How many young ballerinas gush about iconic dance performances after watching recordings made years before they were born? How could a person become a devoted fan of a dance company based halfway around the world without ever leaving the comfort of their own home? This month, Bachtrack examines the relationship between dance and media. But while painting, photography, and even music are tied very closely to dance, video and film have a unique place in this discussion.

Akram Khan's DESH © Richard Haughton
Akram Khan's DESH
© Richard Haughton

First, consider film as a way to preserve dance over time. Moving images represent a piece of choreography better than a snapshot of one moment in a dance. However, live performance art transforms into something else when recorded. Even if a director isn’t trying to leave his mark on the video he must make certain choices that a live audience would never encounter. Consider the recently rediscovered BBC footage of Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes’ Sleeping Beauty. The TV special includes close ups and camera work framing the dancers that an audience member would never experience sitting in a theater. The technology available at the time of filming is an equally important factor; the BBC broadcast is in black and white, eliminating the beautiful colors that costume and set designers spent so much time choosing.

In contrast, Pina, Wim Wenders film about late German choreographer Pina Bausch’s dance legacy, includes many dramatic choices. Filmed in 3-D, it addresses the complaint that dance cannot be captured in a two-dimensional form of art. This technique does give viewers a sense of depth but there’s no comparison to live dancers and real bodies. Pina also takes the dancers out of the studio and off stage into urban and rural landscapes. Wenders pushes boundaries that can’t be breached in a theater, but speak to Bausch’s intentions as a choreographer. Wenders bold choices show the essence of Bausch’s work in the same way that the BBC’s Sleepy Beauty preserved the artistic values of the time it was filmed.

Dawn to Dusk © Eric Bandiero
Dawn to Dusk
© Eric Bandiero

But if film has many variables as a tool for documentation, imagine the possibilities when choreographers bring it to the stage. Parsons Dance’s Dawn to Dusk included a video shoot in the Everglades that featured company members as well as natural fauna. Projected behind the live dancers, the film set the mood for the piece. Akram Kahn’s DESH used a floor to ceiling projection of simple line drawings that tied in to the narrative theme of the piece. In these examples, viewers may remember the final product more like mixed-media collage than dance performance. Pilobolus took things a step further by setting up a live camera feed and projection mid-performance for All Is Not Lost:

 Although media can be used with beautiful results, audiences may still resist when it infiltrates sacred theater spaces. Last year, Monkey: Journey to the West received mixed reviews during its run at Lincoln Center in New York. Would audiences have had a different reaction if the show had opened a mile south? And yet, New York City Ballet, an institution on Lincoln Center’s campus, created what was arguably the most moving few minutes of dance in 2013 with a simple video concept. New Beginnings combines Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography, talented dancers, and cinematography to create something that transcends either art form. You can argue whether it should be labeled dance or video, but does the classification matter? Art is most powerful when it inspires emotion, and that’s a wonderful experience in any medium.