Written by Dance, Film, Reported

How to Tell a Dance on Film

Elliot Caplan and Mirra Bank watch dance with eyes and minds open to creative possibilities. They each create films that deepen understanding of the notoriously ephemeral art form.

Dancers with Cameras.

Maybe no one has actually given either Elliot Caplan or Mirra Bank that nickname, but both of them could answer to it. Each has won acclaim and built a notable reputation for documenting on film some of the dance world’s most memorable work. To do this well, Bank and Caplan have had to find individual ways of mastering a special art form: making the camera a member of the dance ensemble while remaining a performance’s most watchful and insightful observer.

Filming dance is not just about how the camera and the dancers move, said Caplan, but also about “how they can move in concert with one another. How do you know where to put the camera? I don’t.” Instead, he explained, he learns from the dance itself where to position his own and the viewer’s eye.

It’s a matter of asking herself, “What does it feel like? What does the movement feel like?” Bank noted. “Anything you can do to capture how it feels in the body is what I’m striving for when I’m with dancers.”

Excerpt from Ports of Call (2016). Choreography: Paul Taylor. Music: Jacques Ibert.
Dancers: James Samson, Michelle Fleet. Film: Elliot Caplan.

Though neither is a dancer, both love the art form and have served it well. Bank’s documentary film, Last Dance, about a collaboration between the late children’s-book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak and the groundbreaking contemporary dance company Pilobolus, was short-listed for an Academy Award. Caplan, an Emmy-winning segment producer for the PBS cultural series “EGG,” was for years the in-house film artist for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and directed Cage/Cunningham, a widely praised documentary that was released theatrically by October Films and translated into six languages.

It was at Bard College, where he studied painting and filmmaking before earning an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, that Caplan first encountered dancers. There, he began sketching his friends’ movement classes and, inspired, made his first dance film. Starting with that project, Caplan’s work has reflected his eye for dynamic motion, painterly composition, and light, he said.

But when he began filming Cunningham’s choreography and the New York City-based ensemble in 1983, Caplan found that in spite of his extensive studies and output, he was at something of a loss: Cunningham and his group created and rehearsed without music, in silence. The choreography was utterly abstract. Caplan couldn’t find a narrative or even a mood in the dancing that would help him shape the arc of his film.

“I remained confused for a year or more,” he recalled, wryly. In time, though, he developed a sense of the distribution of weight in the dancers’ moves, the timing of their attacks, their geometry of line, “and those became my cues, and I just used that. Merce liked my framing, I think.”

Elliot Caplan and Merce Cunningham, CRWDSPCR. Photo Michael Stier 1993. Courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Trust.

Tempo also gives Caplan ideas. For instance, Cunningham created one piece that moved very slowly and “it implied Rembrandt to me, so I thought I would like to try to treat that scene like a Rembrandt,” he explained. Caplan adjusted the light to suggest the painter’s masterly interplay of darkness and incandescence, and moved the camera slowly.

Yet there’s so much more to creating great dance film than choosing a look for the piece. “What makes a film great,” he said, “is the viewer’s ability to follow it in a way that the viewer remembers what happens from scene to scene.” He makes use of that idea of memory and of what Cunningham used to refer to as “clear space.” For Caplan, these elements mean not just an uncluttered stage and an unobstructed view, but also a deep understanding of the nature of a dance piece, its place in the continuum of dance-making and what cinematic techniques would best illuminate it so that the viewer will understand it, as well.

Caplan has made that “clear space” a goal for every film. “A camera, when it’s following a dancer … can discover possibilities,” he said. “Good films, like good works of art, are repeatable, revisitable – they surprise us because they teach us something.” Bank shares some of this philosophy. “The truth of what the body does is clear,” she said. “You know it when you see it.” And like Caplan, she thinks this holds true whether the performer is a dancer, a musician, or an athlete.

Both filmmakers have spent an enormous amount of time and effort filming rehearsals and the creative process. They do this not only to give themselves what directors call “coverage” – ample footage of every moment from every possible angle, so they have plenty of choices to work with when piecing the film together – but also to gain a crucial understanding of how the dancers work and what that work means. With the Pilobolus/Sendak film, Bank said, “my way of working was to be as inside what was going on with the dancers as possible. It’s the process of watching the movement as an idea comes to life. You need to capture the transitional moments.”

