“The space of the field, the ritual temple and the theater stage have been, historically, a place within which dancers moved,” Maya Deren wrote in a 1960 program note on her films. “But cinema provides a different order of space, is able to create a different kind of time, can even cause the human body to perform inhuman movement. These choreographies for camera are not dances recorded by the camera, they are dances choreographed for and performed by the camera and human beings together.” Made with dancer Talley Beatty, A Study in Choreography for Camera presents a supreme distillation of Deren’s theory. In the brief but potent film, Deren shows Beatty pirouetting and leaping through impossible geographies—a forest, a living room, among statuary at the Met—his movements heightened and in some cases elongated by Deren’s vividly mobile camera and percussive montage. “Together,” Deren described, “the dancer and the space perform a dance which cannot exist but on film.”
Although, as demonstrated in Sharon Lockhart’s debut feature Goshogaoka, there can also be a choreographic dimension to the fixed camera and the extended take. In 1996, Lockhart decided to make a film while on a residency in a suburb of Tokyo. “I was well aware of the problems of filming in another culture and had begun to think about the way ethnographic film works within an art context,” she told scholar Scott MacDonald in a later interview, and ultimately these issues were addressed through the setting of the piece, which she found while cycling past a gymnasium. “I went in to look, and there it was: a gym with a stage with a red curtain at one end, and girls playing basketball. I thought, ‘Theater and documentary, an American sport in Japan—this is perfect.’ It just clicked. I immediately realized the potential of the raised stage and how it mirrored the cinema space, and how it would be a constant reminder of staging and fiction.” Lockhart then collaborated with a local high school girls’ basketball team and choreographer Stephen Galloway to transform the students’ everyday warm-up exercises into a mesmerizing set of visual patterns, exacting and elegant in their design yet humanizing in the subtle imperfections of their execution. Across six 10-minute shots, each static and unbroken, the team’s preparation for a game becomes an aesthetic end in itself, a performance just outside the theatrical proscenium, punctuated by soft counting-out chants and the echoing thumps of synchronized footsteps. Here the emphasis lies not on the expressive potential of camera movement and editing, but rather on the relationship between a subject and its framing, both in time and space. As with Deren, this too is a dance which cannot exist but on film.
there can also be a choreographic dimension to the fixed camera and the extended take.