A dance film is a film in which dance plays a central role (epitomized by Hollywood musicals for some 3 decades). It combines film technique and choreography to create meaning beyond that of staged performance. In its broadest sense, mainstream dance film uses editing and camera position to create plot and to suggest multiple layers of emotional or psychological depth. This is clear in almost any classic Hollywood musical you choose to look at (such as Swing Time, 1936, extracted below).
But let’s start at the beginning by clarifying what we mean by choreography: a dictionary defines the word choreography as “the sequence of steps and movements in dance, in figure skating, ballet or other staged dance”. However, a still wider meaning of the term refers to “the art or practice of designing sequences of movements for physical bodies”. In film this implies a choreography of camera movement too. Furthermore, although traditionally, the bodies in movement in film are human – they don’t have to be. Some ‘dance film’ explores the movement of grass bending by the wind, cross-cut let’s say with waves in the sea or even dockside cranes being operated in sequence.
In a sense, therefore, we need to interpret movement of physical bodies in film as almost an abstract concept. The art of film has to be acknowledged as deeply involved with choreography in its essence. As the esteemed Hollywood writer and director, Abraham Polonsky, once put it (I am paraphrasing): “When you’re making a movie you have to pay attention to every object in the frame: obviously you must be aware of where the actors are but also where the table is, where the chairs are, where the floor is and the ceiling and the walls. If you’re not paying attention to how all these things fit together then you are not making a movie, your are simply filming things.” Perhaps this is nowhere better illustrated than in Citizen Kane (1941), in which Orson Welles’ camera (the boyhood sequence is shown, right) in so many scenes is clearly aware of where people are in relation to walls, windows and ceilings, in the foreground, the middle ground and background and how these things can enhance thematic content.
REFINING MOVEMENT FOR FILM The first moving pictures were all about a fascination with movement and this in itself was enough to attract audiences. Research that led to moving pictures was actually led by a desire to analyse movement by freezing it. It was later suggested that a machine could put these images together again to create an illusion of movement. When the moving image first appeared no one was sure what it should or could be used for. Initial experiments (particularly by Muybridge for example) had apparently been motivated by scientific investigation, but once movement started to be organised in the frame, posed, framed and edited, the moving picture was in the running to become an art. Of course we might assume (wrongly) that dance could not influence silent film – but that is to ignore that musical accompaniment attended films from the start. In 1895 Edison made perhaps the first dance film with Annabelle (left). However, this short film does not really conform to a requirement for the use of film technique – which did not yet exist (though it is carefully framed). But Annabelle simply captures a popular stage act of the day and was hand-tinted (as shown here) as an extra special attraction. Most films at this time were simply acted out in front of a camera as if in front of a theatre audience – no close-ups or camera movements were yet possible so film acting had to be big and bold at the beginning.
It was the more subtle performance style of French comedian, Max Linder (1883 – 1925), who led the way to a more nuanced and choreographed moving picture . As this link shows, his timing and ability to maintain dignity in the face of the most humiliating pratfalls, his balletic movement in the frame and the editing of his films contribute to the impact of the experience. He began appearing in short comedies in France from 1905 – almost 10 years before Chaplin began his film career. Linder (right) was a major influence on the new American comedians: Chaplin, Keaton and most of the Hollywood greats took something from this great innovator. However, a simple comparison shows how the American cinema developed the art of editing to heighten the choreography of comedy.
In the 7 minute long Max Juggles for Love (1912), for example, we see how choreography is managed ‘in camera’: all the long shots are static, but the placing of furniture and the movement of characters in the frame are carefully arranged. What is more, exit left from a shot is always followed in the next shot with an entry from the right (and vice-versa), thus indicating where we are in space. Of course, the French had led the way in film language with the in-camera editing tricks of Georges Méliès (1861 – 1938) but in Linder a subtle new choreography began to appear.
