February 29, 2024
Review: Kinesthetic Empathy at the 2024 Dance on Camera Festival

Men in bathrobes and towels dance in a gymnasium
A still from Al Blackstone and Aidan Gibney’s ‘At the Bathhouse.’ Courtesy Film at Lincoln Center

Dance and film lovers, rejoice! The 52nd Annual Dance on Camera Festival is coming to Lincoln Center, starting today (February 9) and running through February 12. Over four days, the festival will feature eleven thoughtfully curated programs of thirty-six films from around the world. The films range in length from three to 103 minutes, and in style too. There are documentaries, experimental films, comedies, and music videos. There is a healthy mix of the beautiful and the absurd, the familiar and the I’ve-never-seen-anything-like-this-before.

For those in the dance film (or screen dance or screendance or video dance) industry, having your work shown at this festival means you’ve made it. Dance on Camera is the longest-running dance film festival in the world, inaugurated in 1971 and co-presented with Film at Lincoln Center since 1996. Every year, curators review hundreds of entries to find the best of the best and create an exciting program that appeals to general audiences and dance insiders alike.

I spoke with one curator, Cara Hagan, a dance film practitioner, scholar, educator and writer, as well as an Associate Professor and Program Director for the MFA in Contemporary Theatre Performance at The New School. She has been embedded in the dance film world for a long time and is the author of Screendance from Film to Festival: Celebration and Curatorial Practice published in 2022. She knows what she’s talking about.

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Hagan explained with contagious enthusiasm that the history of movement on film is the history of film. When movie cameras were invented, one of the first things people wanted to film was dance. “Because they were like ‘People are moving! We’re moving!’ There wasn’t sound. There wasn’t dialogue. What else are you going to capture but the choreography of life or actual choreography?”

She then went on to explain that screendance (her preferred term) “is magic. We have power over the laws of time and physics… Any time we make a jump cut, we’re moving through time, we’re teleporting… I think what we get when we put movement on screen is the extension of the capabilities of the human body. We can go so incredibly slow. We can go so incredibly fast. We can do things out of order. We can bring people into spaces where we couldn’t necessarily bring an audience.”

“This is certainly not to say that any one space is better than another,” Hagan added. “There are things about live performance that you don’t get in the filmic space. Most saliently, the energetic exchange that you get between live performers and live audience. However, kinesthetic empathy happens in different ways. And we don’t necessarily have to be in live space to experience kinesthetic empathy. We can experience it through the screen.”

The Festival is overflowing with options, so if you’re feeling overwhelmed—four days is a lot, eleven programs is a lot, thirty-six films is a lot—here are some suggestions:

Dance that travels the world 

Romance (part of the Global Shorts program on February 10 at 3:15 p.m.), directed by Samantha Shay and created in collaboration with an intergenerational ensemble of dancers from Tanztheater Wuppertal, is one of the highlights of the whole festival. The film is based on Miranda July’s short story “It was Romance” and the real-life experiences of Brazilian-born, transgender company member Naomi Brito. It is stunningly shot on 16mm film in Pina Bausch’s rehearsal studio, and slips between fictional narrative, documentary, and gut-wrenchingly beautiful dancing.

A prone woman with long red hair clutches her decolletageA prone woman with long red hair clutches her decolletage
A still from ‘Romance,’ directed by Samantha Shay. Constanza Sandoval

Also on that program are Karen Kaeja and Roshanak Jaberi’s surreal all-female Slipping set in rural Quebec, Gabriela Cavanagh and Grace McNally’s OtroLado / OtherSide set in Cuba, and Laura Steiner’s short three-minute but mighty Thick Skin set in Colombia.

Chin-Yuan Ke’s Sea Spray / 海之岸, set in Taiwan, is another highly anticipated film. It is part of the Environmental Expressions program (on February 11 at 11:30 a.m.), along with other films in conversation with the climate crisis. Director Ke is considered Taiwan’s first investigative filmmaker focused on the environment, and his dedicated passion runs through the film. It is part nature documentary, part site-specific dance performance. It is visually stunning and thought-provoking. “In this setting,” one of the dancers says during the film, “dance takes on a wild, animalistic quality. It reveals a raw humanity. We’re animals too… biological organisms.”

