RE: New Series on Dance Film and Video

Johannes Birringer (
Mon, 21 Jul 97 23:39 +0100

Feeling compelled to pick up another thread Scott offered us when he quoted the
interview on:

>***Dance Online launches new Series on Dance Film and Video***
< Interview with ELLIOT CAPLAN,
>the filmmaker for the Merce Cunningham Company, and videos of his work.

I was very intrigued by the interview, and re-read Caplan's suggestions several
times. I encourage others to think about responding.

I have a couple of comments/questions, since some of what Caplan says has
significance for our historical understanding of dance (in the US, Europe, the
non-West) in its relation to emergent technological means.

snip ***
<Dance and film are related arts. They share movement, time and space....

<... and the camera has served a reciprocating function. For example:
<photographic media was the first to 'capture' bodies in motion... and has
<had a major impact on our expectations of the physical capabilities of the
<dancer. Just take a look at old film clips of dance and you will see that
<the jumping body never appears to be as extended in space as it is now. I am
<convinced that still motion photography inspired dance artists to learn how
<to push the body into far more sharp, clear and extreme shapes at the height
<of the jump than before.

a) historically, I am not sure about photography being the first medium. I think
it would be drawing, sculpture, literature, then painting (renaissance),
physics, later medical science.

Interesting however our "memory" of the history of the term "motion capture" (it
does go back to Muybridge, probably). What Caplan claims, however, is a bit
amazing to me, namely that dancers changed or extended their bodies, lines,
spatiality after looking at photographs and films?? Why would that be so?

I studied old films from the 20s of Mary Wigman and other expressionist dancers,
and I also for a while (because of John Cook's research on Fritz Lang's
"Metropolis" and early filmmakers' work with actors and dancers) pursued studies
of Russian revolutionary film (Eisenstein, Vertov) because I was interested in
film/movement, movement-in-film, and my suspicion is that the early narrative or
constructivist filmmakers and the now very old footage (which today is sometimes
screened at wrong speed) are not completely revealing the extent to which
choreographic or dance ideas informed the camera or the shooting (or editing),
and vice versa, nor do I think the films o f dance are particularly good, not
am I persuaded that Mary Wigman changed her body movement (after her years of
working with Laban) following technological reproduction on film, I am convinced
she saw film as lagging behind in movement and spatial capabilities of

b) Things are much more complex with Vertov and the issue of montage, or the
historical question of how revolutionary film (and the speed of editing in
Eisenstein and other Russian filmmakers) impacted dance (Meyerhold,
biomechanics) within the context of industrial labor and machine culture, and
how the 30s (once we see the confluences of fascist aesthetics and mass culture,
and Riefenstahl's "choreographies" of motion-camera) sped up
/extended/manipulated bodily and emotional movement expression on the one hand,
while Bauhaus experiments in abstraction (or the Russian constructivists) slowed
down or spaced movement architecture in entirely new and fascinating ways (cf.
Kandinsky's "der gelbe Klang", Schlemmer's Triadic Ballets). The Schlemmer
figurines are again a different matter, since they work more sculpturally and
with mass, volume, etc.
In the case of Bauhaus, it was architectura and design ideas which impacted the
choreography (a visual arts research), not film.

I am only suggesting to keep an alert eye on assumed mutual influences or
correspondences between performance and technolgical media; the impact or
experimental search of new media on dance is much more a cultural/conceptual
issue than a purely technological one, see Cunningham's preference for formal
abstraction versus expressionism (tanztheater) in Germany. See below. I doubt
that butoh or Pina Bausch connect/can be connected to LIFEFORMS at all.

When Caplan mentioned digital media and Asian performance, is he thinking of
Noh, Kabuki? Bunraki Puppet Theatre? That might make some sense (here I must
stop, since I feel I am too ignorant culturally to understand Noh and Kabuki's
codes and their cultural connotations, and what a Japanese artist would answer
us re: lifeforms), but the expressionist and narrative dance forms are a
different matter.

<For Merce, film and now lifeforms have shown him
<possibilities for movement he says he would have been unable to imagine.

