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The Portland Dance Film Fest and the inevitable future of dance on film

The pandemic has accelerated the movement of dance toward film, where more people can see it.


“Getting people in their bodies is a really healthy force for beneficial change,” said Jess Evans over a Zoom call one cloudy afternoon. We were talking about the challenges and triumphs that faced the organizers of the Portland Dance Film Fest during the days of Coronavirus, alongside co-organizers Kailee McMurran and Tia Palomino.

“We learn about ourselves by watching other people,” continued Evans. “There’s a lot of power in what we consume, so offering [films] that sit people into their bodies and makes them more empathetic, hopefully, can allow them to feel more connected [to each other].” 

A still from About Face, directed by Yoram Savion.

The Portland Dance Film Fest, developed in 2016 to showcase both local and international dance filmmaking, has become a staple on the yearly arts calendars of many Pacific Northwest-based dance filmmakers, choreographers, and audience members alike. Featuring expert panels, workshops, documentaries, an annual film commission, and three evenings of dance films hand-picked by a panel of judges, the PDFF this year, which ran October 2-4, faced its most difficult and rewarding year.

Dance film, unlike typical stage dance that most patrons are used to attending, is tasked with translating the nuanced world of dance performance to a two-dimensional, digital platform. For many dance filmmakers, the draw of dance film is not only the possibility for experimentation within a digital medium but also the opportunity for reaching wider audiences. This has never been more true than during this year of Coronavirus closures which have disrupted the dance community at its core.

Usually, the Portland Dance Film Fest culminates in a series of live events, including an opening reception and evenings of packed movie theatre houses. When asked about the process of transferring the entire festival to an online platform, McMurran, Palomino, and Evans all seemed in agreement. “It was challenging,” laughed McMurran, “but we began planning pretty early.”

“The learning curve of figuring out the user experience was a challenge,” added Evans, “We had a lot of discussion about how to put it online and what the platforms would be… to make sure that all the little ways we needed people to be able to interface [with the festival] would work.”

A still from the documentary Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon

Though preserving the film festival that would otherwise have no home was difficult, moving it online came with its share of small victories. “We had the ability to grow the festival because we were given the opportunity to add Documentary and Stay Home Screen Dance categories. In that regard, it meant that we were dealing with 60 films instead of the usual 25,” said McMurran. Along with added categories, a completely virtual film festival offered a much welcomed widening of the Portland Dance Film Fest audience base. 

With the recent closures of many studios and performance venues, more choreographers than ever have turned to creating dance for film. The beauty of dance film, especially during a time of isolation, is found in the countless possible pathways from which to approach the artform. Whether filming oneself on a small device or utilizing a production team for higher budget films, festivals such as Portland Dance Film Fest make it their objective to further the careers of dance filmmakers by facilitating conversations between artist and audience. Putting PDFF online also meant that the works of all filmmakers featured this year would be exposed to a broad international viewership, aiding them in expanding their followings and forming links to the rest of the dance world. 

Though tested by the lack of sponsors due to Covid-19 and the added financial hardships that came with creating a virtual film festival, this year’s Portland Dance Fest prevailed in a time of uncertainty. While each of the three Festival Picks collections were available to purchase individually and stream for a 72-hour period, many of the audience members opted to purchase festival passes, allowing them full access to the entirety of PDFF’s offerings.

“I think we doubled our festival pass sales,” answered McMurran when asked how this year’s PDFF compared to live festivals of the past. “I think we did better. We had more online viewers in the festival than [we’ve had] in person.”

In fact, this year’s Portland Dance Film Fest had around 700 viewers, greatly surpassing last year’s 500 live-viewer estimate. It also reached a much wider global audience thanks to the numerous Stay Home Screen Dance category submissions from quarantined dancers across the world.

While I found myself more captivated by the films of PDFF’s past years, there were plenty of significant films that did compel and enthrall this year’s viewers.

French poster for The Last Children, directed and choreographed by Phu LE.

The Last Children, directed and choreographed by France’s Fu LE with director of photography Alexander Viollet, created a melancholy, and bewitching atmosphere. Presented as a single-shot dance film featuring children from the recently closed Saint-Martin-Labouval school, The Last Children was intended to display “the desertification of [France’s] rural world” and the “death of its villages.” Paired with beautifully written and recited narration, it presented a critique of the centralization of its schools through grand mythos and egalitarian choreography.

About Face, directed by United States-based Yoram Savion in collaboration with YAK Films with spoken word by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, examined the disruption of the paradigm of the “school to prison pipeline.” Danced by choreographer Drew Dollaz, celebrated pioneer of Brooklyn-based street dancing style Flexing or Bone Breaking, About Face offered a heartfelt narrative that brought the imperative dialogue of racial profiling to the forefront. 

Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Portland Oregon

I’m Here, directed by Ukraine-based Kateryna Tiurina with director of photography Krill San and choreographer Anatoli Sachivko, offered a lighter point of view. Dazzling with its use of vibrant color, fast-paced editing cuts, and unique electronic club music, I’m Here presented an energetic nighttime playground of misfits, effectively counteracting society’s “unreasonable obsession” and “lack of autonomous thinking”.

Along with these gripping films, this year’s virtual Portland Dance Film Fest offered four docu-shorts and five feature-length documentaries including Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon, and touched, an earnest film about the legacy of prolific choreographer Pina Bausch and her personal assistant.

A still from touched, a documentary about the late German choreographer
Pina Bausch.

Dance has been utilized in mainstream cinema, advertising campaigns, and music videos since the dawn of popular media. Dance film, however, is still considered a niche rather than a stand-alone genre. It is not only the hope, but the goal of the Portland Dance Film Fest and similar festivals to bring dance film to the forefront of the art world’s collective consciousness, connecting people across the world during a time of separation. Dance film, with its capacity to inspire closeness, empathy, and curiosity, holds within it the future of dance in the modern technological age.

Amy Leona Havin is a writer, choreographer, and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based multi-media dance company The Holding Project. Her works can be read in Humana Obscura, San Diego Poetry Annual, The Dust Magazine, The Chronicle, Mountain Bluebird Magazine, and others, and she has been shortlisted for the Bridport International Writing Competition Prize in Poetry. Havin’s artistic process is rooted in classical and somatic movement practices, non-fiction writing, and honoring the landscape of the natural world.

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