I attended recently a program of twelve short dance films; some of these films recorded dancers dancing; others were film essays that happened to deal thematically one way or another with dancers or dancing, or else with characters who danced or events that included dance. The interest in all these films, regardless of quality, was the work as film, not as dance.
The distinction between dance on film and dance on stage (or in the open) is easily lost in this age in which we experience the world overwhelmingly through film, television, and digital media. I am no exception, for that matter, since it was my interest in dance that drew me to see these dance films. Still, the distinction is of paramount importance. A photograph is not the same as the painting it reproduces, however faithfully; it may present the subject and the general composition but fails to capture the palette, brushwork, and subtle details that distinguish the work. This can be said of photographs of any kind, too, which lose the surface quality when photographically reproduced in published books. This can be said, indeed, of photographs in relation to the real visual world; they are always selective and reproduce reality only so far. The distance between the work and the reality is even larger with documentary films; they may represent a scene or event but do not reproduced it. It is the witness role of the camera that misleads us. The camera was there to capture the scene, yes, but it also transformed it. As with dance, opera on the screen is a genre in its own right and should not be thought as another variant production. There is no question that it has its precious purpose of providing something of the experience of the opera to those without access to live opera performances. But it is a misguided notion to assume that one has experienced an opera without having seen and heard it performed on stage.
The problem extends to stages plays in general, of course, but especially with Shakespeare’s plays. I consider it preposterous to think one knows a particular Shakespeare play only on the basis of the filmed version as it is on the basis of the written text studied as literature.
I even extend my view of the primacy of visual and aural experience to live music performances as I wrote earlier in Looking while Listening. On further thought, I observe that a public lecture heard and viewed as a talking head on TV or video may be substantially the same lecture as the one experienced live in an auditorium but lacks the totality as an experience, which accounts for the full and vivid reality that in the first attracted its willing audience.
One of the best dance films I have seen recently is David Fishel’s Hästdans på Hovdala, which documented the rehearsal process of the outdoor dance performance choreographed by JoAnna Mendl Shaw of The Equus Projects (which combine dance with equestrian artistry), which in this instance also involved young people of autism. It dealt with the making of a dance as the subject and showed clips of the finished dance performance only perfunctorily at the conclusion of the film. Shaw’s choreography, as captured on film, is superb; but it is first and foremost an excellent film.