VCA Digital Archive: dance on film

Still from Behind Barres, by Sophia Bender. Image supplied.
Still from Behind Barres, by Sophia Bender. Image supplied.

The VCA Digital Archive is a living audiovisual record of student films that date back to 1966. The articles in this series respond thematically to the depth and breadth of the collection. Enjoy!

By Sophia Bender

I spent the majority of my three-year filmmaking course at the Victorian College of the Arts moulding the craft of dance and experimental film. This is an emerging area of filmmaking and we are only just beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible.

One of my favourite aspects of this niche area of cinema is the ability to choreograph the camera for the screen. How can you enhance the dance choreography when you remove the 2D element of viewing an entire performance from one seat? A whole world of possibilities is opened up when we have the ability to place the audience in just the right position to tell the narrative, whether that be an extreme close-up or an extreme wide-angle shot. The possibilities are endless and experimentation with the movement of the camera is paramount.

Building from this idea, is the possibility of choreographing the camera to mimic the movement. When directing my dance films, I’ve always thought of the camera as another dancer in the space. I’ve found, over the years, that this has been an extremely valuable tool to enhance the choreography and take the viewer on a more personal and emotive journey.

There are very few contemporary dance films in the VCA Digital Archive. During my study of those films it was evident which films had used the camera movement in their technique and were successful in enhancing their film’s choreography.

Another element that almost all the contemporary dance films in the archive (including my own graduate film Behind Barres) have employed, is to use dance as a medium to explore the subconscious mind. The three films discussed below have all used this technique within their narrative to escape from reality and delve into the subconscious.

Terra Interior – written, directed, choreographed and edited by Helen Simondson in 1994 – is a fantastic example of choreographing the camera as an extension of the dancer’s movements. This dance film traces the mythical journey of a woman forced from the conscious world into the underworld where she must confront her fears, madness and "death".

At the beginning of the film, the lead dancer runs away from what could be perceived as her conscious state and is submerged through water into the underworld. Through dance she confronts her fears. The choreography is intricate and well-articulated as the camera moves in specific ways for each movement.

As the choreography becomes more frantic, so does the camera; this works in juxtaposition with the more subtle parts of the choreography where the camera is locked off or is slowly floating around almost as if breathing with the lead dancer. The film captures breathtaking shots that continue to shift the audience’s perspective. For example, we see the lead female dancer being thrown to the ground by one of the male dancers. In this moment, the camera jump-cuts to a bird’s-eye-view, showing the male’s dominance as she struggles to break free. As she succeeds, the camera flawlessly follows her back up to eye level, metaphorically showing her regaining the power.

These intricate camera movements follow the dancers through the air and down onto the floor. A specific example of the camera following the dancing is when it is focussed on the lead dancer as she rolls on the floor and the camera does a 360-degree rotation to imitate this movement. It appears that this dance film was quite revolutionary for its time, with its creative and fluid camera use.

During the 1990s, when this film was created, there were a number of dance films released by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, a Dutch contemporary dance choreographer, that began to change the way people viewed dance on screen, by breaking down the wall of the locked-off 2D perspective through her intricate editing and camera choreography.

De Keersmaeker used a slick style of editing to enhance her choreography – which is also evident throughout Terra Interior – using fast-paced editing as the choreography becomes more frantic. This technique is used heavily during the climax of the film as the lead character repeats the same choreography at different locations through fast editing jump cuts, transporting her to the different parts of her subconscious mind.

Another film that employs dance and editing to explore the subconscious mind is Part, an experimental drama directed by Alethea Jones in 2006.

This experimental film – available for research purposes in the VCA Digital Archive – follows a couple as they look back at their relationship through the lens of contemporary dance. A black void location is chosen to explore the subconscious mind in contrast with the real world.

Part is an example of a dance film that’s taken on more of a static approach of filming the choreography, which mirrors a similar perspective to what we see on stage. All of the choreography is filmed from one plane, perceiving it to be more stilted and less frantic.

It is interesting to observe, when viewing dance films, whether the director has made a conscious choice to keep the camera on one plane or they are used to choreographing for the stage and forget that the choreography does not need to be viewed from one position. Dance on film offers the possibility of using the camera in so many different angles, as there is no real front of stage as in a live theatre.

Throughout my time at the VCA, I gradually learnt to break down the idea that we could only view the choreography from one position and in one location. This was difficult at first, coming from a dance stage background. Once I began to break down this wall, I discovered how exciting it was to add this layer and extra dimension to my films.

I began to explore the idea of using dance as a medium to explore the subconscious mind when I was at a cross road as to whether I wanted to continue making abstract dance films or more traditional narrative films. This is where the idea began and I decided to combine the two together.  In my films I would go on to using the real-world scenes to explore the conscious mind and the dance scenes in abstract locations to explore the subconscious mind.

I’ve always used filmmaking as a form of therapy to work through certain themes I’ve been confronted with throughout my life.

I strongly used the technique exploring the subconscious mind throughout my graduate film.  Behind Barres follows the treacherous journey of a fragile young dancer's battle to overcome injury and the torment she must face in order to succeed in the gruelling world of ballet.

Working closely with my Cinematographer David McRobbie Park, we aimed to capture raw hand-held movements that kept us close to Adelina, invading her mental state, hoping to keep the audience by her side as she slips in and out of her subconscious mind. David and I endured an extensive rehearsal process with the dancers, choreographing the camera into the space as if it were another dancer. We wanted the movement to mimic and flow beside the dancers, elongating each movement, breathing life into the choreography which helped to heighten the emotion and intensity.

My film shares the same parallels as Terra Interior and Part, where they all have a specific location where the subconscious mind is explored: Terra Interior – a closed-in space filled with red sand; Part – a black void space; and Behind Barres – a concrete room. These films all resonate the fact that the dance sequences take place in a specific abstract location.

I look forward to seeing the work of future dance filmmakers at the VCA and am fascinated and passionate to see where dance filmmaking leads.

At 16, Sophia moved to Sydney to pursue her passion for dance, studying full-time Ballet for two years at the McDonald College in Sydney. She then studied at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) for three years, where she completed an Advanced Diploma of Dance (Elite Performance). While studying at WAAPA, she endured many injuries – this is where she discovered her passion for dance filmmaking, using this medium as a creative outlet.

Sophia went onto complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television) at the VCA, combining her two passions. Her graduating film – Behind Barres – was recognised in film festivals nationally and internationally. Sophia now works with The Australian Ballet as one of their content creators. She looks forward to releasing her upcoming film, Endo Girl – a film to raise awareness of endometriosis – at the end of the year.

The VCA Digital Archive series of articles was commissioned as part of a grant from the University of Melbourne, Student Services Amenities Fee. University of Melbourne staff and students and some industry people dipped into the FTV archive and watched films based on themes. The idea was to use the archive as stimulus to curate and create. Some responses are completely creative, others are reviews, others are word art pieces.

The full collection is available for research, as of mid-2019. In the meantime you can find a selection of more than 100 films live on our YouTube page. To find out more, visit the VCA Digital Archive Project Page.