Author: Marion Poeth
First publication: 01/01/2012
Language: Dutch
Originally published in: Danswetenschap in Nederland - Deel 7
Made available by: Bloemlezing Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek (VDO)
Media: article

Dit artikel is eerder verschenen in: Nieuwboer, B., L. Wildschut en W. Zoet (eds.) (2012), Danswetenschap in Nederland – Deel 7. Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek, pp.149-153

Most of us have seen dance on screen in the form of dance-films such as Saturday Night Fever (1977), registrations of performances as in So you think you can dance (2010) or one of numerous dance music videos. However, Choreography for the Camera (1944) by Maya Deren, Birds (2003) by David Hinton, or the more recent Dutch production Coup de Grâce (2011) by Clara van Gool, are less known. The last three titles can be referred to as screenchoreographies. They differ from mere registrations of dance, for here the choreography is made with the camera, it cannot exist outside the screen. In other words, the movement is created with both choreographic and cinematographic methods (Kappenberg, 2009), which allows screendance practioners to approach dance in new and unconventional ways. Therefore: The combination of cinematography and choreography in screenchoreography work, expands the established artistic and conceptual boundaries of choreography and dance.

This article presents the main findings of a literature study on screenchoreography and several analyses of screenchoreographic work. First, a brief history of dance on screen will show that dance and film have always shared an interest in movement. Second, several examples will be described to demonstrate the ways in which the film medium can be used to create unconventional choreography. Finally this article will show that, although being criticized – screendance should not be called dance, because it doesn’t look like dance any more -screenchoreography can move across the existing boundaries of dance by creating new forms of choreographed movement.

A shared interest in movement
Dance and cinema have always sought each other out, due to a shared interest in movement. Both art forms interrogate the nature and quality of the movement through their work with the body, theatre design, mise en scène, objects, camera, edit, and postproduction effects. (Brannigan, 2011) This shared interest resulted in many collaborations between dance and cinema, of a constantly changing nature.

Beginning of dance on film
In the early years of cinema, the 1880’s, the dance stood in service of the film.[i] Film pioneers were fascinated by film’s capacity to capture movement. However, the first cameras were static objects, with a fixed viewpoint. The only way to capture the movement on film was by recording a moving subject in front of the lens. Because it embodied movement as such, dance became one of the most common filmed events during that period.

The nature of the collaboration changed with the development of the sound film in the late 1920’s, and the rise of the Hollywood Musical. Among others, Fred Astaire privileged the dance aspect as he introduced the musical in which the choreography led the camera. Resulting in a, what filmmaker David Hinton (2011) calls ‘documentary-like stage recording’ (p.1). Busby Berkeley, both choreographer and filmmaker, saw both camera and dancers as tools to create aesthetic and kaleidoscopic images. (Dodds, 2004) With this he created a new type of choreography and perspective on dance.[ii]

From choreo-cinema to screenchoreograpy
The nature of the collaboration between dance and film changed again during the 1940’s with the the avant-garde cinema, when dance-practitioners started to use film as an experimental tool for dance. They investigated movement’s relation to filmic time and space. Filmmaker Maya Deren (1978) described her work A study in Choreography for the Camera (1944) as dance that has been made specifically for and with the camera that cannot be performed outside of it. She called this type of film ‘choreo-cinema’ (p.62). Screendance practitioner and critic Alla Kovgan (2006) utters that generations of filmmakers have been mastering and perfecting Maya Deren’s principles about dance and cinema. Choreo-cinema is close to what screenchoreography is today, because the same principles are applied.

The screen, an interesting site for dance
In my research I have looked at recent screenchoreographies, in which new forms of (dance-) movement originated due to the influence of cinematographic elements. These films were initiated by film- or dance-makers, and by collaborations between the two. The examples used here, will show how new forms of movement, choreography or dance, can originate from unconventional approaches toward the body and its relation to filmic time and space, the camera and the montage.[iii]

Dance through the cut
First I will discuss time and space as the main factors that influence the movement on screen. In cinema, a non-linear time-space relation can be created in the montage.[iv] As long as one factor creates a visual unity in the frames, the illusion of continuity[v] in time and space is kept. For instance in Alt I Alt (2004), directed by Torbjørn Skårild, we see a variation of angles and close ups of a swimmer repeatedly jumping on a diving board to prepare for a dive. In this film, the choreography emerges from the montage, as the individual frames are placed in a specific order, on a particular rhythm[vi]. This rhythm increases in speed and helps build up tension toward the end. Live-recorded sounds were used to further intensify this rhythm and tension. The film invites us to look at the movement in a different way, as if being dance, and allows us to give new meaning to it.

Other dancing bodies
If creating a visual unity in the frames is all that is needed to keep up an illusion of continuity, in theory this means that for screenchoreography, the dance can derive from any type of movement, done by any type of body, in any way. David Hinton is a filmmaker who has experimented with this broad approach toward dance on screen. For his dancefilm Birds (2003), he solely used archival footage of birds from the BBC. He searched for similarities in the individual images, to create a new unity in the frames and maintain a level of continuity. For instance in one sequence Hinton (2009) alternates images of different birds that make a similar movement, as if they all perform the same movement-sequence. In the montage he manipulates the bird movement into choreographic movement sequences. By presenting the work as a dancefilm, he invites the viewer to perceive the choreographed bird-movement as dance on screen, and consequently challenges the existing parameters of dance.

