Photo of University Hall
Creative Research Center

Making a Dance Film: field notes on A Note for the Dancer (2015) – By Kathleen Kelley

Posted in: Guest Essay

three women discussing something around a computer

On April 9th, 2015, the Department of Theatre and Dance premiered its very first dance film, A Note for the Dancer, in our annual Danceworks concert at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University. I am the creator and instigator of this film, and have helped lead the department and myself into new creative territory as we together explored the nuanced nature of dance made for the camera.

In this essay, I will unearth some of the underlying processes that go into creating a dance film. Making this film required us all to move away from the typical dance performance and production structures that are made for the stage. We quite literally “zoomed in,” leaving the epic world of the large-scale live performance to focus on the tiniest details such as a flip of a hand, the swish of a skirt, or the way a pair of eyes can connect across the frame. In this way, we were challenged to discover new ways of making meaning on an entirely different scale.

Dance film—also known as dance for camera, video dance, or cinedance—is a genre that focuses on the potential of movement inside the camera frame. Dance film developed parallel to the development of film itself, with some first experimental filmmakers like Edison and the Lumière brothers using the dancer Loïe Fuller as their subject. The aesthetics of dance film are as varied as live dance; but in general, dance film embraces non-continuous editing choices, close-ups and other inventive angles to show movement, and interesting use of environment in relationship to movement. Dance film creates “choreography” by creating a trio between the camera movement, the camera frame, and the moving subject.

Simply put, making a dance film is quite different than making a dance, but both forms share a fascination with movement and its emotional and visual effects.

Why Make A Dance Film at Montclair State?

When I teach a dance technique class, I often ask my students to move towards the things that feel most uncomfortable. I want my students to understand their “edges” — the mindsets that hold them back or keep their movements “small” or “polite.” As an artist, I am always hungry for ways to drive myself into a zone that pushes past the fear of being good or bad, succeeding or failing. John Cage, in his “10 Rules for Students and Teachers” wrote: ‘There is no win and no fail. There is only make.” To get to that place of “making,” you have to take on new challenges. This imperative motivated me to develop a dance film for the Montclair State dance division.

My personal artistic agenda for this film was to test myself musically and logistically. My musical challenge—to work with the song, “A Note for a Dancer,” by jazz guitarist (and my husband) Greg Tuohey—was the most personally difficult. I do not like working with set music. I find it confining, and prefer to allow complex rhythmic structures to evolve out of the movement itself, which I support by musical or ambient scores created specifically for the dance or dance film. Since I find starting with set music so uncomfortable, I decided it would be a perfect challenge for myself. My second challenge was to take on some logistical restrictions and see what I could do with them. I wanted to work with primarily medium-close shots, all in the same location, with no outside environmental information, using only the elements of dancers, shadows, and the texture of the dresses to form the visual palette. This limitation forced me to hone in on the content of each shot, as there was less “clutter” inside each frame.

For our students, I wanted to challenge them to work in an entirely new way. In a traditional stage dance, especially the large-cast repertory we favor at Montclair, the performance of an individual is subsumed within the performance energy of the whole cast. Dancing as an ensemble makes a pointillist portrait, many dots of movement coming together to carve through space and create meaning through mass. Our dancers always impress me with their ability to come together as an ensemble and absorb themselves into a large group work. In this film, however, I wanted to take that large-scale performance energy and scale it down to their most simple gestures. Each individual dancer had to be, well, individual. Because I was capturing movements so tightly, each dancer had to find ways to let their personality and performativity shine through in the smallest of gestures.

For the Department of Theatre and Dance, I wanted to question the traditional concept of a production and performance. In production, we had to re-think costuming, scheduling, rehearsal planning, casting, and production support in new and untested ways. For example, we had to outfit seventeen women in dresses, accessories, and hairstyles that were individually unique, flattering, period-appropriate, and looked interesting filmed close-up and in black-and-white. This required a different structure of support than costuming a live dance. As a performance, I was excited that this film would have the ability be an ambassador for the Department. In opposition to the “one-and-done” nature of live performance, this film could live on after the Danceworks concert through film festivals, online video sites, and other media outlets.

Rehearsal Process

I began the development process of A Note for the Dancer by listening to the same-titled song repeatedly. I knew that two of Greg Tuohey’s primary influences were French impressionist composers, such as Erik Satie, and 1950s surf guitar groups like the Shadows. These influences make the work sound both nostalgic and spacious—characteristics I wanted to embody through the film. Both Satie and the Shadows are dreamers and romantics. They are more interested in the space and dynamic of the melody, rather than the underlying rhythmic structure in the music, and you can feel this structural influence in the song “A Note for the Dancer.”

I then started thinking about movement possibilities. What would this kind of structure look like in dance? I wanted something soft, with accelerating punches. I wanted to find and highlight movements that had release inside of them, as well as turns that accelerate and decelerate. I wanted to find movements that I could layer, delay and stutter in the editing process.

Working with the dancers, I created a structure for the film that included a “beginning”, “middle”, and “end.” We made short dance phrases and duets together. I brought in one or two movement concepts, but most of the phrases were developed in collaboration with the dancers. I often like to have dancers bring some authority and individuality to the table. I had a diverse group of 17 dancers, and I wanted to highlight what makes each of them special. This can be easier when they perform their own movement rather than trying to look like me.

In rehearsals, I always had an eye to the camera, asking questions such as: “How do I frame each movement? What are some places that will be interesting to focus on? Where is this going?” The structure I created in the rehearsal process was fairly loose, leaving space for the camera to make meaning. This led to some funny moments in rehearsal when the dancers wouldn’t know what was next or how they would get from one side of the stage to the other. They would ask, “So where do I go from here?” but I could only laugh and say, “You will just disappear when I edit! Don’t worry!” Through the rehearsal process, we made a sketch of a dance that was missing transitions, but had enough content to be compelling on camera.

