Throughout March, Arnolfini presented a screening series as part of Version Control with works by some of the most important dance choreographers seen through the lens of seminal filmmakers. Kyra Norman looks at the significance of context in the way we experience and remember a work, and the activity of seeing.
With films by Charles Atlas, Babette Mangolte and Thierry De Mey, and choreographies by Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Merce Cunningham and Michael Clark, this series explored the potential of movement and film, and the collaborative spirit that made these works possible.
On Friday 22 March, the screening of Rosas Danst Rosas and Yvonne Rainer: Ag Indexical, With A Little Help From H.M. was presented by Bristol-based dance artist and filmmaker Kyra Norman, who is currently writing up her P.h.D. 'In and Out of Place: Making and Screening Site-Specific Screendance' and is based within the University of Bristol's Department of Drama. Here, in her introduction to the screening, she discusses the two works and looks at the significance of context in the way we experience and remember a work, and the activity of seeing.
Introducing Ag Indexical... and Rosas danst Rosas
By way of introducing Rosas Danst Rosas and Ag Indexical, With A Little Help From H.M., I’d like to look at what happens to the films when they are brought together, consider some of the ideas they generate when you see them side by side, and ask what these classics from 6 and 16 years ago have to say to us about dance today. So what follows is intended to be open-ended and hopefully prompt further discussion....
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My first thought on these artists in the context of this exhibition, Version Control, was that both Yvonne Rainer and Ana Teresa de Keersmaaker have interesting histories around versions of their work that have taken place in, or outside of, their artistic control. Perhaps Yvonne Rainer's most famous work is Trio A, a 5-minute live performance first made in 1965, which looked to pare dance right back to its essentials. Rainer has said that:
Since its completion Trio A has undergone many incarnations. In 1967 I performed it solo as Convalescent Dance for Angry Arts Week, at the
Hunter Playhouse; in 1968 Frances Brooks, the first of many untrained dancers who have learned it, performed it during a lecture-demonstration at the New York City Library of Performing Arts; in 1969 it was performed by a half-dozen dancers to the Chambers Brothers' "In the Midnight Hour" on the stage of the Billy Rose Theatre in New York. At the [...] American Dance Festival of 1969, fifty students who had been taught Trio A by members of the group with whom I was in residence there (Becky Arnold, Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn, and David Gordon), performed it in relay fashion for over an hour in a large studio for an audience that was free to roam to other events in the same building.
Trio A has continued to be re-created at regular intervals ever since, whether slowed down, speeded up, danced backwards or by war protesters in the nude, draped in flags. In each case, this intentionally abstract, minimal work seems to offer a canvas for people to say something new.
In 2010, Ana Teresa de Keersmaeker's work unexpectedly became the focus of heated debate around ownership, authenticity and copying when Beyonce repeated sections of de
Keersmaeker's choreography in a music video. This led to discussions in the Guardian, the
New York Times and elsewhere about whether it is possible to copyright a dance move.
(Although, since it is not just isolated movements, but whole choreographed sequences, spatial arrangements of dancers, camera angles and location that are copied, the case here seems pretty clear.) In a statement at the time, De Keersmaeker wrote:
A few months ago, I saw on Youtube a clip where schoolgirls in Flanders are dancing Rosas danst Rosas to the music of Like a Virgin by Madonna. And that was touching to see. But with global pop culture it is different... Does this mean that thirty years is the time that it takes to recycle non-mainstream experimental performance? And what does it say about … Rosas danst Rosas? In the 1980s, this [piece] was seen as a statement of girl power, based on assuming a feminine stance on sexual expression. I was often asked then if it was feminist. Now that I see Beyoncé dancing it, I find it pleasant but I don't see any edge to it. It’s seductive in an entertaining consumerist way.
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In an interview with Frieze magazine in 2008, Babette Mangolte talks about the two films that, she says, “literally changed her life”. It’s good to be reminded that films can change lives, because the screen has become so familiar, and film is easily taken for granted. Also in discussion of dance and film, film can so often be presented as standing in for the live performance, rather than powerful in its own right.
I also wanted to draw on this interview because Mangolte’s “life-changing” choices lead me on to the two main ideas I'd like to raise here: firstly, something about how vital context is in the way we experience and remember a work, and secondly something about the activity of seeing - about the way that dancers see movement, filmmakers see their subject and audiences see the works presented to us.
One of the films Mangolte mentions is Wavelength – an experimental film made in 1967 by Canadian filmmaker, Michael Snow. Mangolte had heard so much about this film, some people saying that it was the worst film ever made, some that it was the greatest. Now, today it’s possible to quickly skip through the 43-minute-long zoom that is Wavelength, on Youtube, and then join in the highly-polarised debate in the comments section underneath.
