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In step with the times

Unlike past films at Dance Camera West, this year's crop is all grown up, offering poignant relevance in a post-9/11 world.

May 28, 2006|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

THE satisfactions of dance have often been MIA at Dance Camera West, an annual local film festival obsessed, year after year, with camera and editing fripperies to the virtual exclusion of movement skill or invention.

But not anymore. In its fifth edition, the monthlong event -- scheduled at venues downtown, in Westwood and in Santa Monica -- teems with strong creative collaborations between filmmakers and choreographers.

It comprises 50 films -- the longest nearly two hours, the shortest barely three minutes -- that, taken together, reflect completely different priorities from those that dominated previous festivals.

For instance, endless variations on rolling in the grass have apparently lost their fascination in the world of dance cinema, and similarly, the sight of Botticellian babes drifting through misty woods or surf is also now suddenly passe.

You can explain the change by speculating that the cliche of shooting any kind of movement, cutting it to music and calling the result a dance film excites nobody these days except possibly the neophytes in Camcorder 101 -- and it's about time.

But the answer goes deeper: Most of the new films being screened were conceived and realized after the horrifying terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., London and Madrid signaled a different kind of future for everyone.

Responding to the zeitgeist, dance-for-camera artists everywhere have stopped making perky little showpieces designed to get them jobs shooting commercials or music videos and tried to catch the dark, worrisome mood they wake to every morning.

Many have returned to storytelling as a way of making that mood explicit. Others now trust the body of the dancer to express the constellation of feelings that define this moment in history. So even when, inevitably, a Dance Camera West short film turns out to be boring, it's now more pertinently boring than before -- and that's a plus.

There are other ways many of these films are alike, some coincidental (all the dances set in bathrooms, for instance), others based on the inescapable influence of Hollywood (the reliance on special effects). But if you had to put a label or title on Dance Camera West 2006, it might be "Running Scared." This year, all the energy that filmed dance can depict and generate is aimed at the shattering of complacency.

What's more, besides filling the scheduled screenings with an unusually impressive international sampling of dance for the camera, festival director Lynette Kessler is experimenting with presentation formats such as gallery installations and the interaction of live dancers with film images.

If there's a loss, it's the absence of feature-length documentaries, in which, ironically, most of the dance content of past festivals was concentrated. Except for a few shorts, the sole example this year is a fine profile of postmodern pioneer Rudy Perez, "Countdown: Reflections of a Life in Dance," previously reviewed in these pages.

In a position paper or introduction to the festival, Kessler avoids the D-word and speaks of "physical expression and visual media," "audiovisual culture" and other terms that bypass the troublesome fact that those artists generally recognized as the greatest dancers and choreographers of our time seldom participate in dance-film projects except when those projects preserve the artists' theatrical achievements.

We've all winced at the extremes that powerful choreographers and filmmakers impose: photographed transcriptions of stage performances with no filmic interest versus MTV-style jumbles of quick cuts that leave movement continuity fatally dismembered.

This situation is slowly changing, and Dance Camera West reflects that change in adventuresome films featuring the work of celebrated contemporary choreographers and companies. It's still much easier for emerging dance makers to accept a director's vision than for the lions of dance to surrender their autonomy. But the best of DCW '06 reflects a sense of growing trust and shared goals that may well result in the exciting fusion of arts that Kessler claims already exists.

Most of the films will be on view at four downtown REDCAT screenings next weekend and on monitors in the Hammer Museum Courtyard in Westwood on June 10 and 15. However, Carlos Saura's haunting, feature-length "Tango" is being shown June 21 at the Max Palevsky Theatre at the Aero in Santa Monica. And DCW offshoots will be found during the Los Angeles Film Festival (Wednesday at the Landmark Regent) and in the Grand Performances series (Aug. 5 at the Watercourt in California Plaza). Details are available at and the websites of the various venues.

Segal is The Times' dance critic.



Critic's Choice: Highlights of Dance Camera West 2006


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