Review: Portland Dance Film Fest and the experimental nature of dance on film

As the dance film genre gains momentum, Portland Dance Film Fest returns to the Clinton Street Theatre to feature filmmakers from across the globe and encourage innovation.

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On an autumn morning at the Clinton Street Coffeehouse across from the Clinton Street Theater, I met with Portland Dance Film Fest organizers Kailee McMurran, Jess Evans, and Tia Palomino to chat about the 2021 festival, October 15-24. After a year of Zoom meeting fatigue, postponed performances, online showcases, and general uncertainty for the arts and theater communities, Portland Dance Film Fest has returned with the combined in-person and virtual dance film festival that has been much awaited by dancers, filmmakers, and audience members alike since its virtual screening last year.

Having received hundreds of submissions from across the world, this year’s festival is comprised of thirty-one films and five dance documentaries, curated from nine countries, among them Belgium, Australia, Belarus, Brazil, the Philippines, the Nederlands, and the United Kingdom. Five Oregon Artists are also featured in this year’s PDFF, making this year the largest showcase of Oregon artists since the festival’s debut in 2017. (Tickets for virtual access to the festival’s offerings are available here through Oct. 24.)

This year, I had the pleasure of attending one of the three showings in person and was pleasantly surprised at how easily the Clinton Street Theater fell back into the role of hosting PDFF again. From obtaining tickets through the original Plexiglas-plated ticket window to strolling past the concessions on the endearingly worn carpet, the spirit of cinema felt alive and well again. As the lights dimmed and the PDFF logo appeared between the Clinton’s quintessential red velvet curtains, I took a (masked) sigh of relief. It was nice to be back.

For many arts and film organizations, the past year and a half have been difficult, leading them into uncharted territories of virtual audience participation and losses of major funding. PDFF, for example, did not offer the Pro Photo Supply-partnered Oregon Film Commission this year. For filmmakers, the dive into the unknown seems to have led not only to budget constraints, but also to the acclimation of viewing dance film through a new (excuse my pun) lens. From the inclusion of spoken-word performance and the wide use of pedestrian mannerisms to the exploration of time-based actions depicted true-to-duration on camera, this year’s most indelible films were not necessarily those that displayed beautiful dancing and pristine technique, but those that were not afraid to push the boundaries of narrative and performance art to tap into the world of the absurd.

As a past participant and judge panelist for PDFF, I am aware of how controversial these types of work can be when evaluated by a diverse and varied group of artists. The consideration about if and when dance film crosses a line into short film or even digital media performance art genres has the ability to spark discourse and disagreement with no easy conclusion. When asked about this phenomenon, organizer Tia Palomino described the criteria that she tends to encourage panelists to consider to when wrestling with whether a film “is” or “isn’t” a dance film: “I try to ask the question [of] does the movement drive the film— does the movement drive the story?” 

Movement, though often prompting one to consider the movement of the body, can (and in my opinion, often should) also be expressed in the movement of the camera. An element often forgotten by viewers and dancers alike, the movement of the camera is what dictates the movement of the eye, the focus of the shot, and in turn, can impact the entirety of the film and its meaning. The choices made by the cinematographer and director of photography, therefore, are as important as, if not more important than, those of the dancer and choreographer. 

According to Kailee McMurran, one of the most important things about dance film is that it has the ability to defy the boundaries of genre, creating work that is “out of the box.” With this in mind, it is no surprise that artists are willing and excited to take steps further into the new world of experimental dance film as the genre expands and settles into its fixed place within the art world. As a relatively young artistic platform, it is only expected that artists dive away from the traditional and into the avant-garde as we fight to establish ourselves in a world dominated by classical stage dance and narrative feature film.

Still from “Reminiscence of the Present.”

UK film Reminiscence of the Present, directed by Daniel Fazio and danced and choreographed by painter Ilyas Kassam, is an excellent example of the blurring of boundaries between dance film and task-based action. With artistic dance film-style cinematography and documentary-like shot progression, Reminiscence of the Present follows the process of the artist from his set-up to the final product of an abstract painting, allowing for his natural movements and brush strokes to act as the film’s choreography.

Still from “Dar/Land.”

Andrea and Philip Knowlton’s Dar/Land, featuring dancer Darvensky Lewis, depicted another vulnerable portrait, this time containing spoken biographical motifs. Contrasting urban architecture with the imagery of woodland nature, Lewis navigates expansive movement language while traversing these landscapes to the soundtrack of his own voice. “If you are watching this, keep it safe because this is my story,” Lewis states within the first 13 seconds as he records himself in real time on a VHS video camera, adamantly breaking the fourth wall with his acknowledgment of the audience and simultaneous dual-depiction of his image on a digital format.

