Judge Kerry Birmingham was secretly disappointed that the title Dance for Camera had nothing to do with sexy co-eds or strippers working their way through law school.
Dance Films From Around the World
If the short film is an underserved niche in the cinema world, then surely short films with modern dance as their driving creative impetus are an even more underexposed breed. Dance for Camera 2 brings together an eclectic mix of performance pieces by international contributors, some funny, some strange, some lush, some spare, all of which are unique viewing experiences.
Facts of the Case
Dance for Camera 2 is the second in a series of short film collections that showcase modern dance productions from around the world. The seven short films included here are:
• "Boy," directed by Rosemary Lee and Peter Anderson, in which a small boy makes his own fun in a desolate landscape;
• "Burst," by Iceland's Reynir Lyngdal and Katrin Hall, featuring a couple whose bedroom antics are interrupted by some bad plumbing;
• "Cargo," directed by Kelly Hargraves, about a drifter who uses the space in and around a 1969 Buick Skylark to express himself;
• "Case Studies from The Groat Center for Sleep Disorders," detailing the unusual patients at Dr. Groat's clinic and the unusual manifestations of their subconscious, directed by Mitchell Rose, Ashley Roland, and Jamey Hampton;
• "Horses Never Lie," by Kathi Prosser and Caroline Richardson, touching on issues of birth and change;
• "Motion Control," an experiment in constraining a dancer that does nothing to inhibit her, in a film by Liz Aggiss, Billy Cowie, and David Anderson;
• "The Duchess," the story of a German aristocrat and the personal and familial demons that haunt him, by Eric Koziol and Shinichi Iova-Koga.
I am, admittedly, not particularly qualified to judge the quality of the dance in these films, being neither a student of nor a pre-established fan of the form; for example, my notes on "Burst" read: "Couple in bed, water pipe breaks, chick's kinda hot"—which, you know, isn't exactly a thoughtful précis of modern dance, accurate though it may be.
The alternative is to take these films on their own merits, divorced from whatever tradition of dance they may derive from ("The Duchess" is described as "Butoh-inspired," my knowledge of which extends as far as the Wikipedia article I read to write this). This approach must also account for the fact that much of the nuance (and, if I'm being honest, much of the larger picture) is lost on me and, moreover, isn't a pure representation of the form anyway, bastardized and adapted as these films are for film. The dancing here is more an issue of bodily control, rather than the perfect forms and leaps associated with traditional dance; to speak plainly and in poor English: Swan Lake this ain't. The dancing here is ostensibly in the service of story, and if ultimately the contortions and grotesqueries are lost on newcomers to the form, these are still movies, and the dancing can and properly should be considered only as a tool for telling those stories.
The seven films included here are generally in the five- to eight-minute range, with "The Duchess," being the hallucinatory historical epic that it is, clocking in at 15 minutes. A title card before each short film gives a synopsis and some biographical information of its creators. Much of the time, these summaries are the only things to give a viewer a clue as to the stories being told, as in "Horses Never Lie," which the introduction claims is about "the mythic concept of metamorphosis," though the untrained eye sees a woman dancing in a circle under a tarp. "Motion Control" is likewise obtuse, though visually rich and, with its camera tricks and tics, has more the feel of a rock video than a dance performance. With the Matthew Barney-esque "Duchess," which drips with nightmare imagery and dilapidated Eurotrash excess, these films comprise the collection's most esoteric inclusions, but also, perhaps not coincidentally, the most visually and technically brilliant pieces.
I suspect "Case Studies from the Groat Center for Sleep Disorders" is an audience favorite, if only for its more direct concept. It's the only film here to include spoken dialogue and everything is literally spelled out for the viewer. Unpretentious in its wackiness, it makes for a nice palate cleanser before heading into headier pieces like "Horses Never Lie" and is the only film here that I would qualify as suitable for viewing to another layman.
The three remaining performances—"Boy," "Burst," and "Cargo"—run the gamut of story, performance, and visuals, offering none of the lush design of the other films but with much more comprehensible stories. "Boy," featuring the only child dancer in this collection, is brief but energetic, as is "Burst," whose couple in bed tumble and bounce off each other in a way that's more impressive in its acrobatics and athleticism than most of the other shorts, in that the performance comes more from the dancers reacting to each other rather than isolated, strictly internalized movements displayed by the solo dancers in the other performances. "Cargo" is largely unimpressive, looking slapdash on home video and trying to convince us that a sweaty dude writhing in the back seat of a Buick constitutes being "sometimes dark, sometimes funny, and always sexy," as the introductory text helpfully suggests.
Like virtually any anthology, the quality of the pieces here vary with taste and from contributor to contributor, running the gamut of directorial style and aesthetic sensibility, so individual connection to the material may vary. Film quality for all the shorts likewise varies—film and video are both represented here—though sound is consistently decent, meaning the largely atonal instrumental selections accompanying each piece are loud and clear.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Dance may not be a dominant form of storytelling these days, but the seven films included here do display the technical and artistic diversity to be found in the form. Though meaning is often obscured and my layman reviewer's eye tells me that the proceedings are more than a little pretentious, it's an undeniably unique form of expression that, when it connects with a viewer, impresses with what it manages to convey in a few controlled movements. These shorts amply demonstrate the variety of tones and messages that can be conveyed through the medium and should be taken as an appreciable artifact of the intersection of film and dance.
While the dramatic quality of dance seems like a natural cinematic fit, the highly stylized nature of the performances captured here and the stories they aim to tell will be polarizing to even the most canny dance aficionado. There's little here that's going to convince those unfamiliar with dance to give it a chance; I imagine a common reaction after seeing some of these films would be, like me, "What the hell was that?!" If my descriptions of the plots of these shorts seem vague and elliptical, it's because the plots themselves are often vague and elliptical. However, adventurous movie-watchers may find some interest in many of the films' startling visuals and stark technical prowess even when the idiosyncrasies of dance elude them.
Not guilty by reason of an easily baffled judge.
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