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Movement and the Lens.

Xavier De Santos | Middlesex University London | December 2023

Within my interdisciplinary movement practice, I seek to investigate ‘alliances across disciplines’ (Kappenberg, 2009, p. 24) such as the relationship between choreography and the screen. Through a variety of roles such as performer, choreographer, camera operator and editor, I have collaborated on, and created internationally screened and awarded screendance films. ‘Dance [is] the ideal go-between for electronic and real bodies’ (Vaccarino 1997, cited in Kappenberg, 2009, p. 5), however, challenges are often presented in this process. With this research, I aim to understand my various roles within screendance, by reflecting on the existing divide between my choreography, camera operation and editing in this area.

In this research I use the term ‘screendance’ various times. To briefly describe screendance, Rosenberg (2012) states that the representation of movement is changed by the screen and its space limitations thereby offering a new meaning to movement (cited in Lewis-Smith, 2018, p. 18). It is important to keep this description in mind when I refer to screendance as there are various terms concerning the intersection of dance and film, all implying different meanings.

At the start of my screendance journey, I worked as a choreographer/performer for other filmmakers. When watching the edited films, I felt a certain frustration, as my choreography was not best represented. I recall in one of these projects, footage of us performers marking the sequence made it to the final cut.

Clip of the final product of the mentioned video where the editor included the dancers (myself and other) marking our sequence.

The first self-realisation that this research brought to my attention is that, from screen practices over the last few years, I began to distance myself due to the ‘constant power of negotiation [and the] need to decide who has the ultimate power’ (Tan and Tan, 2021, p. 21), especially between the choreographer and editor. Interestingly, I now recognise this as the reason why I began to experiment with camera operation, which allowed me to not only choreograph for the screen but also the camera itself, where similar to Lewis-Smith (2018, p.14), ‘not only were the dancers performing but I was too [while] moving in response to the choreography within the viewfinder’. This method allows my original choreography to be portrayed on the screen the way that I envision it, and through this research, I am now able to recognise that choreographer/camera operators ‘close the divide [between] performer, camera, and spectator [and] can be regarded as a pas de trois’ (Lewis-Smith, 2018, p.12). This supports the idea that ‘any aspects of a film’s process [should] be choreographed by its maker’ (Heighway, 2014, p.51), since ‘lighting, editing, camera distance, and movement are equally potent performers’ (Brannigan 2011, cited in Heighway, 2014, p.51).

Behind the scenes documentation from my film 'Come By' where I am seen both camera operating and choreographing the same moment.

Clip from the final version of that moment, where the camera movement/choreography works alongside the choreographed moving bodies.

As I question the potential shared skills of a choreographer and a filmmaker to ‘investigate micro-choreographies on screen’ (Nikolai, 2016, p.139), kinesthetic approaches link both roles, since filmmakers are constantly questioning ‘what [they] want [the viewer] to feel’ (Murch 2001, cited in Matthews, 2018, p. 14) and ‘dancing operators [have] camera consciousness that enhances compositional openings as a form of camera dramaturgy’ (Nikolai, 2016, p.131). Film allows ‘the effect of kinesthetic empathy [meaning that] the visual act of watching a dance can elicit a sensation within the body of the viewer’ (Matthews, 2018, p. 12), allowing them to ‘become involved in the experience of [movement], even without moving’ (Reason and Reynolds 2010, cited in Matthews, 2018, p. 11).

One of the closest examples of kinesthetic empathy in my screendance work 'Come By'.

Another example where the viewer possibly becomes involved with the kinesthetic sensation of movement, this time in another film of mine 'Wonderlane'.

