The State of: screen-based dance by Jen McLachlan
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The State of: screen-based dance by Jen McLachlan

Routes, © Alex Reuben

Routes, © Alex Reuben

I turn my back on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon, and head to a shabby but enthusiastic Filmhouse for another dance shorts programme. I get progressively more disheartened. Partly this stems from being one of only seven people sharing this curatorial experience – of which at least three are staff plus I suspect a hidden filmmaker or two. To sit in a nearly empty auditorium watching something sublime can make for a shared camaraderie, but after 72 minutes of work that is rarely satisfying – as either film or dance, let alone combined – does not make a band of brothers of the audience.

Which begs me to ask: why are we still doing this?  Why is there still such a proliferation of niche dance film festivals across the world? By creating our own self-titled ghetto, defining our medium as dance film, rather than just film, aren’t we allowing other domains to exclude us?

In those other domains, like the world of independent film, some ‘dance’ filmmakers find success.  When films such as by Gold by Rachel Davies and Routes by Alex Reuben are shown at festivals (Portobello, Encounters), nobody suggested that these dance films belonged elsewhere – they cared only whether they were good films.  And with both winning awards and critical reviews around the world, it would seem they stack up fine.

But this is not always the case. Programmers and curators within the artists’ film and video and independent film world will often close down if the word ‘dance’ creeps in – and it seems that artists coming from a choreographic discipline often have to change the language they use, and hide the dirty word, to gain access. How has this knee-jerk reaction developed? I would have thought that, to have an informed approach to embodiment within film and installation work, curators would be looking to experts in this area – those with an understanding of choreographic practice.

Yet there have been some valuable curatorial contributions to the genre over the last few years. The brilliant and provocative Playing in the Light, a programme of black dance films curated by Sarah Wood and distributed by the Independent Cinema Office; and the more recent Moving Image/Moving Bodies and Camera/Movement programmes produced by Portland Green Cultural Projects for Capture, in collaboration with the Netherlands Media Arts Institute. These programmes make serious commentary and important contributions to the discourse around movement, choreography and dance on film. And as importantly, they respect and contextualise themselves within the wider film and moving image domains. Both deserve far wider exposure and would represent a valuable contribution to the broader presentation and distribution of dance.

Dance for Camera festivals remain a main focus for distribution for dance film, but are no longer representative of current contemporary practice. It’s a tired formula, perhaps useful as an introduction to the form in a new territory. But we need to recognise that the genre has outgrown these limitations, and is ready to take its place amongst the established genres of the form, whilst respecting respective history and context. The time has come to ensure that expert choreography continues to make a valuable contribution to film, video and installation practice and presentation.

About the Author: Following ten years as a professional dancer, Jen McLachlan joined Arts Council England in 2000 as lead officer for the development of dance and moving image.  In 2006 she joined the Australia Council for the Arts as its Director of Dance. She now produces projects across Europe, primarily the R-Research department of Wayne McGregor|Random Dance and Rajni Shah Theatre. Jen is specialist advisor for the Scottish Arts Council and Board Member of Curious.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009 | Tagged with , , ,


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