Special Pages | Maya Deren and the Art of Dance on Film

Perhaps no other art form is as native and organic to humanity as dance. Preceding the notion of art, our physical presence and movements reveal our most primordial, expressive instincts and amount to the most sublime expressions.  As such, the translation of dance onto film has long mystified cineastes, who grapple with capturing its red-blooded nature without resorting to mere documentation. Despite the hardships, avant-garde filmmaker and dancer Maya Deren innately understood that the filmic space should appropriately match the world of the dance: one that fundamentally blurs the line between “real” expression and poetic creativity, between everyday gestures and rhapsodic movement. Fascinated by the intersection of the two forms, she eloquently elaborated upon her views in her Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film.

“Realism and the artifices of other arts can be combined by photographing an imaginatively conceived action related to an obviously real location. For when the tree in the picture is obviously real, it is also understood as true, and it can lend its aura of reality to an event created by artifice beneath it. Such a delicate manipulation between the really real and the unreally real is, I believe, one of the major principles of film form.”

In her 1945 Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), Deren shoots a young dancer with the liberality of someone exploring the possibilities of what can be captured on camera instead of sticking to narrative traditions associated with film. The camera, at first, continuously tracks through a forest, where we see the same dancer in different places. Here, “the trees in the picture” (along with the dancer) are obviously real, yet become artificial through the way the gesture of the camera. When the dancer, perched on a tree, lowers his foot, it lands on the floorboards of a posh apartment.

Abandoning the literary influences of narrative filmmaking immediately places Deren beyond the conventional concept of movies. Indeed, her “choreography for camera” defies any banal expectation: the dancer and his surroundings are, as Deren would indicate, understood as true. This blend of reality and artifice make for a dance that could only exist on a screen, unlike most other filmed choreography. Astutely delineating dance as a ritualistic form in her seminal essay, Deren understood that, in order to create dance for film, one must use all the tools at our disposal and treat them as such. She wrote of the importance of taking the emphasis out of the personal aspects of dance and placing it on the whole:

“The ritualistic form treats the human being not as the source of the dramatic action, but as a somewhat depersonalized element in a dramatic whole. The intent of such depersonalization is not the deconstruction of the individual; on the contrary, it enlarges him beyond the personal dimension and frees him from the specializations and confines of personality. He becomes part of a dynamic whole which, like all such creative relationships, in turn, endow its parts with a measure of its larger meaning.”

Her words ring vibrantly true when we look to the landmark examples of dance on film throughout the medium’s history. The most celebrated cinematic dances have all played with the form to their advantage, having the camera serve the greater creation rather than direct it. Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic, Ziegfeld-era extravaganzas are played for the camera, building upon the times’ proscenium-bound instincts to lavish results. In Footlight Parade’s (1933) iconic waterfall sequence, cinematography, choreography and direction meld together to create a cinematic spectacle. Whatever theatrical impulses Berkeley still carried, Deren did away with in her own The Very Eye of Night (1958), which features human bodies, free from gravity or any one plane of existence, dancing against a starry background. Deren returns film to its origin as a visual medium, through which anything visible can coexist on the same two dimensions, akin to painting’s ability to portray multiple planes, regardless of how realistic.

The Archer’s The Red Shoes (1948) and Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris (1951) made their mark by featuring extended technicolor dance sequences as their centerpieces. Both over 15 minutes in length and significantly detached from the rest of their respective work’s cinematic styles, they use ballet in a self-conscious way that brings together the best aspects of traditional, staged choreography and the limitless shape-shifting film can bring. The dancers pirouette and float through colorful backdrops, some firmly grounded in set design, others fanciful designs thematically related to the dances. The ballets are as much about the dancers as they are about the lights, colors and timing. Instead of taking viewers out of the moment, these pieces present themselves as the apex of their films’ themes – climactic and thoroughly enjoyable.

Deren believed that the key to cinematic choreography is to ensure that form follows function, and vice versa. Without full commitment to honoring the essence of the dance, one is left with a mere recording. It is this idea that allowed visionaries like Bob Fosse (Cabaret, All That Jazz) and Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) to photograph dancing in their own distinctly transfixing ways. The human body is inherently at the heart of dance, which is why it is necessary to look at the overall piece, as opposed to the player, when playing for the camera.





Juan Ramirez is a candidate for a degree in Media and Screen Studies from Northeastern University. He regularly contributes to The Huntington News as a correspondent and as a bi-weekly Arts & Entertainment columnist and can often be found manically attempting to convert friends and passersby into fellow film enthusiasts, to varying degrees of success.
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