But back when it came out, in those pre-internet, pre-Youtube days, the only way Mangolte could see this niche film was to go to New York. So she saved up, got on a plane, saw the film and – whilst in New York – she met the artists with whom she would work for the next few decades, including Trisha Brown, Philip Glass, Marina Abramović and Yvonne Rainer.
She had found her place.
Although in the Frieze interview Mangolte does talk a little about Wavelength itself (the film she went all that way to see), it seems to me that the context - travelling to New York, and the things she'd heard about the film that fired her curiosity so much - prompted the life changing aspect of this story. And what I'd like to suggest is that, in the same way as with a live performance piece, once the work is out in the world it has to some extent a life of its own. And that the screening is after all a live event, one open to interventions beyond the scope of the artist's control – where people see the work, when and with whom, colours what people will make of it.
The Dance Screening on 15 March at Arnolfini was a beautiful example of this, when we sat here gamely watching Chantal Ackerman's Pina Bausch documentary – in French and, as it happened, without subtitles (the copy of the film had unexpectedly arrived without these). Now most of the audience may well have had better French than me, but I for one was more than slightly adrift in a sea of French, when suddenly there was this tall man on screen singing a song in English, accompanying his actions with the appropriate sign language. The significance of this scene, as a moment of total comprehension for me – for a short while, I could relax and just understand – made the point about language, signing and communicating much more strongly than if I'd been able to fully comprehend all of the proceeding scenes. I think that the Expanded Cinema movement of the 1970s made a point of making evident the physical apparatus of cinema – that film projection is a live art – but in my experience this often happens anyway, as in this case.
One of the things I love about dance is its elusiveness, its determined disappearance and its openness to multiple readings and meanings. And what I also love about film and video is that they are not the opposite of this – not set in stone, or fixed in amber but gradually disintegrating and eroding too – the process just takes a bit longer. I find this helps me, as an artist working with dance and video, to avoid the trap of trying to document everything, or worrying that what is captured has to be the 'definitive' version – the 'right' version to keep. Nothing's forever. And in this I’m reminded of the film we saw alongside Ackerman’s on 15 March: Water Motor presents two versions of a solo by Trisha Brown, first in real time, and then a second time filmed in slow motion. As this film makes apparent, film can only slow the process of dance's disappearance, it can't halt it altogether.
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The other “life-changing” film Mangolte mentions is Man with a Movie Camera, directed by the legendary early Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov. Mangolte saw this film several times in Paris between 1961 and 1964, applying to film school as a result. She says:
In the 1960s, women and film cameras just didn’t mix and I was warned against pursuing my dream. But Utopia and joie de vivre were at the core of Man with a Movie Camera and I was unafraid.
She also says of Man with a Movie Camera that:
The film trained my eye to see. It demonstrated that how you see and what you see are constructs that can be played with.
This for me gets to the heart of both Rosas Danst Rosas and Ag Indexical, With A Little Help From H.M. Here we have Yvonne Rainer and dancers “re-visioning” (as Rainer puts it) the work of Balanchine; and Babette Magolte applying her filmmaking eye to this. We have Ana Teresa de Keersmaeker and dancers dismantling dance through gesture and then piecing it together again, presented to us via the vision of director, Thierry de Mey. And from the layering of these various ways of seeing, we form our own view of the work.
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To end by coming back to the present:
In February, Siobhan Davies was at Arnolfini introducing her new work, a collaboration with filmmaker David Hinton. All This Can Happen is a 50-minute long film constructed entirely from archive photography and early moving image material, mostly drawn from the archives of the British Film Institute. No new movement material or camera work was involved in the process, instead Davies and Hinton worked from the premise that editing itself can be a choreographic act.
For me, this work is a striking realisation of a rich line of enquiry that we can trace through current screendance practice - what happens when we apply the practices of dance, choreography and embodied awareness to the actions of camera work and editing? And then how might we apply these tools beyond the more familiar dance film scope of filming bodies? How might we use dance as a lens for looking at the world? In some ways these questions are a return to the earlier experiments of artists such as Rainer and de Keersmaeker whose live performances (and in Rainer's case also her work as a filmmaker) explored how to choreograph everyday gestures, amongst other things.
One concern that other artists have voiced about this approach though, is that there is a danger of the dancing body becoming sidelined, as dance becomes a mode of enquiry in moving image, rather than the subject of the film. So, in the light of this debate it is particularly refreshing to see two such mammoth dance films brought together this evening, where dance itself is very much visible and centre stage.
Seeing Rosas Danst Rosas and Ag Indexical, With A Little Help From H.M. may or not change our lives, but it certainly reminds us how much these artists have changed how we see and think about dancing, and how much their questioning continues to resonate through current practice.
Bristol, March 2013