To address the challenge of performing on the small scale, I encouraged the students to create their own characters for the film. We spent several rehearsals working on the nuance necessary to be filmed close up, exercises to develop directness and performativity in their faces. One day, I brought in a projector, letting them watch as I filmed dancers trying on different facial expressions and emotional intents. I asked students to “dance” with their eyes, shoulders, fingers, toes, chins, and smiles—very different than a big full-bodied approach. Seeing themselves directly was useful for the students because it gave them a frame of reference on how we needed to work.

While all of this was developing in rehearsals, I was working separately with our costume designer Derek Robertson, a Production Design major. He is supremely talented, took my vague ideas of “nostalgia” and “romance,” and ran with them. He decided to focus the costumes into 1950s romantic silhouettes that gave the women a sense of both glamour and nostalgia. He identified costumes based on the patterns they would create in black-and-white, and was able to highlight each dancer so each one looks unique.

Filming Process

We shot the film over a February weekend, working from morning until night (and through a snowstorm) to capture 117 shots and two hours of material that would eventually be distilled into the 7-minute film. We shot out of order, using a simple soundstage setup and three-point lighting. I shot in color, to make sure that my exposure and color balance were correct, but then applied a black-and-white effect afterwards.

To prepare for filming, I developed a list of 65 shots I desired. I then rearranged the shots, grouping them together based on the setup of the lights and space as well as the dancers needed for each shot. While filming, we worked through each shot multiple times, allowing for performances and camera angles to develop into more complex relationships through each take.

Each shoot was supported by Derek Robertson and an assistant, who took pains to ensure that each woman looked gorgeous, period-specific, camera-ready, and, most importantly, individual. It took over two hours each shooting day to get all of the dancers in hair and makeup, but it was worth it when we saw the performers transform on the lighted set.

I was nervous that filming would feel disjointed for the dancers since we would be shooting out of order and in short shots. Such interruptions can make it difficult to stay physically warmed-up and focused. I was impressed with the professionalism each performer brought to the set. They were utterly engaged and took on the challenge at hand beautifully. They understood that it was their job to perform from the moment they walked onto the set, even without music or when having to repeat movements several times.

The filming was supported by our Stage Manager Jennifer Motta, two Assistant Stage Management students, and two freshmen Dance Majors who served as rehearsal assistants. Through their consummate professionalism, we were able to move through the shots quickly, and Jennifer was able to keep seventeen cast members and myself organized, fed, on time, and engaged throughout the whirlwind filming process.

Editing Process

Once I had the footage, the most difficult part began: the editing process. This is often where most of the “choreography” of a dance film actually occurs. Because of the nature of film, there are so many options when crafting movement through space and time. Even though I had made a thorough sketch of the order of the dance, I knew that I would have to reimagine some things once confronted with the actual product.

Looking at the footage, there were a few surprises for me. The first was the sheer amount of movement that I had captured. I had packed the field quite full in an attempt to have plenty of choices, which meant that there were more “moves” than space available in the music. Therefore, each dance phrase of 10-15 movements had to be distilled to 1-3 movements to fit into the rhythm of the music. The second surprise was that some of the “throwaway” shots that I had thought would be less interesting became some of the most important. For example, a “dream sequence” dolly shot that I developed on a whim became one of the central transitions in the film.

The editing process for A Note for the Dancer was tedious but ultimately rewarding. When I edited, I was ruthless. I cut any part that wasn’t worth keeping, even if it felt important at the time of shooting. I focused on what I actually had, letting the footage dictate where the film progressed. This ruthlessness distilled the film into something unique by crystallizing focus upon some of its most magical moments–the beauty of a simple gesture or a repeating rhythm. It is this inherent ability to focus on the subtlety of movement that draws me to film in the first place. Film clarifies so that you can focus on what truly matters.

A Note for the Dancer

Maya Deren, a leader in early experimental dance film, writes about the ways film can be used as metaphor in her 1978 essay “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality.” She argues that because film captures reality (i.e., what is actually in front of you), it is one of the only art forms that can use reality itself to create metaphor. For example, if you slow down reality, you can create a visual metaphor for suspended time. If you repeat footage over and over again, you can create a metaphor for a loop that cannot be escaped. This quality draws me to dance film: the ability to use movement to create metaphors and emotions. Film allows the tiniest gesture to become epic, or the most basic movement, like floor roll, to carry a deeper meaning.

It is my hope that these metaphors come forth in A Note for the Dancer, and that the film exemplifies an entirely new way of imagining movement possibilities for our students and department. I am still very enmeshed in the film, having so recently completed and shown it publicly, so it is still impossible for me at this immediate moment to put forth an objective analysis of its content.

I do know, however that two of the important challenges I set were met. I pushed myself, as an artist, into new, uncomfortable spaces; and the MSU student dancers in the piece embodied a totally new way of performing with maturity and glamour.

To watch A Note for the Dancer, go here.

— Kathleen Kelley is a choreographer, filmmaker, and Assistant Professor of Dance and Technology at Montclair State University. Originally from North Carolina, she received her BFA from the University of NC-Greensboro and her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her choreography has been shown at venues across New York, including the Center for Performance Research, the Tank NYC, the John Ryan Theater, Triskelion Arts, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Chez Bushwick, Movement Research, and Studio A.I.R, and her most recent video work “Portlet” was featured in the Rutgers Institute for Women and Art’s MTV: Momentum Technology Videos Film Festival.