Friday, February 1, 2008

Notes on Watching Dance on Video

Galina Ulanova in Swan Lake

Some critics have described dance as the most ephemeral of the arts. It exists only at the moment of performance, and unlike even another performing art such as music, which can be recorded and give one a good idea of the performance, if not the performer-audience pact, recordings of dance can be, at best, decent and at worst, wholly misleading. But recordings are the primary (sometimes the only) way that most people are exposed to great dance, especially for those that don’t love in a city large or diverse enough to maintain a dance troupe, be it Western classical or Indian or Irish step. So we are stuck with video.

First note about video: dance, a three-dimensional art, is flattened into two dimensions. Thus, movements toward upstage and downstage are not really seen with the same impact as side to side and up and down (in both Western and Indian classical dance, the stance of the hips and feet are designed for maximal movement in the major eight 8 directions from the body). In addition to the lack of correct spatial orientation and correct viewing of the angles, it deprives us of one of the most important aspects of all dance – breath. All forms of dance that have a school of steps have an attitude, for lack of a better word, about breathing – how to deal with the necessity of it, how it should be done, how it should determine the other movements of the body and be coordinated…. But on video, dancers usually don’t look like they’re concealing inhalation and exhalation - they simply look like they don’t breathe at all. Whether we recognize it or not, this changes the meaning of the dance for the viewer of what is being seen. Instead of seeing the human body, we feel that we are seeing some robotic form that appears human. We relate to the image and what that image is doing differently. As one critic put it, all dancers look disembodied on video.

In video, there is up and there is down. But there is not ground or air. A Western classical dancer rising up onto a single pointe does not look like she is defying gravity, using strength and balance to hold a pose – she just looks like she’s doing something that would be painful – all her weight on that one spot! An Indian classical dancer sliding a flat foot along the ground and then bending the working leg behind her high into the air just looks like she’s showing off her flexibility. Since we are not experiencing the effect of gravity alongside the dancer overcoming its effect, movements that utilize ground and air (and all dance does) look merely like technical feats.

And then there’s the problem of camera work. I don’t need to point out that the camera views images in a different way than the eye sees, and differences on the technical side of recording can really impact one’s enjoyment of performances from, say, nearly a century ago. At another level, individual shots/dances look better than group shots, and if there are a lot of dancers about, when they move around on stage for a long time during a wide shot they just look like ants. (It always amazes me how powerfully meaningful the dance for a large corps de ballet can look on stage, and how awful it typically looks on video.

In summary, dance that favors straight lines, crisp movement, and lots of quantitatively measurable elements looks great on video when compared to dance that doesn’t feature these elements. (It is also favors thin-bodied dancers – they make for clearer lines.) The classical ballet roles look fantastic on video compared to some works of contemporary choreographers. (A William Forsythe piece stands out as being particularly bad – with two dancers low to the floor/ground, involving lots of unorthodox turns and spins with the torso bent, it was nearly unwatchable. It may be unwatchable on stage too, but it’s really impossible to judge.)

Am I suggesting that all video of dance should just be burned because it is a substitute so inferior it shouldn’t be used, or as Suzanne Farrell once commented, viewing dance on video is like watching ghosts? Considering that Farrell is my favorite dancer and she retired from performance a full decade before I even became interested in dance, of course not. For me, the great dancers still look like the great dancers even without being able to see their spontaneity, although those with less than ideal bodies can’t be fairly judged – ballerina Lynn Seymour is a great example. Dances are recognizable, if deprived of some of their impact and meaning. I have seen recorded performances that were better than live performances. The recorded performance below, of Galina Ulanova and Konstantin Sergeyev in 1940, is the greatest performance of the Act II Swan Lake adagio I’ve yet seen - one can watch it on youtube, even though it is danced as a recital piece in front of a curtain, and thus robbed of its context.

So what I would suggest to people watching recorded dance performances is to be open-minded about what they are seeking. Recognize and remind yourself of the limitations and insufficiency of the medium for capturing dance, and try to re-create in your mind a proper stage space and orient to the movement. Even breathe in and out with the rhythm of the music, to have some feel of the motions that the dancers are doing. This should never replace attending live performances, but at times, it is the best we can do.