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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
A close-up on Canada
Animated, Winter 1999. Toronto is currently a creative hothouse for dance on screen and two of its most dedicated advocates, Laura Taler, independent film-maker, and Kathleen Smith, Programming Director of the annual Moving Pictures Festival, provided an insight into the prolific Canadian scene as part of the fourth Dance on Screen Festival at the Place Theatre, London. Sherril Dodds offers some background
Moving Pictures began in 1992 when 'screen choreography' - dance designed specifically for the camera, was in its infancy. Kathleen Smith, formerly a dance critic, is intrigued by the hybrid quality of screen choreography, in which movement and film become inextricably linked. Part of the remit for Moving Pictures is to show a wide range of formats, whether it be video or 16 millimetre film, installation or multi-media work, and diversity is encouraged. At present, Canada is very much a centre for film-making and Toronto has been temporarily adopted as a Hollywood location. The city clearly benefits from this arrangement; out-of-season film technicians are willing to loan out equipment to new and emerging film-makers. As film is such a costly medium, this generous system is one way that novice practitioners can investigate its creative potential without being pressured by financial burdens.

The Moving Pictures Festival has an international call for entries which then go through a selection procedure. Smith argues that this curatorial process is what makes a good festival and, although she has certain aesthetic preferences, this gives Moving Pictures a particular identity. One of the films from this year's festival is Terry Rickshaw, directed by Nick de Pencier and choreographed by Peter Chin. Filmed in the heart of a city centre, cars speed past, traffic lights wink and the neon signs of bars and restaurants glimmer against the black night sky. Suddenly, amid the honking cabs and shiny cars, a rickshaw appears. A young mail hails it, removes his coat and sits back ready to start his journey: the rickety wheels turn and the driver peddles frantically as the passenger surveys the buzzing city streets. During the journey, the man extends his arms in snaky undulations, his fingers twisting and curling in the cool night air. A time lapse photography, device is employed so that quizzical looks and cheeky smiles flicker across his face, whilst his limbs twitch and spiral.

Smith comments that she uses the term choreography in its broadest possible sense. It is this type of fluid definition that allows works like Terry Rickshaw, to win major dance screen awards. Another work that avoids existing dance vocabularies in favour of innovative movement images is Belly Boat Hustle. Directed by Sandra Sawatsky and choreographed by Carole Mion, it is described as a choreography for landscape and fly fisherman. It too begins with images of urban life, but this is the nine to five whirlwind of high-flying finance. Men in clean cut suits chatter into mobiles and pacy shots skip through the corporate metropolis. Yet soon, reflective glass and concrete walkways are replaced by glistening lakes and sky-high mountains. The vast rural setting floods the screen and its calm is almost palpable. The serious suits have disappeared to be replaced by a group of men, in waders and floppy hats, clutching spindly fishing rods and knotted tackle. They are caught waist deep in water as they twirl and bob in a leisurely dance.

One of the advantages of bringing dance to the screen is its increased mobility, in that performances on film and video can travel quickly and easily to new audiences, whilst the dance itself can occupy all kinds of alternative locations and unexplored environments. This is one of the features that struck me about Laura Taler's work. Taler, formerly a choreographer, has a long-standing interest in site-specific performance. She describes how an audience can come into, or affect, a particular space and, in many ways, film operates in a similar manner. The camera can situate or frame dance in ways that cannot be achieved in a theatrical context.

Taler first became involved in screen dance in 1992 when Bob Lockyer from the BBC ran a Dance for the Camera workshop in Banff, which was intended as a creative collaboration between directors and choreographers. During the course, Taler's work was critiqued by her peers, who accused it of not being 'dance' and it is perhaps this extreme reaction that prompted her determination to take full artistic control as both director and choreographer. Out of this experience came Village Trilogy, a three-part black and white film that focuses on a close-knit community. What is particularly interesting from a film-making perspective is that each section resulted from a different working process: the first part came out of a short piece of dance that Taler originally choreographed for the stage; the second was designed with the camera in mind, though she did not plan the movement in relation to specific shots; and for the final section, Taler set the camera work before even thinking about the dance itself it is these different approaches that highlight the central complexity of making dance for the camera. Not only must the dancing body be choreographed, but the movement of the camera and the rhythm of the edit are central to the creative process; they are as much a part of the dance as the body is.

In relation to these issues, Taler's greatest challenge was in directing The Barber's Coffee Break, a short film shown as part of Dances for a Small Screen, the Canadian equivalent of the BBC's Dance for the Camera series. The work is a collaboration with choreographer Ted Robinson and early on in the creative discussion, Robinson suggested that he would like to work with improvisation. Film is a medium that demands much planning and foresight because of its financial and technical requirements, therefore it is perhaps not surprising that Taler was horrified at the prospect of trying to capture random and spontaneous movement on screen. After the initial shock, however, she began to question how a director can choreograph the camera so that it captures the free-form character of improvised movement.

As preparation, Robinson improvised in the studio whilst Taler shot the movement on video, experimenting with different choreographic possibilities for the camera. From this process she developed cue cards (basic visual descriptions of the movement and camera work), which formed the structure of the dance. Although Robinson's movement remained improvised, there were certain aspects of it that had to be set. For instance, his use of fast footwork was to be filmed in close-up or Robinson would be instructed to improvise in a spiral pathway while the camera would circle in opposition to him. It is clear that Taler's role of director is as equally creative as the choreographer, and thus she set out to present the moving body through striking kinetic perspectives.

Although Taler briefed the camera operator about his movement in relation to the dancer's movement, on occasions she bravely allowed a 'free for all' in which both the camera and the body were encouraged to improvise. Indeed, Taler comments that one of her considerations in making collaborative film work is how to let the technical crew be creative. This open way of working obviously pays off. The consequences of letting a skilled camera operator improvise with the dancer, produced what she describes as the most fascinating and unpredictable images in which a genuine spontaneity emerges on screen.

Out of the filming process, Taler acquired 80 minutes of video footage that had to be edited into a seven minute piece. The resulting film is an explosive and humorous dance work set to the Barber of Seville. From silence, a blast of opera leaps out from the screen as a Buddhist monk opens the doors of a kitchen cupboard. The film boldly, cuts between the bald-headed 'barber' having a contemplative cup of coffee and him dancing on a vast scarlet rug in the middle of an icy cold field. The camera darts around, slicing in and out of the action to catch his waving hands, shuffling fees, and twisting torso. This witty little film is testament to the innovative work that is coming out of Canada.

Sherril Dodds, Lecturer in Dance, University of Surrey. Contact +44 (0)1483 259741.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001