Janique L. Robillard and Eric Bate’s Branché follows with a poignant, circus art-inspired exploration of nature and deforestation in Quebec. And then Vajrasara’s short (8m) A State of Thirst, set in India, imagines a solitary water-scarce existence.

Dance with an art film vibe 

The Provocative Perspectives program (February 10 at 8:15 p.m.) is perhaps the best example of what Hagan called “magic”. In these films, time bends, narratives lose recognizable arcs, and film editing tricks are at their finest. Viewers are invited to have their own experiences of the work and draw their own conclusions about it. In Kimberley Cooper and Noel Bégin’s otherworldly 3 Horsewomen, inspired by F.W. Murnau’s 1926 silent film Faust, the three performers dance on mechanical horses covered in silver leaf. Cat Rider and zap mcconnell’s Devouring Stones Up Close is a hallucinatory vision of the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and Eva Tang’s Am I Here is a claustrophobic rendering of a home. All seven films in this program promise to stretch your thoughts and lead to interesting post-show conversations.

A shadowy view of a dancer hanging onto a flagpoleA shadowy view of a dancer hanging onto a flagpole
A still from Vajrasara’s ‘A State of Thirst.’ Courtesy Film at Lincoln Center

Dance for the romantics 

“We got so many films about love,” Hagan said. Maybe it’s because we are all still reeling from the isolation of the Covid pandemic, but the curators got so many entries that dealt with connection in all its many wonderful forms. “People are talking about love, people are talking about family, people are talking about communities and trusting each other and holding each other up.”

The curators created a program specifically dedicated to the theme Human Connections (February 11 at 7:45 p.m.). Many of Hagan’s personal favorites are on this program—Marc Grey’s humorous ​​Life Hacks for Lovers, James Kinney and Pierre Marais’s moving Bound By A Thread, and Jaden Esse’s delightful What Lies Beneath

A large troupe of dancers that includes dancers who are differently abledA large troupe of dancers that includes dancers who are differently abled
Catalan dance collective Liant la Troca in ‘A Way to B.’ Courtesy Film at Lincoln Center

If You Love History 

“History is necessarily incomplete,” Hagan said. So, when we get these documentaries and pieces about folks’ work that is seeking to preserve something about our history as movers and as makers and as people who support movement work and makers, that feels really salient.”

One of the films that brings to light a story almost lost to history is Jennifer Lin’s Ten Times Better, part of the Classical Combinations program (February 10 at 6:00 p.m.) that focuses on ballet. The documentary is about George Lee, an 88-year-old blackjack dealer who was a refugee from Shanghai and danced Tea in the original production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.

Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl Saunders’s Obsessed with Light (closing out the festival on February 12 at 6:30 p.m.) is a documentary about Loïe Fuller, a pioneer of modern dance,  theatrical costume, and lighting design. This is the second film Oelbaum and Saunders have created together under their production company Between the Rivers Productions. The first, Letters From Baghdad (voiced and executive produced by Tilda Swinton), tells the story of Gertrude Bell—the brilliant woman overshadowed by T.E. Lawrence. “That’s what draws us to make films,” Saunders said. “The idea of finding women who are really unusual, interesting, and have been kind of forgotten.”

Saunders came across footage of Fuller’s serpentine dance (while working on a film about cubism’s early influence on cinema) and was mesmerized. “When we started to research her,” Oelbaum told me, “We came across so many contemporary writers and artists and designers who referenced her.” Just a few: Red Hot Chili Peppers, William Kentridge, Taylor Swift, Alexander McQueen, and Shakira. “We were blown away how she was sort of everywhere, but no one knew anything about her.” They decided she would make a great subject.

The film weaves archival footage (hand-tinted!) of Fuller’s trailblazing dances, an exploration of the creation of a new work by choreographer Jody Sperling and her Time Lapse Dance Company, and interviews with contemporary artists influenced by Fuller’s work. To see archival film of Fuller on the big screen is an experience not to be missed.

The Dance on Camera Festival starts today, February 9, and runs through February 12 at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. 

Dance on Camera 2024: A Festival of Love, Water and Kinesthetic Empathy Starts Today

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