Let’s start with an apparently unrelated question: how do you record dance or the performance of an exceptional performer? There was a time, way before smartphones and tablets, when dance would be performed and disappear in the very minute it was seen. Today, dance is still ephemeral; it still disappears in the moment of its performance with only a few images lingering a little longer in our memories, but is massively recorded. Technology has changed everything, casting light on something that could only be seen in the dark of the theatre. But let’s take a few steps back.

Ruth St Denis as Radha © New York Public Library Digital Gallery
Ruth St Denis as Radha
© New York Public Library Digital Gallery

In late Nineteenth and early Twentieth century dance, elusiveness fascinated many writers (Mallarmé, Valéry, W.B. Yeats, G. B. Shawn to mention but a few), who went to the theatre and tried to record dance through words, producing symbolically cryptic texts and some illustrations. With the introduction of photography the first images of dancers became available. Even if the images gave the impression of motion, more often than not they were staged – as in the famous picture of Ruth St Denis as Radha, in which invisible threads lift the hem of her skirt, giving the illusion of twirling movement.

With the first Hollywood films, dancers where occasionally asked to perform or to choreograph, like the Denishawn dancers in W.H. Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance. In Sunnyside, Charlie Chaplin parodies Nijinsky’s Faun: 

Even so, unfortunately, many jewels of the past, such as Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, have gotten lost and entered mythology. If dance has benefited from any innovation, surely it has benefited most from the moving image, with easy access to video recording and today streaming. Considering that for most of dance history, dance could only be transmitted orally (quite an Homeric task!), video has become an additional support in the pupil-teacher relationship. Still, video will never replace liveness – some details are invisible on video – and dance will always retain a little of its elusive quality.

Today video is omnipresent, in both the rehearsal and theatre spaces, with most sessions recorded by the dancer or choreographer. The main purpose is to render the rehearsal or show as close as possible as the performed original, often resulting in an unadorned clip of a fixed, central camera. For this reason, real documentation is seldom in commerce. The DVD available in stores, full of close-up and panned shots are adapted versions for home entertainment but make an awkward reconstruction tool as they lack detail.

But documentation (or the video reproduction of dance) is only one aspect of dance meeting with the moving image. The other category is dance film or performances that have been adapted for video, such as DV8’s Strange Fish:

Originally a stage production, the work has been adapted to the interior of a building with sections and movements added. But possibly most interesting is the ‘new’ genre that developed from this encounter between video and dance, around which an array of festivals are currently blooming. There are festivals of dance films only 60 seconds or shorter (like Joint Adventures' International Choreographic Captures Competition), but also of longer pieces. These choreographies are created exclusively for the camera; they exist only in the virtual world. With such a wealth, what will your fingers be googling next?