Review: Dance on Film by Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company
by David Glen Robinson
The long-running Dance on Film series of the Austin Dance Festival presented yet another strong set of dance films, not merely cameras pointed at dance stages or rehearsal floors, but dances imagined and performed for the camera. In these dances cinematography is very much a partner of choreography. That quality opens the dance world to cinema's near-infinite variety of sets and settings, lighting designs, soundtracks, and costumes.
A brief interview with Ilana Wolanow, co-producer of the series, gained answers to questions about how such a successful series with worldwide submissions could be produced year after year.
What is the praxis of producing a dance film series? The results make it look easy.
“It is actually a lengthy and somewhat difficult process,” Wolanow answered. The small Austin team is supplemented by producers of dance films elsewhere, contributors of films in past years, and interested choreographers and dancers. “We consider film submissions for about four months, and everyone has a say,” said Wolanow. “Yes, there are very many submissions, and we winnow them down to just those that can be shown in the presentation.” Unfortunately for 2023, the growth of other elements of the festival meant less theatre time, so there was no second slate of films. The winnowing process was more stringent than before. Show/no show decisions were tougher than ever.
An online resource made the process easier. “It’s the Film Freeway International website,” said Wolanow. The site is a hub and a kind of clearinghouse for films. They receive dance films from filmmakers, but offer out their films only to film festivals. “We take all our candidate submissions from them. That’s really when our work begins,” she said. “We directly craft our selected submissions into the actual film presentation. We must look at every element: tone (emotional and psychological), numbers of dancers on camera, music, lighting, and genre. The balance has to be right.”
Like producing a multiple-act live stage show?
“Exactly like that.”
The results for 2023 were colorful, engaging, heartfelt, and hilarious.
The darkly mysterious “Moth” started one down from the text notes: “’Moth’ explores female desire in a darkened space of imagination using a single light source: a lantern.” Then the opening frames illuminated a couple under multiple light sources. The audience’s first thought was that there were two light sources, the lantern being one of them. Then the audience saw the same lighting again, as the piece had been started without its soundtrack. That corrected, we saw a male dancer in plenty of blueish light dancing with athletic modern technique around and around the female with the lantern. The female performer, Nicole Vaughan-Diaz, sang “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
The analogy of the moth drawn to the flame proved ultimately incomplete as the piece ended in warmly lit closeup. As dance, the greatest emphasis by far was on the male/moth, his dynamics, not hers. Again, this is against the text notes, an example of written introductory notes hindering rather than enhancing appreciation of the performance. Kate Weare and Jack Flame Sorokin directed the piece, and Kate Weare served as the choreographer.
SHADES, from the USA, is a composite of many contemporary styles from the fertile mind of Esosa Oviasu. With SHADES, Oviasu explores many dance styles in everyday settings, such as the rooms of an apartment and a wide, sandy beach. We saw modern technique, modern blended with hip-hop, and a full blast hip-hop section in a dance studio, executed to unison perfection by a large and diverse ensemble. Shades were denoted by long window-blinds and sunglasses.
A stronger theme emerged from considerable play with cell phones, as when a group tosses Esosa a cell phone and he tosses it immediately over his head to get rid of it, but the same group is waiting behind him to catch it. And they toss it back to him. You cannot escape the social networks you yourself create. SHADES, unlike other pieces in the show, is indeed enhanced by its introductory notes that describe the mind as a cavern housing many echoing voices. They can uplift or drive one to distraction. SHADES also showed innovative videography, including the latest in quasi-obligatory drone video.
“De-Eschatology” (USA) is a duet riff on the Covid pandemic and offshoot horrors such as enforced confinement and the claustrophobia that goes with it. The piece is directed, choreographed, and performed by Charly and Eriel Santagado, to a soundtrack by Saint Saëns. The set is the near-cliché empty parking garage with all its sterile, concrete-slabby alienation, a set concept exceeded in hackney only by cavernous, empty, concrete-slabby warehouses. Nothing says urbanism like gray concrete slabs. The performers sit in two chairs facing each other, they and the chairs wrapped airtight in warehouse wrapping film, victims of Costco. They move in serviceable contemporary technique despite the confinement, and gradually escape the wrapping tape. The symbolism clearly walks us back to the claustrophobic confinements, physical and emotional stress, and of course the disease itself during the plague time of the Covid 19 pandemic. The piece is well-conceptualized and performed, with enlivening humor to keep us out of complete depression.
“ARROGANCE” is another duet, but one suffering from obscurity in its attempt to be strident. The piece is from Sweden, and it shows two women performing in a by-now customary cavelike, looming warehouse. End credits suggest the warehouse may have been part of a nuclear power plant. The setting is enlivened by scenographic graphics, which are installation art pieces with colorful strips, some fluorescent, placed variously in the scenes of the dance. A decorated jacket was particularly compelling. Text notes suggest conflict over the climate crisis as the topic of the dance, but that is difficult to piece together until the end, and even that is obscure in its meanings. One of the performers walks outside in ordinary garb and a gas mask and watches several launches of ballistic missiles. That is the end of the performance. Skillful computer-generated imagery accomplishes the scenic task, but to what thematic end? Today, now, Russia launches scores of such missiles without nuclear warheads to explode and do harm but fail against Ukrainian resilience. Instead of symbols of the end of the world, are missiles becoming symbols of hostile ineffectuality?
