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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Canned dance - developing dance for camera in the South East
Animated, Summer 2000. When Linda Jasper became director of South East Dance in October 1998 she inherited the beginnings of a dance for camera programme that had grown organically from regional artists' interests in making dance for other media. Part of this innovative landscape were several media organisations including Lighthouse - the prime mover - in encouraging new media talent. A dynamic partnership struck between South East Dance and Lighthouse has been instrumental in creating a world-class initiative. Here she talks about the process
As a practitioner with a theatre dance background, developing a dance for camera programme is a new challenge. I have found it to be an antidote to producing live performance: following an intensive production period the resultant film is contained in a very small package which can, copyright permitting, be screened on a number of occasions, with comparatively little equipment or organisation. The costs in film are front loaded, rather than ongoing as in live performance to meet the requirement of re-creating the production.

To familiarise myself with the scene I attended The Place's Dance On Screen festivals and the International Festival for Dance in the Media (IMZ), conference in Cologne. Being able to have such a strong reference point in Steve Jackman, his staff and the collection at The Video Place was very informative at the beginning of my explorations. My first observations of 'the scene' were that there was a small, international community, involved in the work. The size of the group reminded me of the early days of the English community dance movement in the 80s - except for the difference in the international constituency. Parallels could also be found in the questions raised about practice, in particular questioning definitions of dance film which brought back the debates regarding community dance's position in the dance world. Also discussions on what makes choreography for this medium distinctive in relation to aesthetics, the role of the choreographer, the choice of subject matter and movement vocabulary seemed familiar. Other burning issues concerned improving distribution, fund-raising and the relationships between the choreographer, director and editor.

What became clear through attending these events was how important the UK has been in generating dance work for the screen, particularly through the Arts Council of England (ACE) /BBC commissions and also series on Channel Four. Countries with a tradition of publicly funded broadcasting have produced more dance for camera works, for example, UK, France, Netherlands, Canada and Australia. Subsidy being essential in the development of this non-commercial activity.

But as in community dance there is a 'Cinderella' aspect to the perception of the work: dance has to fight hard for decent broadcasting slots in the crowded TV programming, frequently only being screened once. Whilst there appear to be large budgets available (£50,000 advertised for the sixth ACE/BBC commission) for the production of relatively short works (four to nine minutes) the cost of the equipment and the materials required eat up the resources. There is also the concern of what work will be acceptable to TV companies, there are many 'gate keepers' involved in making programming decisions. For most dance filmmakers the arts film festival circuit is more familiar territory as a place to show work, but it is difficult for the artists to get screening fees, with many festivals run in a competition format requiring artists to pay to enter their work.

From the international dance for camera community I turn to the one that I work for in the South East. How do you build a culture for dance for camera? What methods can be used to connect and support individual practitioners, increase interest and opportunities in the field? Some of the approaches that have been used to address these questions are discussed below.

It was helpful to have an early success. Dust (1998) the agency's first dance for camera commission had been produced by Anthony Atanasio (director) and Miriam King (choreographer/performer) and was in distribution phase. It went on to win the IMZ award for best screen choreography, in Cologne in 1999. Plans were already in hand for a second commission. Fortuitously through the inclusion of dance for camera events in Brighton Festival's film programme, there were also opportunities in place for the presentation of our commissions and other films. Another important plank in building an infrastructure has been collaborating with dance film enthusiast Frank Gray (director of the South East Film & Video Archive (SEFVA) and also Film director for Brighton Festival). Since the inception of the agency, screenings and a day school have been promoted in each Brighton Festival with Frank Gray's assistance. Thematic in approach, this year's programme included a selection of films from the UK and France that illustrated the question of what is a dance film. It provided a platform for the premiere screening of our new commission Sound Effects of Death and Disaster (2000) director Robert Hardy, choreographer/performer John Rowley. Sherril Dodds (academic and dance for camera expert) who lives and works in the region jointly curated the programme with me. This relationship with an academic researcher has been rich and very supportive. To be able to contextualise the practice and discuss arising issues within a critical framework is very valuable. Access to a vocabulary to discuss the work has sharpened my viewing and also encouraged a coherent and dynamic programme. The programme was toured to Guildford, with plans for it to be taken to Kent later in the year. More frequent, informal screenings are being set up where sections of work can be shown, providing further opportunities for dance filmmakers to share and discuss their work.

