THE INVENTION OF the motion picture camera at the turn of 20th century initiated a compulsive fascination with the moving body — hence the new medium being called “moving pictures.” Thomas Edison’s “The Pickaninny Dance, from ‘The Passing Show’” (1894) featured Joe Rastus, Denny Tolliver, and Walter Wilkins, allegedly the first African Americans to appear before a motion picture camera, in a challenge dance, and the Lumière Brothers’ Danse Serpentine (1896) shot the legendary dancer and Art Nouveau icon Loie Fuller on a glass pedestal lit from below, as she psychedelically transformed into a swirling butterfly. Busby Berkeley’s “backstage musical” Footlight Parade (1933) used flying crane shots to dive into the smiling faces of bathing beauties beneath a waterfall and top shots of kaleidoscopic designs constructed out of female body parts. Maya Deren’s A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945) freed the body from spatial confines, with dancer Talley Beatty moving effortlessly within and between different environments — a forest, a living room, a museum gallery — an effect achieved by carefully matching choreographed movements with editing patterns. As Beatty leapt from space to space across Deren’s film splices, a new geographical reality was created, one where great distances could be covered within the span of just four minutes. Deren’s camera in effect became Beatty’s partner.
And so began a new film genre, variously called cine dance, dance film, screen dance, and cine-choreography. Unlike the unique role of the choreographer in crafting dances, the kinetic images of screen dance require the collaboration of choreographer, director, and editor in shaping and controlling the moving image, determining how each move is to be rhythmically paced, shot, edited, and scored, as well as new techniques for simulating live dance performance through the movement of the subject, the placement of the camera, and editing decisions.
The 47th annual Dance on Camera Festival was held July 12–15, 2019, at the Walter Reade Theater at New York’s Lincoln Center. Sponsored by the Dance Films Association, the event is the longest-running dance film festival in the world, providing since its inception a platform for choreographic storytelling and screening “a broad range of dance films […] celebrat[ing] the immediacy of dance combined with the intimacy of film.” Co-curators Liz Wolff and Nolini Barretto have presented the full spectrum of the genre — dramatic narratives with dance at their core, such as Mari (2018), wherein charismatic actress/dancer Bobbi Jene Smith finds herself torn between her fear of losing her mother and her obligation to the dance company she founded; documentaries like Obsessed with Light: The Genius of Loïe Fuller, directed by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl and choreographed by Jody Sperling, which tells the story of the eponymous American who rose to stardom in Paris in the early 20th century as a pioneer of modern dance; compilation films such as With Merce (2009), which pays tribute to Merce Cunningham’s centennial by presenting filmmaker/media artist Charles Atlas’s excerpts from their collaborations and from his personal archive; and short films with inventive techniques replicating the three-dimensionality of living, breathing subjects.
In This Life, an 11-minute dramatic visualization of the five stages of grief (a concept first introduced by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying), was one of the most impressive short films of the festival. Directed by experimental filmmaker Bat-Sheva Guez and co-written and produced with Robbie Fairchild, a former New York City Ballet principal and Broadway star who plays a man going through a very personal rite of passage, the film was choreographed by five renowned dance artists whose relative inexperience with screen dance brought surprisingly fresh ideas about shooting dance movement.
Stage One: Shock
The opening shot frames Fairchild, his back to the camera, facing a translucent expanse of blue light, as a haiku by Japanese poet and Buddhist priest Kobayashi Issa scrolls across the screen: “In this life / We walk on the roof of hell / Gazing at flowers.” Guez’s camera flips 180 degrees to a close-up of Fairchild’s face, his brows furrowed as he looks blankly confused into the camera — and, in the succeeding long shot, out of a large window overlooking a vast cityscape. The view sends shockwaves through his body that jolt him onto the balls of the feet, his torso convulsing involuntarily, with momentary freezes that arrest his arms into angular mudras and his fingers into claws.
The movement in this first stage was choreographed by tap dancer Warren Craft, who, along with training in ballet, studied the art form of Japanese butoh that was founded by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and which favors a style of movement characterized by gnarled, earthbound gestures and surreal transmutations of the body. Vivid electrocutions send Fairchild spinning on his knees, wrestling with some wicked invisible force that tilts him backward and chokes him to the ground — moves registered by Guez’s camera as it zooms, circles, and buzzes around — until he lays supine, a living corpse.
Stage Two: Anger
Cut to an extreme close-up of Fairchild scrunching his face, pinching his cheeks, nudging his lips into a toothy grimace, as a pair of disembodied hands creep up into the frame to form a chokehold around his neck. Before we have time to fully register this grotesque image, Guez cuts to a long shot of the inside of a church, with blood-orange stained glass windows and empty pews, and a few congregants sitting in meditation. The church door opens with a bang as Fairchild, fists raised overhead, advances toward the altar with jagged, spider-like steps, popping and locking his torso in a seething fit that spins him out of control and throws him backward, clutching on to a pew for stability. His is an agonizing pain that knows no limits — and that could be asking, along with the members of the church who rise to stand behind him, “Where is God in this?”
