In a hot spring in the Netherlands, steam rising from the water, a man begins to dance. It’s night, and the sky and water are dark. The man, rugged and fortyish, swims towards the filmmaker recording him on a mobile phone. The man unfolds his arms in mock-grace, spinning with arms raised above him in a rounded fifth position. Swimmers shout over the warm roar of the waves. Muffled classical music plays from what sounds like a gramophone. The man spins and springs out of the water belly-first—a hairy, barrel-chested merman surfacing from the sea.
This is the first scene in Pawel Cukier’s short film Dancing, one of the short films that 92nd Street Y, a cultural institution on the upper east side of New York city, screened on July 28th as part of its first-ever Mobile Dance Film Festival—an event celebrating dance films shot exclusively on mobile devices.
Andrew Chapman, a staff member at the Harkness Dance Center, had pitched the idea for the festival after working at 92Y for around a year. Chapman had noticed how mobile devices and social media were becoming more ubiquitous in the dance world, shifting the center of how dance itself was recorded, performed and transmitted. Dance film as a genre is nothing new, but the way dancers and choreographers interact with social media is—especially as artists turn to Instagram to share videos of their art and process. Chapman hadn’t seen any programming that engaged with dance filmmaking, and mentioned the idea to John-Mario Sevilla, director of the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center.
From some 53 entries from all over the world, a jury of dance artists, critics and historians chose the 24 films that were screened across two programs on the 28th. If you only attended one of the programs, you wouldn’t have missed out—all the winning entries can be found on the 92Y site online. (When I picked up my ticket for Program B, I was notified that the videos from program A were playing on an iPad in the lobby).
The videos spanned styles and levels of dance expertise, and many of the videographers were younger artists, according to Chapman and Sevilla. Common themes included dancers improvising across city streets and forming chance connections, such as in Rami Shafi’s films Nicole Wolcott in Washington Square Park and Blind Date Duet, as well as dancers moving through water, alleyways, and abandoned buildings. Some captured lovely and irreverent moments in time, and some were headier in concept. One standout, the film Siostry, from the Polish group ART_committed, was based around a Chekhov play. Other videos played with filters and jump cuts, sometimes straining the idea of the low-fi, DIY ethos that a mobile dance film festival suggests.
To Chapman and Sevilla, much of the appeal of this film festival was capturing the way dancers and choreographers have begun to use their phones to document their work and process, and also how these technologies and media spaces democratized choreography and dance film creation.
“We were broadening the reach of dance-making to anyone who had access to a compositional point of view as well as to a mobile device,” Chapman told me over the phone. “The foundation of mobile art-making is this sharing—a millennial collectivist idea of making work together and then showing it.”
To hear him and Sevilla talk about it, our mobile devices provide a sort of utopian accessibility. Anyone can pick up their phone and make art! And if that’s possible, the traditional methods of dance presentation and performance—the proscenium theater space, the marketing and press strategies, the Sisyphean quest for funds and audience support—don’t have to be the only way. “This has kind of dismantled the paradigm of live art,” said Sevilla.
This has proved true for the artist Emma Portner, whose ferocious and highly technical Instagram videos gained her 158.5K followers, and a gig choreographing for New York City Ballet. “It harkens back to postmodernism,” added Chapman, “where prolific art-makers are accessible. You’re not working with the expectation that you need to claw and scrounge around for an audience and space. The audience comes to you just by scrolling through Instagram (…) from the theater of a hundred people to the Internet of billions.”
Instagram also provides a space for artists to document their creative process. “We’ve noticed that people are already using the phone organically in their choreographic process,” said Sevilla. Chapman agreed. “This way we can go through someone’s entire evolution of their dance-making within a few scrolls,” he said.
Choreographers and instructors now regularly post videotaped combinations from their dance classes, a move that extends work created within a class setting, and can expand a choreographer’s audience. Other artists find that daily posts are generative for their own sake. Marlee Grace, who runs an Instagram account called Personal Practice, posts a video of her improvisation each day; maintaining the feed holds her accountable to honing her craft, as she told the New York Times, but also lets followers expand their definitions of what dance is and can be.
Though social media can function as a promotional platform for a teaching schedule, upcoming performances, and the seamless transmission of a virtual brand, it can also work as a window: providing a glimpse of intimate and often obscured moments of choreographic creation, should the choreographer choose to share.
Like any other art form, dance’s relationship with social media—especially dance films recorded on mobile devices and posted to Instagram—is exciting and destabilizing, deeply revolutionary and a little overblown. These mediums connect dancers with their audiences and give them rare opportunities to speak, lift the curtain on cloistered dance companies, and allow choreographers and dance teachers to reach wider networks of patrons, collaborators, and students. Dance artists have found surprising fame and ongoing communities, and dance students have found Instagram-famous dancers to obsess over, a perpetual scroll of perfect bodies with very little indication of how their dance prowess will translate in actual dance—where the finesse lies in the space between movements, and where artistry matters more than the height of a dancer’s arch. Mobile dance films aren’t trying to replace live dance, but their existence provides a roadmap to new pathways of change.
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