The director/choreographer relationship is one that can be problematic, owing to the issue of who controls the artistic vision. One of the key issues that is raised is where the influence of the choreographer lies. Many artists coming from a theatre background feel disadvantaged when asked to make informed decisions about choreography for the screen; especially when it crosses to tackling technical questions concerning camera angles, treatments, editing, etc. To address this lack of confidence and skill a short course was piloted, last October, for six professional choreographers who were selected to work over three weekends with Miranda Pennell, an independent filmmaker. The course introduced the whole process of creating a film, from initial idea, to shooting and screening and has provided a model for future professional development initiatives. Opportunities for further training and networking for practitioners came through our hosting ACE's Still... Moving, Dance and Film: State of the Art seminar, in March of this year, with the University of Brighton. This gave the opportunity for regional practitioners to attend a national/ international conference and also to network with the wider dance for camera profession. This pioneering event profiled the profession at this stage in its development, and the work of the South East region. Discussion and further explanation of the recently announced sixth ACE/BBC Dance for Camera commission was also included in the Seminar. The successful proposals for the pilot stage of the scheme have just been announced, with two teams of artists based in the South East being amongst the six chosen for the award. It will be a boost to these artists and progress the development of the programme in the region.

Future plans include providing production bursaries to develop ideas tried out in workshops or on individuals' own initiatives and increasing the size of the commission awards: the second commission gave £4000 cash, with free editing at Lighthouse (up to ten days). The artists who made the film calculated it should have cost £35,000 to £40,000 (for an eight -minute film). The costs are high, and artists are begging favours from people who they work with on commercial projects to loan equipment, and give materials and time to their projects. In one way it could be viewed positively as a method of increasing the commitment from the commercial to the subsidised sector, but it does mean that artists are not paid properly for what they do. The number of applications we received for our commissions shows the high attraction of this medium to dance artists, many of whom in the theatre dance world are at the top of their field, but are willing to make film for little, or no money. In such an ephemeral art form as live dance performance, there appears to be a desire to create work in film because it can be shown in perpetuity to large and diverse audiences.

Having said that there are a large number of artists who want to take part in these commissions, they are not always successful in realising their ideas in this medium. There needs to be another layer of training available for artists working in live performance to make the transition either permanently or periodically to work in film. As actors have got used to adapting to live and recorded work, so dancers and choreographers will have to become more skilled in producing work for the screen.

How we support this developing profession is a matter of concern. The costs are high; the demand is greater than the commissions available. Back to the old chestnut is it a good idea to encourage artists to become specialist in an area with such limited financial growth? But this argument does not take into account the increasing affordability of cameras and editing soft ware, and possibilities of using the web for broadcasting. Artists want their work to be seen by larger audiences. The wherewithal might be accessible very soon to take work from the studio into, potentially, every home.

In many ways the task of building a culture for dance for camera is similar to the strategies used in other areas of dance development: Identifying the constituency and their needs, finding methods of supporting the different elements of creating and presenting the work, building relationships with effective partners to deliver it, and publishing information about the activity to increase the number of participants, organisations and audiences willing and able to contribute to it. The difference is in the knowledge base that forms the distinctive working practices. The chance to develop work both for the screen and live performance is one that I relish and is a central feature of South East Dance's artistic policy to enhance the talented regional dance filmmaker's profiles in the national/international arena.

Linda Jasper, director, South East Dance: National Dance Agency. Contact + 44 (0) 1273 202032 or email southeast.dance@virgin.net

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001