The ruthlessly aggressive choreography by James Alsop, who has worked commercially with pop stars Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe, powerfully embodies a rage that takes the form, as members of the chorus gather behind Fairchild, of a serpent with a long tail lashing and slithering toward the altar. In an act of self-destruction, Fairchild turns round on the members making up his “tail” and attacks them: capping his hand over the head of one and shoving him aside, flipping a woman over his shoulder, wrestling another to the floor — actions made more perilous by Guez’s quick-moving camera and split-second cuts. One last man pops up from behind, wrapping his arms around Fairchild in a quelling embrace. As the camera retreats to a long shot, we see Fairchild on his knees, arms raised, trying desperately to grasp the neck of his opponent who staunchly contains him: it is a chilling yet empathetic image of a man spent, stripped of all defenses, in an admission of powerlessness that is the first step toward liberation.
Stage Three: Bargaining
Cut from a close-up of Fairchild, who has returned to the blood-orange interior space to smear layers of white plaster onto his face, to a medium long shot of him standing waist-high in a body of water. Clean now of the facial plaster, he has spawned two plaster-faced beings flanking him in the water. All three begin a ritual of baptism — cupping water and splashing it onto their bodies, immersing themselves head-backward — a rite of cleansing that gestures toward a sanctifying grace.
In this sequence, Andrea Miller, a former dancer with Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Ensemble and artistic director of the New York–based company GALLIM, translates her movement language — noted for its physical rigor and extreme attentiveness to bodily sensations — less physically than conceptually. In the act of bargaining in this third stage of grief, we become lost in a maze of “If only…” or “What if…?” speculations, wanting life returned to what it was; the accompanying guilt causes us to find fault in ourselves for what we might have done differently. Miller’s conception that the water will wash away the terror and pain of Fairchild’s suffering gives this stage of grief an unbridled empathy, because the audience knows that water provides only a fleeting relief. This tragic reality is heartbrokenly visualized through Guez’s cinematography, which draws on the full potential of screen dance by submerging the camera in the water, thereby immersing us in the process of cleansing. The final image, though fleeting, offers some succor: Fairchild is enveloped in soft waves that momentarily comfort him, but also preface the next stage of grief, which drowns him.
Stage Four: Depression
Drowning depression brings with it an unrelenting despair. The framed close-up of Fairchild, his face plastered and breathing heavily in the burnt-orange space, defies verbal description. The visual language of grief that Guez has established suffuses a scene in which Fairchild sits at a table with a friend who is describing his trip to the eastern coast of South Africa. Fairchild sits quietly, feigning interest, though his mask of complacency is threatened when he wipes his brow and the plaster leaks onto his fingers. Excusing himself, he goes into the bathroom, splashing water onto his face and washing off the plaster, but not the dread.
This section was conceived and “choreographed” by Christopher Wheeldon, who, despite his renown as a choreographer who has created productions for all the world’s major ballet companies, has wisely relinquished “steps” in favor of images. From under the back of Fairchild’s shirt emerges a pair of hands that embrace him; the camera tilts to reveal the presence of Fairchild’s ghoul of depression. There follows a tender scene of lovemaking between Fairchild and this ghoul, and then a slow immersion into the throat of darkness. As the camera lingers dreamily, there is no violence, only a bittersweet surrender to the dark.
Stage Five: Acceptance
And with that surrender comes a healing blue light, with a cut to Fairchild that repeats the film’s first image, as he contemplates a blue expanse of sheer scrim that serves as a metaphor for the layers of the grieving process he has passed through. Fairchild dispassionately watches himself in a projected series of gestural phrases that capture his journey. At each emotion, Fairchild walks through the scrim, embodying the image as an act of acceptance. Finally, he steps through the veils and into the blue light, in calm acceptance of his enlightenment.
In This Life is a mere 11 minutes long, but the wordless personifications of shock, anger, desperation, depression, and surrender that are wrought through movement and image create an extended emotional experience that transcends time. Bat-Sheva Guez, Robbie Fairchild, and their collaborators have invented a cinematic language of loss, of the complexity of grief and the wordless way it impacts our lives. “When there are no words to speak, you sing; when there is no song to sing, you dance,” says Fairchild, who admits to being fascinated by the concept of dance having the ability to convey our humanity when words fail us. “And what part of our humanity is more powerfully complex than loss? I wanted to take my own grief and put it on film with the hope that we could all feel less alone in our very universal struggle.”
Constance Valis Hill is Five College Professor Emerita of Dance at Hampshire College. She is the author of Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers (2000) and Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History (2010).