Only 2 years after Max Juggles for Love Charlie Chaplin appeared in Mabel at the Wheel (1914) – though he had not yet adopted the little tramp persona with whom we are now so familiar. Instead Chaplin is dressed in a style very similar to that of Linder’s more sophisticated man about town character (left). In addition, the technical style of Mabel at the Wheel (1914) presents a stark difference from Linder’s film. (Ignore the quality – the later film has been restored and both would have been just a clear in their day). The Chaplin film is 3 times longer than Linder’s (at 23 minutes) and the editing is more frequent and accomplished, so that it compliments the movement in the frame. What is more, the visual gags are more reliant on editing and, as a consequence, the physical action is far more precisely choreographed.
By the time we get to Keaton’s films like One Week (1920), The Goat (1921), or Cops (1922), the framing and use of close-up inserts to denote a point of view are noticeably precise. Cars, trains and even buildings have become part of the films’ choreography so that framing and editing all work in perfect concert to construct complex situations. (Indeed the literal movement if furniture in Cops is paramount – though you will need to watch the whole film to appreciate this!) Smooth editing and elegant – almost balletic – performance are now integrated, so that barely any inter-titles are needed to compensate for a lack of sound/ dialogue. Also, the camera (in mostly outdoor locations) moves confidently to follow the action and the choreography – involving an army of extras dressed as policemen – is lyrically coordinated to bring everything to a spirited conclusion.
Little wonder, then that the director of the 2008 Pixar production, WALL_E told his animators to study the films of Chaplin and Keaton for inspiration on how to compose the gestures of the main animated character.
MUSICAL ACCOMPANIMENT & SYNCHRONIZATION These early performers brought a poetic quality to movement on film even without carefully synchronized music, though the importance of modifying meaning of movement in film through music had been recognized by D.W. Griffith in 1915, when he had a score composed for a full orchestra to tour with Birth of a Nation. His famous use of Wagner’s stirring ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ to heighten the tension of the Ku Klux Klan’s ride to the rescue (of white people surrounded by a marauding pack of blacks) lent fuel to those who accused him of racism …
In Germany some years later a spirit of national identity was finding cultural expression in an even more poetically choreographed genre of film …
Here Leni Reifenstahl opens the film with a dance to a seemingly silent rhapsody of nature, while the crashing waves are slowed to coincide with the poetry of her bodily expression. She would later go on to choreograph documentary footage in a celebration of Adolph Hitler (Triumph of the Will, 1935) and the following year, to turn the Olympic Games into an opportunity for Nazi propaganda (Olympia – Fest der Vollker). Not all the use of music and choreography in German film was employed for propaganda however. When F.W. Murnau was given the opportunity to work in Hollywood on Sunrise – A Song of Two Humans (1927), he cut his film to its rhythms.
MUSICALS: The popularity of The Jazz Singer (1927) and other synchronized sound films led Hollywood to produce some 60 musicals as early as 1929 and they continued to bring in big box office receipts even after the Wall Street crash. Their plots often celebrated the work ethic and thus constitute a sort of capitalist propaganda at a time when the Great Depression was throwing thousands into poverty. On the other hand, films like Dance Until Dawn (1931) and 42nd Street (1933), while ostensibly sympathizing with the working class (specifically those in show business), also demonstrated the value of hard work in their choreography often resulted in human beings being turned into a mere component of a (capitalist) machine.
What these films also did was to make very clear the superiority of seeing dance on film as opposed to seeing it on stage. Bodies – especially female bodies – became items of decoration, moving in unison with the automated music and were presented as objects to be looked at for pleasure. The choreography of Busby Berkeley in particular has been read as coming out of a circus tradition where spectacle is the main aesthetic and ‘optical politics’ make women two-dimensional, subordinate to a voyeuristic gaze whose instrument is the camera.
The annual number of musical productions stayed high through to the 1950s but a decline in popularity set in with the 1960s that coincided with a shift in the studio system and the rise of rock musicals that tended to change or challenge romantic conventions of the traditional Hollywood musical. Notable resistance to the death of musicals in the 1970s were announced by Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978). Interestingly these two films articulate the shift in balance of ‘real’ and ‘ideal’ components of the musical. In the contemporary 1970s setting of Saturday Night Fever, dance numbers take place in the real world, such as in nightclubs (where competitions are held). Importantly, these are realistically counterpointed by a world of difficulties faced by characters. In teh retro 1950s setting of Grease, musical components – in keeping with its stage origins – are an idealized, escapist, parallel reality. In both cases, however, the status of music and dance is a ‘utopian’ solution to real, social needs.
