Digital Dance

Dance on screens is a growing phenomenon.  The Dance Films Association, founding organization of the Dance on Camera Festival, lists 17 film festivals in the United States alone that feature dance programming, and more than double that around the world. When online dance videos, competitions, and curated presentations are considered, one has to wonder in what media the future of dance viewing lies.

A recent survey of dancers in Los Angeles, conducted by Sasha Anawalt at the Annenberg School of Journalism and Communications, University of Southern California, found 38 percent watch dance videos online every day.  70 percent said they watch dance videos at least once a week. In contrast, fewer than 8 percent of respondents reported attending a live dance performance once a month.

In an insightful Arts Journal article, AJ founder and editor Douglas McLennan writes,

“If you buy the idea that an artist’s aesthetic is influenced by the work they see, what these answers suggest is that the typical LA dancer finds dance on a screen at least as compelling as the live experience. Over time, this suggests that their work will be more influenced by the language of the screen rather than the live theatre version. How will that change what they might make for a live theatre audience? And if you’re an artist, how are you going to reconcile an increasingly screen-driven audience used to looking at performance on a screen when it comes into a live space?”

These are important questions for dancers, dance makers, and dance educators to be considering. What will it take to keep dance, not just relevant, but compelling and interesting to audiences as technology increasingly mediates our experience of art? There’s a strong case to be made that dance education should involve a focus on digital skills as well. Not only are shooting and editing techniques important; choreographing and emoting for the screen is a different form of expression than for the stage.

There are artists and programs focusing on this area for growth in the dance world.  Daniil Simkin, for instance, uses technology and media in innovative and savvy ways with his collective, Intensio.

“We live in very exciting times. So many possibilities are there for us to take, but especially in ballet, not many opportunities are being taken to integrate them and to be open to new ideas. It’s like a closed box where the elements are being rearranged in different ways and nobody thinks—not even outside the box—but at least open the box ever so slightly and look out a little bit. I’m not saying we should be completely out of it, but I feel like the same elements are being rearranged and rearranged and rearranged.  At the same time, these days we have so many other elements that are not being taken into consideration. My goal, from my point of view, is to show that, yes, we can have a fashion designer do the clothes, and we can have video projections, and interesting lighting, and it can be done in a different way. As I said, I want to make some kind of spectacle,” he says in this interview with The World Dances.

Professor Jodie Gates, Director and Vice Dean of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, emphasizes the importance of digital literacy in her school’s curriculum.We’re very interested in creating hybrid artists and developing new art forms through dance education. We’ve reimaged how one looks at choreography and how choreography manifests in everything we do in life. We also look at choreography from a variety of different lenses, whether it be the viewer looking onto a stage or at any kind of a screen—mobile device, laptop, or cinema,” she says in this interview. 

Students of the Capturing Motion NYC program, run by the Dance Films Association will be screening their works in progress this month at the Abrons Art Center. The program, run by the Dance Films Association and Abrons Art Center, provides the opportunity for high school students and budding artists to explore the merging of choreographic and cinematic art. For more information and screening times, click here.

We should also point out the growing number of submissions to the Harlequin Floors Scholarship Contest that are gorgeously and complexly cinematic. For example, Hannah Thomas, one of the February Judges’ Choice winners, describes her video “Strange Realities” as a production. “We [Thomas and videographer RJVisuals] collaborated well because he saw my vision and made it come to life. My most prized moments in the film, would have to be the magnolia scene. Before I even thought of choreography, I envisioned me swaying with magnolia flowers transparently blooming around me. He brought it to life. I cried.”

Watching a live performance is a unique and often profound experience. Part of the dance world’s challenge is communicating the immense value of “the real thing” to new and more diverse audiences. However, another important challenge will surely be re-conceptualizing what “the real thing” means and understanding how to create meaningful art that transcends gimmicks within an expanded framework.