New perspectives
The next example shows how, with the use of the camera, new perspectives[vii] on dance can be explored, and how this again led to a new form of choreography. Busby Berkeley’s topshot and use of the close-ups are early examples of looking for ways to give the viewer new perspectives on a choreography. A more recent example is the film Paganini for Face (2007) by Ashenzil. In this film we are confronted with a close up of a man’s face, who is performing an alternation of facial expressions to a musical score of Paganini. Creating a transition from the communcative functions of the face to a type of face choreography.

Screendance theorist Erin Brannigan (2011) calls these kind of close up choreographies: ‘micro-choreographies’ (p.39). Here the site of movement is relocated from the entire body toward one body part. This way, new signifying layers can be added to movement. Brannigan (2011) uses the term ‘gesture-dance’ for choreographies in which the expressive charge of the movement is the leading factor.

The above given examples give only a small insight in the many ways in which movement can be choreographed and new dance forms can originate from a screenchoreography. Because these new forms of ‘dance’ movements are sometimes unconventional, they also demand an open approach on all levels, from both viewer and critic. However, this open approach is not always welcomed, especially in the dance field these unconventional experiments received critical reactions and initiated an elaborate discourse on screendance.

Expanding boundaries of dance
This critique concentrates on the fact that in many screendance works the dance does not look like dance anymore. (Kappenberg, 2009) Screendance critic and theorist Hillary Preston (2006) thinks that for one, David Hinton’s Birds (2003) was criticised because it moves away from the body-centric approach in dance, and challenges the traditional notions of dance. The body-centric approach refers to the conception of the human body being a mandatory component of dance. Moreover, the general audience for screendance comes from the dance field, therefore the work is mostly spoken of with a discursive language of dance. However, new and interesting forms of movement could only come about if we disregard the established notions of theatrical dance, and allow for a new discursive language that focuses on both the filmic and the dance aspects.

Furthermore, the same can be said about the established perception patterns we have for watching dance. Although the general public is common to watching humans dance on screen, they are less familiar with other versions of movement on screen. By screening unconventional forms of movement, within a screendance context, the audience is invited to create new perception patterns. This way the movement on the screen becomes open for interpretation. Deren (1978) suggested that the absence of the live performer allows us to maintain distance and see it as a double in an alternative world. The greater the illusion, the more we can immerse into this world.[viii] And so perhaps, the more we are aware that it is not ‘real’ but an illusion, the more we can accept this unconventional movement as dance.

Moreover, Hillary Preston (2006) suggests we should give screenchoreography a theoretical framework of its own. One that focuses on the choreographic quality instead of the ‘dance’ in screenchoreography work. Such a notion of screenchoreography allows it to remain open at the level of structure, meaning and materialisation. (Rosiny, 1999) On the one hand, screendance should be seen as an art form of its own, and on the other hand, it can help provoke discourse about dance, choreography and movement in general.


This article is based on:
Screenchoreography: Challenging the artistic and conceptual parameters of choreography and dance. MA Thesis, Theaterwetenschap, Universiteit Utrecht, 2011


[i] In this sentence ‘film’ is referred to as the material film, used in early cinema. All others uses of the term ‘film’ refer to filmic work, movies.

[ii] Berkeley used groupwork and choruslines to create beautiful geometric images, which ultimately led to the invention of the topshot, showing a view on the choreography from above. With this he shifted the focus on the indivual to a group aesthetic. On the other hand he also emphasized the dancer’s indivual beauty with close ups, as he did in his parade of faces. (Dodds, 2004)

[iii] For analyzing screenchoreography works in my original research, I used five perspectives: Body, Camera, Space, Time and Sound, based on Claudia Rosiny’s Körper, Kamera, Raum, Zeit, Ton (1999). Also, for lack of space, sound is not thoroughly discussed in this article. However, it must be said that sound is a very important element in screenchoreography, and often not used to its full potential.

[iv] A montage is the arangement of images in a specific order in time. Editing is the arranging of images in a specific order in time, to generate movement.

[v] An illusion of continuity is created when the sequence is constructed on Tynjanov’s concept of simultaneity in time and space, a construction that gives new meaning to movements and gestures. (Kattenbelt, 2006)

[vi] Bob Lockyer (2002) explains that what the director basically does is making his version of the choreography in his shooting script. The director and the editor make this perspective choice for us, so that we all see the same version of the choreography in the film.

[vii] In theatre the audience is always presented with the same frontal view of the stage. Except for performances in which dance practitioners have attempted to break through the conventions of frontallity, such as Forsythe with Artifact (1982). (Bleeker, 2008)

[viii] Kattenbelt (2007) says that even when the represented world is obviously not real to us, everything that happens is completely plausible because it is an alternative world.


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