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“People do not ‘have’ a body so much as people actively do a body.”
– Phillip Vannini, The Performative Body: Dramaturgy, Affect, and the Sociology of the Body
At the recent Telluride Film Festival, guest curator Geoff Dyer—a writer of unclassifiable tracts on photography, cinema, fiction, travel, and yoga for people who can’t be bothered to do it—chose among his eclectic program the seminal film from French director Claire Denis, Beau Travail, a West African-set tale of French Foreign legionnaires and the undoing of a tightly-wound colonel by menacing jealousy and a punishing, sun-parched landscape. The fleshy legionnaires are filmed performing physically punitive and choreographically poetic routines in preparation for an enemy who never materializes. If the spectacle begs a certain credulity—do soldiers really channel Benjamin Britten operas based on Herman Melville novellas while doing sun salutations during Ramadan?—it nevertheless convinces in its exacting execution and mythic grandeur. The effect is mesmeric and, to quote Dyer, “balletic.”
The implication, of course, is that cinematic style is conspicuous for occupying a space otherwise reserved for the aspirations of ballet in terms of figurative representation. Are there ballets we might benefit from describing as “cinematic”? Bodies don’t move like this in film. But why? And why do bodies in dance, be it ballet, modern, hip hop, etc., scarcely move like those in film? Call it a case, pace sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, of rhetorical preference, or Doxa (from the Greek dokein, “to expect, to seem”). In the groundbreaking work of author Erin Brannigan, Dancefilm: Choreography and the Moving Image, a case is made for the advent of modern dance coinciding with the birth of cinema, as if it was the moving (dancing) body that provided empirical evidence to the chimera of the moving image’s capacity to record such a body. In essence, the earliest films of the silent era were dance films, contrary to the notion that the dance film represents a new genre in which the choreographic is separable to the apparatus of cinema rather than constitutive of it. To quote Laleen Jayamanne in the book, it is this element of cinema—in which “the lighting, editing, camera distance, and movement are equally potent performers”—that can “transform the phenomenal body to such an extent that one could say that the body that cinema materializes did not exist prior to the invention of film.”
A transfiguration of the body occurred, in perception, expression, and representation, because of cinema. The dancer’s body was reconfigured for, and by, the screen: freed from the constraints of time but restricted by the fixity of the moving image. Both dance and cinema were intrinsically choreographed, but it was the bearing of time and space on the body that distinguished their respective performative tendencies. In dance the body could symbolize but never be reduced to the merely symbolic; in film, the performed body could only symbolize and never be reduced to its corporeality. Hence the tendency to showcase the physically transgressive or transcendent body in dance (in which the body seems to be lying, defying limits, by virtue of physical grace), and to remind in cinema of the body’s sheer vulnerability (in which the body must be seen, against all prevailing illusion, as true, by virtue of gravity).
The dancing body is always live; the cinematic body a phantom. The dance film ostensibly yoked the two, in its insistence on the body’s ineluctability inscribed in film’s ephemerality (the distinction is not unlike Henri Bergson’s formation of matter and memory; you can only bump into furniture in the present). Interiority became the privilege of cinema, with acting as a performed exhibition of subjective states. Dancing was resigned to exteriority, with the body in the service of perpetual expression, even at rest. The two disciplines developed highly articulated and contrasting codes for which they would become identified but ultimately restrained. Modern choreography, it seems, would hence long to exist in the absence of physical virtuosity, to signify as bodies equally in motion as at rest, or to not signify at all. Modern cinema would find its own crisis of representation: long given to mimetic behavior, it now wanted to step out from its skin of realism, however stylized. In short, it’s as if the dancer was forbidden to act, and the actor forbidden to dance, lest their codes become corrupted, rather than enriched, by the exchange.
Stories are danced, and dances have narratives, to be sure. Fred Astaire stumbles predictably into movement in the screen musical The Bandwagon, just as Pina Bausch’s Café Muller enacts a narrative, however inchoate, predicated on a gamut of gestures: exits, betrayals, repetitions, and futility in the face (and foot) of the material world. Both instances can be isolated as examples of pure movement, regardless of milieu or choreographic intent. And yet their respective legibility is contextual, each ushering in meaning according to genre. They are expressive toward different ends. It is commonly supposed that these ends are disparate, at cross-purposes, but it is the devotion of the body that binds the gestures in commonality. Both seem radical in their way (seen ahistorically), and the unforced synthesis of the two could account somewhat for the uncanny attraction of watching the sublimely tortured routines of Beau Travail’s legionnaires on the harshest of desert floors, against an unsheltering sky. For all the post-colonial and sexually-oriented readings the film has inspired, it is still instructive to recall Denis’ comment that the film is very much like a Busby Berkeley musical, reconfigured. Dancer and choreographer Bernardo Montet was responsible for the “balletic” sequences, and his presence as one of the acting legionnaires hardly goes noticed.
The Greek “coming of age” (or “waiting for death”) film Attenberg by Athina Rachel Tsangari enlists passages of formalized but awkward dance to articulate an inquiry into primitivism, or “human fauna” that so obsesses its female protagonist. It’s a perfectly sensible aesthetic strategy for the film whose register isn’t fully recognizable. Is this a dance film with protracted narrative sequences full of dialogue? If so, dance audiences may consider themselves teased, and cinephiles nonplussed – as ifwhat was culturally required was a Wim Wenders documentary to clarify the different schools, in case they strut too far into each other’s realms. In the wake of Pina (In 3D!), it is possible that dance (with a capital D) will be elevated like the strong but diminutive dancer the culture wants it to be. Girl Walk//All Day, a film by Jacob Krupnick and featuring dancer Anne Marsen (which has made the ranks of many year-end film polls) takes public choreography to a sustained and popularly enchanting level, but fans of Clara van Gool and the DV8 Physical Theatre may shrug. In the convenient parlance of our times, it will be Beyonce who inspired that uptight Belgian choreographer, and American football will be credited with the invention of yoga.