Rick Altman (Genre: The Musical. RKP, 1981) has suggested three basic musical types: the fairy tale musical (in which ‘restoring order to the couple accompanies and parallels … restoration of order the an imaginary kingdom’); the show musical (in which ‘creation of the couple is associated with the creation of a work of art’, such as a Broadway show, the film, a magazine or concert); and finally the folk musical (in which ‘integrating two disparate individuals into a single couple heralds the entire group’s communion with each other.’ (Altman, The American Film Musical. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1987: 126)
By 1992 only 7 musicals came out of American studios. However this was the year of the cult Australian musical, Strictly Ballroom, Baz Luhrmann’s first film project that seems to revived interest in dance film. The final dance sequence from the film however uses heavy editing and contrasts with the long takes of classical Hollywood or even the wide shots of Grease or Saturday Night Fever…
Mini-Musicals Though perhaps we should not put all of this revival down to this Australian contribution: the 1980s saw the rise of MTV and the pop videos – which were in effect “bite-size” dance films. Probably the most influential ere those from Michael Jackson’s album Thriller (1982), which sold 65 million world-wide and was aided by videos some of its key tracks – especially the video for “Billie Jean” (which referenced classic film noir), “Beat It” (with its West Side Story scenario) and of course “Thriller” (with its classic horror film framing), all of which were shown in regular rotation on MTV. What these and other Jackson videos do is revive not just the story-types but also the dance steps of classic musicals, using film as a tool to showcase particular shapes and poses (i.e. slowed down takes, fast edits, freeze frames etc.). These 7 or 15 minute dance videos distilled the essence of dance film and prepared the way for today’s work by dance artists.
But while they are an influence, pop videos are not the original fore-runners of today’s dance film artists. They reduce the demands that movie length texts of classic Hollywood place on the viewer and this harks back to Maya Deren, an important avant garde filmmaker and dance artist of the 1940s, whose famous statement could almost be a manifesto for modern dance films:
“I am not greedy. I do not seek to possess the major portion of your days. I am content if, on those rare occasions whose truth can be stated only by poetry, you will, perhaps, recall an image, even only the aura of my films.”
Deren made a number of important, break-through films in the 1940’s with which you should be familiar: Meshes of the Afternoon (a strange dream-scape), At Land which has been interpreted as having a feminist agenda) and (perhaps most importantly for us) A Study in Choreography for Camera. Significantly, the last two are silent films (so you should turn off the sound if YouTube has chosen to add a soundtrack ). Deren’s work should remind us that dance film reduces movement and framing to an essence that can explore many different elements. Such as this piece from the Canadian Institute of Dance, that attempts to brings together dance and architecture in five minutes of choreography: Painted by Duncan Macdowell.
A distinction between ‘retro’ and modern dance film might be made by comparing the first link on this blog page with the above, Painted. In the first, a collage of classic Hollywood musical extracts is edited to synchronize (quite brilliantly) with a modern pop soundtrack: in the second, the music could be more accurately described as a soundscape. In the collage, all the clips demonstrate a unified camera position to show choreography from the position of a theatre audience and which emphasizes the physical skills of performers (i.e. those leaps from the stairs into spits at the end .. owch!); in the second, a range of camera angles and moving close-ups are edited together to create a second, layered appreciation of not just the physical performance but also the space, the frame composition, the shapes created by details seen in cuts from the wide shots. ‘Applause’ for each of these films appreciates different levels of the text: in the first it celebrates the performer (indeed the ‘invisible’ editing of such films tried to erase everyone else from the picture); in Painted, the viewer gains an awareness of not only the performer, but also the editor, the cinematography and perhaps an ‘auteur’ behind the over-all concept.
And then there’s this …
For further investigation of the body in early film, check out episode 3 of The Last Machine (The Body Electric).
Or … a list of musicals by year (though perhaps not definitive).
Or Filmsite provides an overview.