Reflecting on my kinesthetic awareness, initiated through my dance training, I find that further development of such awareness would enrich my filmmaking methods. For the first time, due to this research, I reflect on the connection of the body to its surroundings as a method to achieve more meaningful work. The embodiment of the landscape could allow natural choreographic impulses and material, for all filmmaking aspects, as a way to enhance the ‘dialogue between the (animal) body and the (breathing) landscape it inhabits’ (Vitaglione, 2016, p. 107). Ultimately, the question ‘what do we [filmmakers] take from [the land], but especially [bring] to it?’ (Vitaglione, 2016, p. 107), allows me to identify kinesthetic awareness as the next step towards the development of my practice in the choreographer/filmmaker relationship.

This following clip has no direct connection to my screendance practice, however, this is the closest available footage, in my practice, that shows a somatic improvisation where the body explores the land and the inhabited elements in it, which seems to tie in with Vitaglione's ideology of the embodiment of the landscape.

An interesting example is Birds (2000). Without a dance background or human bodies, British filmmaker Hinton adopts a choreographic-like editing style that nuances dance, challenging ‘traditional notions of dance and film [through] unconventional approaches to choreography’ (Preston, 2006, p. 76). Incredibly, this then allows me to question my own editing process, where ‘the creator of the movement material is [not] only the initial choreographer; [but can also be] the final choreographer [as] the editor’ (Reddy, 2022, p.19).

This is the full film of Birds (2000) by David Hinton, however I suggest watching from 0:09 until 0:49 to get a sense of how repetition, symmetry, dynamics and spacial patterns created in the editing/post-production stage play an important role to give emphasis to dance elements, even without human bodies.

In conclusion, understanding that, in a non-interdisciplinary screendance, the editor can have a louder voice and bigger ‘opportunity to control’ (Matthews, 2018, p. 14) and that ‘the choreographer [surrenders] some of [their] power’ (Tan and Tan, 2021, p. 20), allows me to recognise a deeper desire for control in post-production. However, more importantly, realising that working as a choreographer, camera operator and editor amplifies my understanding of authorship, has validated a certain self-permission to deeply re-involve myself with interdisciplinary film practices. ‘Making a film and making a dance are a very similar kind of activity; they’re both about giving structure to action’ (Hinton 2006, cited in Heighway, 2014, p.51), and due to my corporeally-centered dance-informed eyes, I feel confident again to make decisions through the internal experience of dance and choreography, which supports ‘the orchestration [of] timing, quality, and spatial progression of camera movement as choreographic tools’ (Heighway, 2014, p.54). Through this research, I have also concluded, that a developed somatic relationship with the location and the camera linked with a choreographic-like editing process, could support me further to ‘explore more natural [and] more liberated screendance paradigm in which the “dance” in screendance need not be “dance” movement, nor human motion, but anything kinetically driven’ (Heighway, 2014, p. 44).

Bibliography: Heighway, A. (2014) Understanding The “Dance” In Radical Screendance. The International Journal of Screendance, 4, p. 44-62. Kappenberg, C. (2009) Does screendance need to look like dance?, International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media, 5:2-3, p. 89-105. Lewis-Smith, C. (2018) The Dancer and the Looking Glass. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent. Matthews, N. (2018) Screendance: A Choreographic Tool and a Hybrid Dance Form. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, Mills College. Nikolai, J. R. A. (2016) The Camera-Dancer: A Dyadic Approach to Improvisation. The International Journal of Screendance, 6, p. 131-150. Vitaglione, S. M. (2016) New Materials: Natural Elements and the Body in Screendance. The International Journal of Screendance, 6, p. 94-111. Preston, H. (2006) Choreographing the frame: a critical investigation into how dance for the camera extends the conceptual and artistic boundaries of dance 1, Research in Dance Education, 7:1, p. 75-87. Salzer, H. & Baer, A. (2015) Being a Video-Choreographer: Describing the Multifaceted Role of a Choreographer Creating Screendance. The International Journal of Screendance, 5, p. 102-115. Tan, B. H. & Tan, C. C. (2021) Exploring the positionalities of dancer, choreographer and editor in screendance from the perspective of surveillance. Malaysian Journal of Performing and Visual Arts, 7, p. 7-22.

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