<[A film] has to incorporate the property of re-viewing and re-seeing. If you
<see it once and don't need to see it again, then it's not successful. It's
<got to have the possibility of a second viewing. If it doesn't it's not as


<The idea of 'second viewings' implies something which is importantly NOT
<simply 'recycling'. Recycling suggests a perpetuation of consumerism/
<consumption -- second viewing suggests something else. The web is beginning
<to reflect some of these concerns -- there are advances being made in web
<technologies which will create much more dynamic sites which 'change',
<uploading new information each time the 'viewer' clicks in (see products on

Not agreed. I feel that Caplan confuses the issue. There is a film I recently
saw on Kazuo Ohno which I went to see 6 times, because each time I have a
deeper, different, related, intensified, emotional and intellectual reaction in
and through my observation. I learn more, gratifyingly, my desire is stimulated.
That second viewing is not the same as "dynamic sites" uploading new information
each time. That, in my minds, precisely invites consumption and
quickloading/forgetting. Am I getting it wrong?

<Cunningham's work is known for its formal nature, not dwelling on narrative,
<character or personal relationships. In one sense, this makes his a fitting
<subject for the camera. As on stage, the camera frame can be an open canvas
<where the moving bodies, costumes and lighting can become elements in a

< in America, Cunningham led the
<anti-narrative/ formalist camp. In Europe it was the modernists from the
<Bauhaus. In the last 20 years, we've seen narrative try to come back to the
<dance stage in a big way. And yet, the audiences are shrinking. Film and
<Cinema absolutely dominate. Now new media and communication technologies
<have come along -- and we are positioned between an artistic medium and an
<information medium, between reflection and entertainment, between expression
<and instruction. Who is going to continue going to the stage and why? Is
<there 'hope' for dance in there somewhere? I believe so... but the other day
<a friend and I were talking about the possibility that the most interesting
<work will start to come out of some strange fusion between 'traditional'
<asian performance forms with the 'new' digital media...

see above. I think we could discuss this point, it's significant for those of us
working with narrative or our own voice/stories in the dance. Lifeforms has
nothing to give me for my choreographic rehearsal with my voice and with objects
in space, concrete materials or environments (locations). It could enter into an
abstracted dialogue with a topography in my dance, or a dance in the topography,
that's another matter, yet what I can't imagine I can't imagine recognizing as
significant on a screen animation. That may change as we get used to reading
surfaces (icons, hypertexts, clips, animations) in new and creatively exciting
ways, but then again I can't follow Merce's mindset. At the same time, I would
argue that Bauhaus dances (Schlemmer) are not surface constructions, nor are
they abstract. Perhaps Guy can comment on Bunraku and puppets and his own work
with animation, its content. Perhaps we need to debate the function of narrative
in digitally enhanced dance.
There are obviously new CD-ROM works out now that are quite narrative and move
along hypermedia axes that are narrative; the movement will be read as stories.
That#s why for me Forsythe's "Improvisation Technologies" are limited, since
they are constricted to a formal set of architectural, spatial lines, shapes,
torsions, imagined connections within geometric matrix. For some such dance, as
it evolves from Forsythe/company shared choreographies now may speak in
fragmented ways o f a narrative or imply a content, emotion, dramaturgy, yet
for me the movement is formalist ice. It's frozen.

Sorry this was a bit long,

Johannes Birringer
Scott's personal comment is not clear to me:

<What is significant about mediums operating within the digital
<framework is that they are so much more permeable, both practically and
<theoretically, than from within the non-digital one. So, it becomes possible
<to express all technological mediums of expression with one phrase: new
<media technologies. When a single category so easily contains all others...

I think I understand your use of "permeable" or fluid, but then I am not sure
why you insist or favor "exact definitions or distinctions". I thought the point
is that the distinctions become insignificant, if we use a new language of
programming or coding or designing or interfacing or dubbing/sampling or
organizing. What happens, in your opinion, if such "mathematical" language is
applied, or are you simply suggesting that the mathematical language is too
imprecise to account for physical/technological composition and choreography?
Why was the recent discussion here on "animation" software so lively? And why
did it stop when someone asked about the differnce of speaking from
choreographer's studio vantage point?

Johannes Birringer