Mining the unconscious
by Deirdre Towers

Last winter when Alla Kovgan and I gave a workshop in St. Petersburg, we explored the potential of creating dance for the camera with three modern dance companies from Poland, Estonia, and Russia. Much to our delight, the workshop inspired a flurry of creative energy and curiosity from the press. However, to our dismay, each of the eight television crews who came to interview us always asked pointedly, "Why are you here? Don't you like the way we film the ballet?"

We assured them that over the last hundred years, ballet had been well documented around the world and that the grace of the Russian cameramen was evident particularly in the filming of the soloists. What was not apparent was any collaboration between the choreographers and the directors. The mere mention of collaboration seemed odd, if not bizarre to them, almost as strange as asking an athlete how he would like to be filmed.

The last journalist to seek us out persisted in asking what more could be done to capture the ballet on film? I ventured to say that if a choreographer were engaged to adapt the ballet for film, perhaps for a variety of locations and settings beyond the proscenium stage, the ballets could be distilled down to the passages that contributed to its narrative thread and new ones --possible only on camera perhaps-- could be added so that the ballet would vibrate with a fresh energy.

Marius Petipa answered many a need with his 19th century ballets. His audience, he supposed, yearned for beauty and power, for an escape from the known, exoticism and a touch of eroticism all while admiring gravity-defying feats. No doubt the visions of order and conformity provided by the formal lines of the corps reassured the royal family of its importance and perhaps the audience of its majesty.

Today, perhaps we still yearn for an escape from the known, or do we? It's not so easy--or wise-- to make a sweeping statement. With all the realism in commercial cinema, one might think that we are simply too fascinated by ourselves or too bewildered to consider anything other than a kind or cruel mirror. But the independent film world is eagerly exploring alternatives to that idea. As part of that movement, dancers and film artists are discovering a new language in the course of bringing the two arts together, creating a form that cannot be experienced live. This provides a stretch for everyone, a departure from feature films but also the traditions of the stage.

Given the ingenuity of Russian filmmakers as well as the virtuosity of the dancers, the clarity of purpose as presented almost a century ago by film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein, Russia is ripe, in fact over due, for a new generation of dance filmmakers, set and costume designers, editors, and producers. Dancers in Russia now --are they not free now to express not only the positive but the mysterious, ambiguous, and dark side of being? What better way to engage an audience but to have a filmmaker work hand in hand with the choreographer to play with the shadows of life. Choreographing with the mind of an editor, one can leap from one environment to another or invite the camera to capture the subtle expressions of the face or hands so that the viewer can emotionally connect with the characters.

Each convention can be re-thought given the options possible with today's technology. For example, one could present a pas de deux with the man supporting the woman not only physically but imaginatively. What if the screen suggested not only the body but the mind and the soul of the dancers. Film can bring to dance the charm of intimacy, the machinations of the unconscious. It can imply so much with so little. The visual medium combined with the abstract, visceral art of dance can help one to wake up to the invisible magic in any one moment.

As a touring festival, we can help open "the doors or perception," to quote the writer Aldous Huxley. The dance on camera workshops provide some basic tools as to how to specifically bring dance and video together so that each artist can create his own maps into territories known previously only by him or her. Selected screenings can not only educate but goad on local artists to take on the challenge of making a video dance. Dance Films Association's on-going collaboration with Kannon Dance School and Company and Pro-Arte is a committed effort to keep today's Russian artists abreast of new opportunities and facilitate their contribution to the global art community.

For questions and comments, please contact Deirdre Towers at

© Kinodance–Russia, 2004