Though less experimental, Successors, directed and choreographed by festival organizer Kailee McMurran and featuring the dancers of Western Oregon University’s dance department, stood out as a marker of the wit and humor increasingly making its way into dance on film. Winsome and melodramatic in their execution, the dancers successfully depicted a Shakespearian-reminiscent tale of betrayal and the “tragedy of power lust” thanks to McMurran’s pointed use of musicality, slow motion, camera movement, and theatrics.

Still from “Under Review: Katahdin.”

Under Review: Katahdin, directed and choreographed by Kelly Ashton Todd with dancers Paul Zivkovich, Tori Sparks, Ryan VanCompernolle, Tyler Phillips, and Austin Tyson, took a less lighthearted approach to melodrama in a narrative depicting a “heart-wrenching story of our evolving relationship with trees.” 

“In 2017, two national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, were drastically reduced in size to allow for oil and gas development,” reads the text that appears across the film’s first scene. Through intricate and grounded partnering work, breathtakingly expansive aerial views of the Katahdin Woods (unceded lands of the Penobscot Nation), and emotive scenes portraying the ripping-apart of familial trees from their roots and forests, Under Review: Katahdin brings to light the horrors and irrevocable damage of industrial development and forest clearcutting for the purpose of gas and oil drilling.

Still from “Proximity.”

Based on the words of poet and author David Whyte, UK film Proximity featured direction by Roman Sheppard Dawson and choreography by dancer Andrew Dawson. Originally commissioned by the 2020 London International Mime Festival, this meditative work “set out to develop a visual poem” that explored concepts of arrival and separation, and the intimacy that exists between them. Utilizing a filmstrip-reminiscent split-screen and gesture-based movement language, the ego-less honesty and simplicity of this film were a welcome arrival. Though not noted as a defining narrative point in the program description, it was pleasing to watch a film that featured a dancer of mature age, and touching to learn that this piece came of a collaboration between father and son.

Dear tree, please don’t spill on our grave. – a Swedish film directed and choreographed by Jonne Covers in collaborated with dancers, filmed by Floris Verweij, and featuring dancer Anna Fransen as lead – stood out as the triumph of the festival. A bizarre narrative chronicling the extraordinary life of the character “Anna,” the film is narrated by a deep, accented voice that matter-of-factly describes the goings-on of Anna’s melancholy and uneventful, yet otherworldly, existence. Her mother is a monkey, her spouse is a potato plant, and her sisters have miraculously disappeared. “This is Anna,” begins the narrator. “Anna is hung over from a party that wasn’t really worth it … Anna wears a nice dress … Anna is god.” Melding refined movement with gestural pedestrian choreography, Dear tree, please don’t spill on our grave. embraces the preposterous to deliver a striking, irresistible, and welcoming character study without holding the hand of the viewer.

Still from “Dear tree, please don’t spill on our grave.”

“I think dance can feel intimidating, but if [one] thinks about it as movement as narrative, it can feel more approachable,” said PDFF organizer Jess Evans, elaborating on the root of what can make dance filmmaking approachable for both professionals and novices. “It’s less about being a dancer and more about being in a body.” It is this advice of understanding and subtlety that, when implemented, will help break the mold of dancing for camera and elevate the art form to a place of nuance, experimentation, innovation, and impact: dancing with camera.

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About the author

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, choreographer, filmmaker, and writer from Rehovot, Israel, currently based in Portland, Oregon, by way of San Diego, California. She has trained in Tel Aviv under Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company studying Gaga Movement Language and holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. Havin is the founder and artistic director of the Portland-based dance company The Holding Project with which she received a Disjecta Contemporary Art Center 2016 Artistic Residency. Her films have been showcased internationally in Israel, Greece, Mexico, Austria, and France, receiving awards from Mexico City Videodance International, Portland Dance Film Fest, Thessaloniki Cinedance, and more. Havin is the founder and host of the occasional reading series It’s Rhubarb, and her literary works can be read in publications such as The Dust Magazine, Unchaste Anthology, When She Rises, and Gravity According to Birds. With a process rooted in the duality of her upbringing, Havin weaves together a collectively introspective body of work, honoring both heritage and the natural world.

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