“We’re all becoming filmmakers,” Annie-B Parson told me in May. She was speaking for her fellow choreographers, and in the months since, her generalization has proved prophetic. With theaters closed, dance companies and dance makers accustomed to stage performance have been rushing to channel their work into a form you can stream. Live dance is dormant, but filmed dance has been busting out all over.
Many of these new dance films, made in less than ideal circumstances, look like first efforts. But, of course, there is nothing new about dance on camera. The Dance on Camera festival has been surveying the field since 1971. This year, for the first time, the festival is happening online, July 17 to July 20. (Tickets and a schedule are at Danceoncamerafestival.org.)
“It’s never been about putting cameras on dancers,” Liz Wolff, a curator of the festival, said. “It’s really about films that put dance into a filmic narrative or structure.”
In other words, where many dance films of recent months are films by necessity, the ones in the festival are so by design. Rather than trying to reproduce theatrical experience virtually, they aim to take advantage of the medium. Since most of this year’s selections — abstract and narrative, short and feature-length, documentary, animated — were conceived and created before the pandemic, they serve as reminders of the possibilities of filming dance in a less panicked state. And at a time when dance on camera is almost the only kind of dance, they provide a chance to consider what matters in such a film.
First, as so much footage of people dancing in cramped apartments has lately brought into relief, setting makes a huge difference. Take “Kieli Bi” (“Sacred Dance”), a short in which Dana Mussa returns to her homeland of Kazakhstan to dance like a goddess amid the arid majesty of the steppe. Or David Bolger’s “How to Sink a Paper Boat,” beautifully shot in and around an Irish lighthouse that’s a big clue to the film’s hidden subject — the repressed memory of a World War I maritime disaster. In both, the surroundings tell more than half the story.
In Claire Marshall’s 30-minute “Shift,” it’s the rotation of location that signifies. We see a man and woman whom the credits call a “discordant couple” grappling in a backyard, then suddenly in a pool, a playground, a bar, a tunnel. The artful editing, combined with the obliviousness of peripheral figures, conveys the self-absorption of a sexual unit and their pattern repetition — wherever these two may be, they’re still tussling in bed.
Yet as visually striking as these three films are, the dancing in them isn’t very distinguished or memorable. It’s when filmmaking and choreography are equally expressive that these movies gain full power, as in Susan Misner’s “Bend,” the most potent nine minutes of the festival.
“Bend” is also about a couple. We first see them naked in bed together: Troy Ogilive, a white woman, and Jeffery Dickerson Duffy, a Black man. Together, they go to see her son play in a night game of high-school football. When the national anthem starts, Mr. Duffy’s character takes a knee. Ms. Ogilive’s character notices.
That’s when dance comes in. It’s in the tradition of dream ballet: While the action takes place out on the field, among the players, it’s really all happening in her mind. The dance, though, is much rougher than ballet. In its fundamental gesture, she keeps trying to pick him up, tenderly, but he keeps going back down, politically determined or collapsing as if shot.
The dance is intercut with naturalistic flashbacks of their budding relationship, the relationship now under pressure. And that pressure has a sound: police radio, James Baldwin’s voice, protesters chanting “I can’t breathe.” As the tension mounts, she seems, at one point, to pledge allegiance to him and, at the next, to pin him to the ground, police style. The setting and cinematography are crucial here, as are the believable performances, but it’s Ms. Misner’s choreography that brings us inside the woman’s painful reckoning with white guilt.
Also strong, in a different way, is “Welcome to a Bright White Limbo,” directed by Cara Holmes. “Welcome” is apt, because this 10-minute film is essentially an introduction to the remarkable Belfast choreographer Oona Doherty. It situates her in her working-class habitat of cul-de-sacs and dart boards, samples some of her pugnacious solo “Hope Hunt” and lets us hear her thoughts in voice-over.
As in “Bend,” the elements are in balance: the honesty of Ms. Doherty’s dancing in harmony with the honesty of the filmmaking and the honesty of her words. A show is a failure, she says, if a viewer’s body doesn’t know what her body means, if her audience doesn’t feel it in the stomach. By that measure, this short dance film is a success.
The feature-length selections of this year’s festival are dominated by documentaries. And these longer films share a fault: Too much talking, not enough letting dance speak for itself.
In a few, the imbalance seems somewhat justified, a deliberate choice of form. Both Peter Vulchev’s “A Monologue in the Intermission” and Edoardo Gabbriellini’s “Kemp: My Best Dance Is Yet to Come” are rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light monologues: the first by Vesa Tonova, a cigarette-smoking, Bulgarian ballerina on the edge of forced retirement; the second by the flamboyant mime Lindsay Kemp, dropping names and making faces at 80. With the primary focus on such personalities, the performance footage becomes acceptably secondary, a photo album flipped through while listening.
But while “Dancing Darkness,” by V. Tony Hauser and Ellen Tolmie, chronicles the creation of a work by the Canadian choreographer Peggy Baker, and illuminates the collaboration among Ms. Baker, the dancers and Sarah Neufeld (the violinist for Arcade Fire), it’s too behind-the-scenes. The film’s reason to exist — Ms. Baker’s dance — is chopped into incoherence and presented as if it were no more than visual accompaniment for all the verbiage.
That’s less of a problem with “Maguy Marin: Time to Act,” about the French experimentalist choreographer. Directed with sophistication and love by her son, David Mambouch, it covers her career, her revolt against conventional beauty, her love of the awkward and grotesque, her political principles and struggles. A maker of grim art turns out to be charming, and if Mr. Mambouch too often lets everyone talk over the archival evidence, at least he gives us large enough chunks of his mother’s work to sense directly what it is.
In not trusting dance, Khadifa Wong’s “Uprooted — The Journey of Jazz Dance” might be the worst offender. As it strives to encompass a vast and neglected subject, tiny fragments of bodies in motion are overrun by an army of talking heads. But in much of the chatter, important issues buzz. Except for “Bend,” no film in the festival is more urgent.
More than halfway through, after the interviewees have established the African-American roots of jazz dance and dwelt on the mid-20th-century achievements of Matt Mattox, Luigi, Gus Giordano, Jack Cole and Bob Fosse, the so-called founding fathers, Melanie George throws a wrench. The most cogent of the commentators, she smilingly suggests that these white men were merely the codifiers of jazz dance — not, as often claimed, the chief inventors. They are more famous because they were white, but also because what is codified is easier to legitimize and explain, easier to talk about in documentaries.
In “Uprooted,” this powerful idea seems to prompt a midcourse correction, a choice that helps give Ms. Wong’s film its air of discovery. I wish she had corrected further, though, asserting a more forceful authorial point of view. Her film does begin to rectify history, mostly by name-checking undersung Black men and women. But I wish she had given us more of their dancing, letting us feel it in the stomach, uncodified and self-explanatory.
It may seem odd for a critic to call for less commentary. But if the products of the pandemic show that merely putting cameras on dancers isn’t sufficient to make a great dance film, this year’s festival reminds us that dance on camera is what makes a dance film great.