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John J Cook

Envisioning Dance on Film and Video Review Routledge Press 2002 pages 364 plus DVD Judy Mitoma, Editor Elizabeth Zimmer, Text Editor Dale Ann Stieber, DVD Editor Hardback $95 and paperback $40

At last, I thought, as I picked up the extravagant hardback with accompany DVD, a solution to my backbreaking and mind numbing routine of collecting and schlepping dance videos, slides and reading packets for my dance studies classes was over. No more copying, cueing or converting of dance videos. Finally, dance book publishers have heard my pleas and put together a nice neat teaching package for me, and an affordable paperback and video option for my students.

I quickly perused the table of contents; then without waiting until I was in the comfort of my own home or office I pulled out my laptop and played the DVD. The quality and ease of use are startling. But alas, as I browsed through the chapters I quickly realized once again that my search was far from over.

Like Deborah Jowitt, who recently reviewed Envisioning Dance for “Wired Dance World,” I too have scavenged the globe for dance films to use in my dance and performance classes. For years I have traded tapes with colleagues, pleaded with librarians, dance festival coordinators, public relations representatives for dance companies and the film and video production companies themselves, with remarkable success. Now as Dance History takes hold in the University more resources for the dance scholar, educator and student are making their way into libraries, bookstores and video rental shops. Several recent anthologies and single volume dance histories provide some consistency in reading material for dance survey classes.[1] Likewise a few attempts at making a dance video series have contributed to the burgeoning canon of dance works. [2]

However, Envisioning Dance on Film and Video breaks new grounds in dance literature by augmenting the written text with a moving text. Looking more like a textbook than the usual Routledge Press Reader or Anthology, editors Judy Motima, Elizabeth Zimmer and Dale Ann Stieber included a two hour long DVD with forty excerpts ranging in length from 1 minute to 6 minutes and 27 seconds. The publication combines the efforts of a number of editors and contributors working over a span of six years under the auspices of the University of California at Los Angeles National Dance/Media Project with funding by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Organized into eight sections with fifty-five chapters and ninety-three illustrations, Envisioning Dance on Film and Video attempts to portray the artistry, industry and history of Dance on Film and Video from its origins until the end of the twentieth century. Neither the text nor the DVD follows a chronological progression. Rather the essays are arranged thematically with thirty-one of them relating directly to the forty clips on the DVD. The text is framed in front by Virginia Brooks’ clear and useful Timeline of major dance and cinema events and the back by Deidre Tower’s fairly comprehensive Filmography which includes details on each of the films included on the DVD, plus many other significant works that did not make into the compilation.

From the very start of Part One Chapter with Jac Venza’s insightful essay on “dance as television,” it is clear that Envisioning Dance for Film and Video serves multiple purposes. Unfortunately, none of which will satisfy the needs of a dance survey course. Having said that, the authors never make a claim to this. Instead the editors and their fifty-five collaborators culled together material generated from a series of seminars and workshops to form the volume.

The book does introduce significant practitioners on both sides of the camera to its readers. The strongest part of book draws into dialogue the choreographer / director / performer and camera with one another and the moving images on the DVD. Here dance veterans Meredith Monk (16 Millimeter Earrings and Book of Days), William Forsythe (Kammer/Kammer) with text by Roslyn Sulcas, Eiko Otake of Eiko and Koma (Husk) and Bill T. Jones (Ghostcatching) articulate the difficulties, aesthetic decisions, compromises and creative possibilities involved with the transformative nature of film, video and digital composition.

It is refreshing to see such a broad spectrum of dance techniques covered. Documentaries on tap dance and Cambodian dance share equal billing with modern dance and ballet performances. One section of the book is set aside for ethnographic representations including examples of dances from New England, Hawaii, Africa and India. Worth noting is Sally Sommer’s dance documentary, Check Your Body at the Door, about the underground dance scene in New York clubs in the 1990s. Regrettably no footage is included on the DVD.

Very much a work on envisioning North American and English choreographers and directors of film and video, it is quite disappointing that two major figures in American dance film, Charles Atlas and Eliot Caplan, did not contribute essays to the volume. David Vaughan does discuss Atlas’ and Caplan’s work with Cunningham in his five-page chapter supported with two video clips of Channels/Inserts (1982) and Points in Space (1986). But arguably, Atlas and Caplan, like Maya Deren, establish dance film as an art form in America well before the 1980s dominance in Europe.

Though the focus and novelty of Envisioning Dance revolves around the moving image, still photographs and illustrations accompany most of the chapters. In general the photographs do not replicate the filmed images rather they help to place a face with a particular director or choreographer, in a couple of places the images actually become disconcerting or confusing. For example in Bob Lockyer’s chapter, ”A New Place for Dancing” the author includes two somewhat dark images from Philippe Decouflé’s Le P’tit Bal, which is also included on the DVD, but makes no reference to the work in his essay. The confusion continues as watching the full work (3’48”) on the DVD may still leave some viewers unclear as to its purpose, including why it should be considered dance, especially if the viewer does not understand the French text in the film. [3]

One can turn to the twenty page filmography at the end of the book for a brief description of each of the forty dances included on the video, but this does not help to elucidate why some clips were chosen and others not.