What happens when dance and cinema cease to distract or engage us through the salient means of seduction, manipulation, and spectacle? Can the body at relative rest, perhaps just walking, enchant us in the age of a certain physical obsolescence (in which exercise has been fetishized rather than naturalized)? Works of a durational nature, in which time is experienced or imposed as a vicissitudinal reality, are seen as unwelcome longueurs that are heretical to the commercial enterprise of art. Time, along with the body, becomes an inevitable player in the grander scheme of artistic endeavor, invariably avowed or disavowed according to our prerogative, but ultimately ignored at our peril. Dance, borne of a kinetic instinct, inquired of itself if it was still dance when it stopped moving. Cinema, sprung from inertia, stayed at rest until acted upon by an equal or greater force. In this regard works of art in either field that paused in this indeterminate space were considered lugubrious, rather than faithful to our lived experience, which too often unfolds at a commensurate pace. Seen in this context certain works by Bela Tarr (i.e. Werkmeister Harmonies) or Jacques Tati (i.e. Playtime) may well be viewed in the context of dance cinema, foregrounded as they are on the body, in space, over time. Walking, in the films of both directors, assumes a political and aesthetic dimension anathema to dominant cinema in general but central to dance practice and theory.
The tacit acknowledgement of an impasse, both physical and existential, is at the core of exploratory dance and cinema. The sustained gesture, often seen as a rupture in more hegemonic artistic practice, becomes substantive of, rather than exceptional to, the considered practice. (The sustained gesture may involve infinite digression or fracture, but it is still maintained with conviction, as in the work of Godard.) Dance cinema, however we come to define it, occupies a unique position at this intersection, between the phenomenal and the symbolic, the persistence of the body and the embalming nature of film. Through a cine-choreography, dance is able to resist time, and film is able to reclaim the body. Here the spectacular and the intimate are combined, such that Hollywood iterations of hyper-physical superheroes conjoin with Merce Cunningham’s idea of immobility as sufficient aesthetic experience. The mediation of the camera becomes the key choreographic component. “Difficulties arise,” wrote Walter Sorell in The Dance Through The Ages (1967) “when the camera abandons its role as the mere recorder of movement and begins to assert its own personality.”
Dance film is predicated on, willed into being by, this “difficulty.” The camera is never neutral, without “its own personality.” In essence, the dance film constitutes the camera’s personality, makes of it and its handler a choreographer. In this sense the role of the cinematographer in narrative and documentary film ought to be reframed in a choreographic context. The work of Tilman Büttner, the German cinematographer who shot Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, in which an unseen narrator passes through St. Petersburg’s Hermitage museum in one uninterrupted take, could itself be considered a dance in its own right, and provides an illuminating and enviable lesson to the performing/recording (pr)axis. The cinematographer (or videographer) as embedded choreographer does not necessarily entail a moving subject with attendant, phantasmagoric Steadicam, but the tandem exchange often provides memorable, ecstatic examples. In the case of the seventeen synchronized cameras trained on Zinedine Zidane for the duration of a football match in the Douglas Gordon and Phillipe Parreno documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, the subject (a footballer) and the social context (a stadium) necessitate a fixed position, albeit one no less choreographic in its record. In the instance of visual anthropologist Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Leviathan, a document of deep sea fishing, the cameras assume an unprecedented autonomous role by their random deployment, and the positions of choreographer and choreographed become subsumed by the contingency of the ongoing moment. The resultant immersion removes a space between audience and subject, camera and object, intentional and incidental, and yields a purely sensory experiential space—a somatic location privileged by dance.
Did the materialist cinema of Robert Bresson—with its insistence not on actors but on “models,” uttering lines without inflection and devoid of a certain characterological projection—in some ways prefigure a gestural tendency of dance film subject? Those loose-limbed, slack-jawed, steely-eyed non-performances share a certain stoic pose of the dancer trying to inhabit a non-signifying process. Can the dancer be on stage and not be dancing? Can the actor in a film be empty? Is there such a thing as culture without choreography? Left to refer to their disciplinary tropes, dance and film struggle to converse across prescribed lines, a threshold which the indeterminate genre that is the dance film waits, with poise and abandon, to subtly explode. Cue exiled Galoup’s feverish disco letting-go epilogue in Beau Travail, scored to Corona’s 80’s club anthem Rhythm of the Night, and a possible scenario emerges, fulfilling something of Maya Deren’s prophecy of a “potential filmic dance form, in which the choreography and movements would be designed, precisely, for the mobility and other attributes of the camera.”
Postscript: This essay exercised an extemporaneous element in which no edits were allowed (save for grammatical and notational ones for the sake of legibility), in keeping in the spirit of being subject to time without recourse, as in a dance. It owes something to Susan Rethorst’s concept, in her book A Choreographic Mind, of allowing language to follow from creative process. It is not a thesis but a process, and like a tango, it must be danced to the end, as in the fictional essay by Anne Carson, The Beauty of the Husband.
Thanks to: Velocity, The Northwest Film Forum, Shannon Stewart, Adam Sekuler, Allie Hankins, Salt Horse
Jay Kuehner is a film critic and consultant who writes regularly on international cinema for several publications, including Cinema Scope, Senses of Cinema, Fandor and Indiewire. He was assistant curator of New Dance Cinema in 2005 at the Northwest Film Forum. His first solo dance performance is private.
Featured photo is anfilm still from the seminal dance-film, 9 Variations on a Theme, by Hilary Harris