COVID Moves Dance Online with the San Pedro Arts Festival

The San Pedro Arts Festival directed by Louise Reichlin is presenting a digital festival in the form of two 2-hour curated programs shared for free on Vimeo. The festival as a whole features 10 dance artists in a smattering of dance styles with many falling under the contemporary concert dance umbrella. The program features works mostly captured on video prior to the COVID lockdown including a number of works presented through archival footage of dances performed in theaters for a live audience dance films. In addition, there are examples of dances created for the camera from both before and during the COVID closures and documentaries of dance projects. Because a few of the works were created post-COVID-lockdown, the festival as a whole feels even more timely and responsive to the current state of affairs.

In this review, I address three styles of dance on camera as modeled by representative works in the festival. Since these types of online dance events are becoming more common, I feel compelled to address the trends we are now seeing in this form of online, digital sharing of the art form in hopes of clarifying for you what you might expect from the growing genre of dance on film.

Ballet dancers in costume on stage.
Iceberg by Brittany Woo

The first category of dance on film is the archival dance footage. These are films of live performances that are captured with either one wide angle shot or multi-camera shots that are edited together to highlight the most important moments in the work. Two notable examples of this type of digital dance is Iceberg choreographed by Brittany Woo and UC Irvine students and So Now You Know by Mixed eMotion Theatrix. While simply filmed with minimal to no editing, these two performances allow the dance composition as a whole to take center stage as the performance is experienced more or less in the same way and from the same perspective as it was for the live concert audience. While the archival format has the natural drawbacks of distance from the performers and/or visual interference of the heads of live audience members, the dancing in these two works is able to shine for its content and composition. Iceberg is a beautiful extension of the Classical Ballet idiom with excellently trained dancers performing challenging movement with playful flair embedded in contemporary gestures. So Now You Know shares excerpts from its show focusing on storytelling and dynamic movement that underscores the story being told. With minimal editing of a single performance this work is driven by the content of the story and the humanity and individualism showcased in the actor-dancer cast. Self Disclosure by Boroka Nagy of Re:born Dance Interactive is another example of archival footage being used for new sharing of a dance work. What makes this dance stand out is that it uses handheld camera-work and large scale projection within the live performance Itself, thus blurring the line between the aesthetics of archival footage and dance made for camera. The archival footage of exquisite performer Kristy Dai feels much more like a dance for camera as the movement of the camera used in the live event serves the dynamic needs of a dance filmed to be visually stimulating. Other notable examples of this type of work come from Classical Indian dancer Pranamya Suri, Ballet fusion choreographer Jose Costa’s Contempo Ballet and contemporary choreographers of AkomiDance.

Close up of a dancer in mask from Alán Pérez dance film
Close up image from We All Wear Human Skin Underneath These Clothes by Pérez

The second category is the dance made specifically for camera or a dance film, meaning this dance was choreographed to be captured by a lens and shared through a screen as a film not as a continuous live performance. Kairos Dance Company presents a suite of works, two of which were performed specifically for film. While the works themselves may not have been made for the camera (it is at least unknown whether they were or not), the filmed performances are clearly in spaces prepared for a camera. Entitled, Scenes from the Female Heart, the topic of the work is firmly feminist and socially/politically charged. I appreciated the cast of mature feminine spirits and bodies as they move boldly through the space while grappling with such a potent topic. Alán Pérez similarly tackles a social-political theme but with a much lighter touch in his dance film We Wear Human Skin Under All These Clothes. Featuring a trio of men of color, this film embraces the theme of being gay men of color and was clearly created and performed for camera in the COVID lockdown. The bright and nearly washed out design elements of this work along with the sensitivity of the camera toward the dancers sets this work apart from the rest. The way the movement was captured allowed the design and sensibility of the movement to effectively resonate through the screen. Additional contributions in this dance for camera or dance film style come from Middle Eastern dance artists of Cathartic Art, Classical ballet choreographers of WestMet Classical Training, and established Modern Dance film maker Tonia Shimin.

The last category seen in the festival is a documentary style film about dance or a dance process. Barkin/Selissen Project presents the Differential Cohomology Documentary about their creative process in creating the mathematics-based dance work premiering in 2014. The film features excerpts of the work as well as interviews and rehearsal footage of the collaborative team. Fortunately/Unfortunately the nature of this work rooted in mathematics is so provocative that not seeing the work in its entirety was somewhat disappointing as a viewer. Louise Reichlin & Dancers/ Los Angeles Choreographers & Dancers blended an archival video of an original performance choreographed by Reichlin in 1990 with the new 2020 cast learning the work while socially distanced in the COVID lockdown. The piece entitled Alone 2020 was originally performed by Kohl Lewis performing the piece in its entirety as captured in the original archival footage. The newer company members were edited into the work sharing the screen side by side with the original to show their progress as performers learning in the lockdown.

Kairos Dance Company in Scenes From a Female Heart

Naturally, there are blends and overlaps between the categories I have identified here, but in general these seem to be the three threads dance artists are following in their explorations of new media platforms to share their artistic voices.

The San Pedro Arts Festival is another example of the fortitude of the dance field in continuing to share its art and offer free programming of independent dance artists to a broader community. Of course, it is shame that we can’t see these wonderful and varied works live next to the waterfront in the harbor, but it is a triumph that Louise Reichlin and Dancers have continued to serve their local communities by offering an alternative until we can meet again in person.

Of Stones and Water a dance film by Tonia Shimin

The good news is that you still have time to view the entire festival line up for free! Visit through Oct 4th! Both programs run about 2 hours and each has something for everyone. For more information about each of the Festival artists please visit the website where you can read about each performer and their work.

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