Its the variety of voices and the excellent account of American dance on television that are what make the collection of essays a unique contribution to dance studies. Jac Venza’s essay on the history of the long running Dance in America television series charts the challenges and successes of bringing the art of dance to a wider and more pluralistic American audience. In much the same way Envisioning Dance draws from an eclectic mix of producers, directors, cinematographers, videographers, choreographer, dancers and archivists to create an, albeit skewed, The essays are the best when they allow the very personal portrayals of the author’s, often technical, relationship with the camera and the dance to come through. As interesting as the texts are, I feel that the general reader will make more use of the DVD than the essays, where the practitioner may find the essays to be a much needed guide for their own interdisciplinary undertakings.

Like many anthologies one asks what could have been included, or perhaps excluded. With some Chapters being as short as two to three pages, I wonder if the book would not have been better served with fewer chapters allowing for greater depth and better integration of the clips on the DVD. Though included in Deidre Tower’s filmography, a more consistent and detailed description of the works themselves would have been most welcomed, even if it was only included on the DVD itself. Some of the book’s strengths are also its weaknesses. The abundance of personal, anecdotal and technical detail in the essays limits the historical and theoretical content. This makes it necessary to supplement the text with a historical and theoretical framework for dance film studies, one that does not exist in any collected form at this time.

Two major flaws mar the book for me. First, though the authors claim to cover the entire history of dance on film and video the earliest piece included in the DVD is Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn’s choreography for the “Babylon section” in DW Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance. How rich the anthology would be if it included some of Edison’s films on the DVD that Judy Mitoma and Virginia Brooks mentioned in their essays. Shot between 1894 and 1903 many of Edison’s early productions are now in the public domain, readily available and short enough to be included in their totality. Granted neither Martha Graham or Twyla Tharp made it on to the DVD, so one should not be surprised.

The second flaw preventing Envisioning Dance from serving as a primary text on dance film is the omission of a large spectrum of European and Asian choreographers and directors who have been at the forefront of dance on film and video for the past twenty-five years. Besides scant reference to the work of Mathew Bourne, Mats Ek, Sasha Waltz, Pina Bausch, Sankai Juku, Kazuo Ohno, Daniel Larrieu or Joelle Bouvier and Regis Obadia, all of whom have seminal dace films to their credit, two highly acclaimed Belgian directors, Walter Verdin and Error! Bookmark not defined., and the infamous Belgian choreographers Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Wim Vandekeybus were left out. Even in Deidre Tower’s filmography the two landmark dance films of the 1990s Roseland and Rosas dans Rosas, receive no recognition. Wandekeybus’ Roseland however did make it onto Virginia Brooks’ Timeline. I cannot imagine a class on dance on film without consideration of these two works and their respective directors and choreographers.

In keeping with the Anglo-North American bias of Envisioning Dance, the major Continental European dance film and video festivals are no where to be found in the text. [4]

As an important first initiative, though not inclusive enough or critical enough to be used as a primary text for a course Envisioning Dance on Film and Video establishes the viability of a combined dance book and DVD for the market place. It sets a positive example for a new genre of performance readers

For all its shortcomings Envisioning Dance on Film and Video provides a unique insight into the development of Anglo-American Dance Film and Video and should be in every dance department and University library collection.

Other recommended books on Dance Film and Video:

Sherrill Dodds’ Dance on Screen: Genres and Media from Hollywood to Experimental Art (2001), Stephanie Jordan’s and Dave Allen’s Parallel Lines: Media Representations of Dance (1993), Felicia McCarren’s Dancing Machines: Choreographies of the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (2003) and Louise Spain’s Dance on Camera: A Guide to Dance Films and Videos (1998).

John Cook teaches the History of Art at Columbia College Chicago and Performance Art at Northwestern University. His current project brings together performance, film and kinetic utterances examining issues of privacy and communication in the Middle East.

ENDNOTES

  1. Some of the best examples of general survey readers are: Alexander Carter’s The Routledge Dance Studies Reader (London; New York: Routledge, 1998), Ann Dils’ and Ann Cooper Albright’s Moving History Dancing Culture: A Dance History Reader, (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyn University Press, 2001), Susan Au’s Ballet and Modern Dance, World of Art, 2nd ed. (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2002 and Nancy Reynold’s and Malcom McCormick’s Dance in the Twentieth Century, (New Haven: Yale University Press 2003).
  2. Two major undertakings worthy of note are Dancing: the pleasure, power and art of movement for PBS with accompanying book and Siecle de danse produced for French television.
  3. Le P’tit Bal, as were all of the other dance films which were described in Chapter 28 and included on the DVD, was part of the BBC’s Dance for the Camera series produced by Mr. Lockyer.
  4. Two of the best resources on new dance films and videos are from Germany and Austria. IMZ Dance Screen or ImpulsTanz provide online samples and catalogs of dance films shown in their festivals. Two other useful sites for Belgium choreographers and directors are Argos in Brussels and C-Sales in Amsterdam.