“Shadowland” comes to us from Norway, also a Scandinavian country, . Here, the text notes are apt and illuminating. They set forth a cinematic challenge, to see if the camera can draw the viewer closer to the dancer, to share the visceral experience of that individual. The imagery was of a female in a solo, starting in floorwork in a darkened space. Her performance was highly skilled, her costume a flowing mass of soft fabric. The camera drew closer and closer but did not end in a tight closeup. The videography was as expert as the movement, and the experiment in heightened connection is a success. The dancer is Ida Haugen, the directors Alexander Kayiambakis and Kari Hoass. The choreographer is Kari Hoass
“Intimate Algorithm” from Brazil is a riff on intimate connection with the intervention and facilitation of cell phones. The piece was a movement story on a bedroom set. Two people try to connect, leaping back and forth through a door-sized framework shaped like a cell phone. The action might as well take place imaginatively in the circuitry of a cell tower. Eventually, the characters can’t go forward, and one of the partners dissolves in pixilation and a surprising bit of videography. The dancers are Priscilla Lima (also the choreographer) and Alex Pitt.
“Where tears, perhaps,” from Colombia, is an image-heavy work taking place diversely on a rocky cliffside in the Andes, the now-familiar concrete warehouse, and a weedy empty lot between two residences. Two female dancers, Maria Alejandra Ojeda and Estefania Galindo, break out of their cocoons on the rocky mountainside, costumed in black strips, to pursue an intimate duet through the remaining sets, finishing in a gymnastic shape in the empty, weedy lot. The costumes of black strips are dramatic, but what they say about birth or anything else is obscure. If the statement is light vs. dark, then the imbalance between black strips and light skin inhibits that realization.
“Hello Again” is an emotional slayer. The text notes say: “’Hello Again’ depicts the idea of reconnecting with our inner child.” Amazingly apt. The piece is from the USA and starts with a dancer (Lily Frazier) in solo on a low wooden walkway that winds through a greenbelt. The walkway is a facility for a park that could be anywhere. Soon the dancer is joined by a diminutive, very young dancer (Alejandra Bess) costumed exactly like the adult performer. They dance together and apart and in a powerful, tight unison duet. The child has all the qualities of the adult, facial expressions, and perhaps something more—joyousness. The piece altogether is optimistic and hopeful almost beyond belief. Clearly, every working fine arts dancer in America would give much to have Alejandra Bess as their inner child. Perhaps they do.
The evocatively titled “The Fell of Dark” is from the USA and is another meditation on drug addiction and the Covid pandemic. But this dance flies straight to the finality of the plague—death. The piece certainly has a contrast in tone from “Hello Again” as Wolanow mentioned in her interview. A group of dancers in flowing robes in an outdoor colonnade, perhaps at a memorial park, dance slowly back and forth. They all have long black hair draping forward from their bent heads. They never show their faces. One comes easily to the realization that the hair is the river of black tears of grief flowing down endlessly. The short piece never resolves, and perhaps that is the pathway to catharsis.
“Villa Dei Misteri,” from the USA, is very definitely a story dance, and one with a few discordant elements. Georgia Usborne is the director, choreographer, and performer. Discordantly, a baritone male voice describes in first-person entering a house up narrow stairs. Upstairs, performer Georgia Usborne wakes up, gets out of bed, and starts to dance. The dance piece is a solo, and there are no males on camera. The cinematography follows the male story voice more than the dance, however, (more moving shots up and down stairs) and the story is riddled with references to old Sophia Loren movies that no one in America has seen or wants to see. If anyone thinks they are shooting Usborne for Loren, they are mistaken. One point of connection gives some satisfaction. The voice says that a woman finds her truth when she looks in a mirror and starts to dance. Usborne does that, providing us with a moment of understanding and increased willingness to follow the video through to its end.
“Wax Tailor.” The piece is from France, and with SHADES is one of the cleverest pieces in the program. Wax Tailor is a parody of film noir movies of the 30s and 40s. It is a duet of characters. A Sam Spade type detective enters his office and seeks clues from the One-Eyed Whisperer sprawled deathlike across his desk. Against expectations, the One-Eyed Whisperer is a dancer in her prime, attired in an evening gown. The office set has all the classic earmarks of noir, including overhead darkness, light from windows cut by blinds into horizontal strips, and low camera angles. The performers dance a contemporary technique duet with much athletic contact and connection, to a soundtrack by Wax Tailor and Jennifer Charles. The dancers are Fauve Hautot and Julien Derouault. They dance ultimately to a noir de rigeur plot twist, only this one has a decidedly non-noir gender-bending outcome.
“MA CIGNO (the almost dead swan)” plays on a few historical dance cliches and tropes, starting with the somewhat deformed title. The piece is from Italy, and it is a wry take on The Dying Swan. The director is Simone Rosset, who is responsible for the wicked black humor throughout the piece. The swan is a male dancer born from an egg perched on a rock in the middle of a river. His black feathers do not lie in a normal pattern but wave around plumelike as he walks wavering on his No. 20 high heels with steel studs up each heel. Perhaps they are why he cannot hit a stride in any dance class or setting as he should. He tries and tries. He goes to a styling salon to trim some plumes. Ultimately, as the text notes state: “(he) finds no place in the pond of his life.” But his stumbling progression from scene to scene makes winning video.
In a scene with an outdoor dance class stretching and rehearsing outside the gate to a mansion or other upper-class facility, the swan walks in ungainly fashion behind the class, approaches the iron gate, and tries to climb it but fails. To camera right a dog lounges on the grass, a muttish, mid-size, long-haired happy dog with a friendly pink tongue. He’s no doubt waiting for his mistress to finish her class, and he doesn’t notice the swan or figure in the scene in any other way. However, by his presence he becomes a tongue-in-cheek screamer in the hilarious visual humor larded through the entire video dance. The piece is a wonderful dog dance because of him. Others can enjoy it too.
Dance on Film 2023 ends with immense diversity and good humor. The evening of well-made and often intriguing films is always attached to the Austin Dance Festival, which comes around once a year. Watch for it!
701 Riverside at South First,
Austin, TX, 78704
March 24, 2023
Rollins Theatre, Austin