision, so we could rely on each other.
I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is how to distribute my energy depending on what the camera is capturing—whether it’s a close-up, medium or wide and whether the camera is moving or not. I’ve become aware of this when directing my performers as well, which makes the end result that much stronger.
Stephanie: How does Glance from the Edge as a film realized in Bulgaria fit into your international creative practice? Do you see yourself as an artist standing on the edge—and if yes, on the edge of what? How do you feel now, returning and creating in Bulgaria after 4 years abroad?
Kosta: I feel very excited to finally be creating in Bulgaria after my four years of living and studying Dance in Columbia University in New York. I’ve worked with wonderful artists and collaborators in the city, so I wanted to bring some of that energy back to the local dancers holding down the scene in such a great way.
I see myself as an artist working on the edge between different practices, goals and tastes in my home country and New York. The biggest problem facing Bulgaria beyond the art world is the corruption, political disappointment and lack of accountability our politicians are enjoying.
It makes up for a very dissatisfied population that sees art as a means of escapism rather than reflection. I hope our project will inspire them to see Bulgaria through a new lens, and at the same time I hope this film will reach a wide audience that isn’t familiar with Bulgaria or site-specific dance.
I hope to inspire them to connect viscerally to their own surroundings with care and tenderness.
The project is supported by the National Culture Fund of Bulgaria, Derida Dance Center, and is an associated project of Plovdiv 2019 – European Capital of Culture.