This is necessarily a delicate process because, as a documentarist, a filmmaker also has to be careful to maintain enough emotional distance to tell the story fairly. So Bank needed close and constant access to the members of Pilobolus and Sendak and his associates, plus ample opportunity to be right in the thick of the work process in order to film it. Yet she also had to be careful not to get in the artists’ way, either physically or psychologically.

Excerpt from Last Dance (2002). Director: Mirra Bank. Cinematographer: Vic Losick. Producers: Mirra Bank and Vic Losick.
Dancers: Otis Cook and Pilobolus ensemble. Other cast: Maurice Sendak, Jonathan Wolken.

Looking back at the experience, Bank said, “I think when you make films over time, you don’t become invisible, you become another aspect of what’s going on … because you can’t pretend you’re not there.” Having those necessary human interactions doesn’t so much raise the stakes, she added, as it “adds another element to the stakes.”

Being part of the collaboration was essential to the success of Last Dance as a film, Bank believes. “That’s the only way to do it, as far as I’m concerned. You have to relish and seek out that level of involvement … to work with a company like that, or you shouldn’t do it at all.”

Bank had been introduced to Michael Tracy, one of the Pilobolus artistic directors, just as she was finishing a film about women in the American West. Coincidentally, Pilobolus had recently received a grant to underwrite collaborations with nondancing artists; as a result, the company was undertaking a work based on a story and designs by Sendak, author of such children’s classics as Where the Wild Things Are and a resident of Ridgefield, Connecticut, a town a short drive from Pilobolus’s home base in Washington Depot, Connecticut.

Over the several decades of its existence, Pilobolus had tended to favor abstract dance. But the Sendak piece would be a story, and no kids’ story, either: Sendak wanted to tell a tale of fear, anguish, and turmoil about a troupe of performers caught in the Holocaust.

“And I said, ‘That sounds like a movie’,” Bank remembered. The company thought so, too.

Above: Vic Losick and Mirra Bank filming Last Dance.

“She would show up with Vic [Losick, Bank’s cinematographer] and grab hold of his belt and pull him around” with his camera, said Matt Kent, now a Pilobolus co-artistic director, who performed the role of the Impresario in A Selection, the piece featured in Last Dance. He didn’t remember feeling at all self-conscious about creating and rehearsing in front of Bank, he noted, in spite of the wrenching emotional content, extreme physicality, and even some nudity that the piece eventually contained. “I think she just got down to business so fast. She knew when to pull back and get out of your space.”

Crucially, Bank “did not provoke” events, Kent explained – but she also didn’t want things to have to be repeated, because that would mean having to ask for something rather than allowing the process to develop naturally. “Her agenda, her shot list, were not put in front of letting this thing unfold by itself.”

Though Bank practices the art of staying alert and flexible in order to respond effectively to the flow of events before her eyes, she didn’t just walk into the first rehearsal of A Selection with Losick and wing it. Because “you’re in the scrum of what’s happening” in a rehearsal, you have to prepare carefully to make sure you have lighting and other equipment set up to best advantage, Bank said. She rigged the entire studio beforehand, gelling the windows with transparent, colored sheets of plastic, and soft-lighting the studio for an effect that stayed in place for the entire year of filming. Dancers and company staff were wirelessly miked.

Bank, a veteran of the handheld- camera school of shooting, and Losick would both look through the viewfinder during the dance-creation process, sometimes adding a second camera to capture people’s reactions to the work as it transpired. However, Bank approached shooting the official performances of A Selection much differently: Not only was it essential that she know the piece thoroughly by then, but she also planned her shots in advance with what amounted to storyboarding that worked out where wide views and details were needed. She positioned cameras on stage, in the wings, and in the balconies out in the house. That ensured plenty of the right coverage.

To other dance filmmakers, she advised, “be greedy. And stage lighting is not necessarily the lighting you want, so if you can, especially in close shots, light in a way that works best on film.”

Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Beach Birds For Camera. Photo Elliot Caplan 1992. Courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Trust.

Close shots matter to Caplan, but not the kind that cut the dancers off at the feet. Caplan likes to capture the full figure of the dancer and dislikes what he calls “professionally weak … meaningless closeups” that amplify an emotional moment at the expense of the choreography and movement. Like Bank, he makes a point of learning the piece well so that he can anticipate important moments and shots, but also keep his options open. It demands endurance as well as preparation and experience.

“It’s like a long-distance run,” Caplan said. “Filmmaking is a difficult business. One has to expect something different than one thought going into it. And that makes for an exciting day.”

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