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Post Modern Dance on Screen: Cornered

Updated on June 1, 2018

Cornered (Michael Downing, 1997) is a four to five minute film made for the BBC series Dance For Camera, in which experimental filmmakers and dancers ‘explored the relationship between movement and technology’ through modern dance created ‘specifically for television’ (Smart, 2001: 37).

Downing uses different film techniques to his advantage in order to create a dance performance that would not be possible on stage. He distorts the perception of his audience with high-contrast lighting, which in a black and white film ‘make spatial details disappear’ (Video Dance 2001). The film thus looks old and worn, as though the original material has faded, so that some details are difficult to make out. With the addition of quick cuts and obscure camera angles ‘the spectator loses all sense of space’ because there is no establishing shot to give an overall perspective of the scene.

Multiple camera angles that flout the 180 degree rule distorts the perception of gravity; dancer and choreographer, Susanna Hoods often looks as though she is climbing the walls because the hand-held camera twists around from low to high angles to make the floor appear like walls and vice versa. Through the medium of television ‘perceptions of what a dancing body can do are extended as the spectator sees bodies defy gravity’ and ‘reverse certain movements, which in reality would be physically impossible’ (Dodd, 2004: 79). Hood turned Cornered into a ‘post-modern adaption’ (Kino Dance, 2004) of Fred Astaire’s dance routine in The Royal Wedding (Stanley Donen, 1951), in which he dances on the walls and ceiling. By doing this, Hood transformed classical dance into modern dance.

Cornered
Cornered | Source

Though there is no narrative, the audience can create a story in their head; Hood is in a white-boxed room with no exits. The surroundings elicit connotations of being trapped in a mental institution, suggesting that she is also mentally trapped, something that is reinforced by her scrabbling at the walls. Other techniques Downing employs to provoke the sense of being ‘cornered’ include the tight framing. He uses several close-up shots of Hood’s feet, legs and torso as she repetitively moves up and down against the wall, creating a very claustrophobic space. Even with an occasional long shot, the tight framing makes the audience feel confined, particularly when shot from high angles, because it implies that she is being watched by a higher being, possibly a security camera.

The editing effectively creates a chaotic atmosphere through quick cuts and jump cuts that suggest the dancer is frustrated, her mind unable to latch on to one thought for a prolonged length of time, constantly rushing from one idea to the next. In contrast, there is also the implication that she is stuck in a loop because of her repetitive movements. Sometimes these repetitions are physically made by Hood, but on other occasions, they are synthetic, in other words, created by the camera by being ‘optically printed in reverse’ (Kino Dance). The music has also been looped in a repetitive motion by using a vinyl record of Maria Callas being scratched by a DJ.

Hood explores ‘the integration of voice and movement’ (Kino Dance) with the music. The mixture of slow drum beats and opera is an odd juxtaposition that suggests conflict and chaos. The singing brings connotations of stability, but it often fades and gets lost by the rhythmic beating that has a primal quality about it. Hood’s choreography is also primal, often looking animalistic. When combined with the sound of the scratching vinyl it creates a sense of distress.

Cornered is clearly designed for television; if shown on stage the perceptual distortions would not have the required impact and a wider range of movements would be needed to enliven the performance, something that would ultimately ruin the constricted nature of the film. Downing has effectively kept the ‘abstract language’ (Smart, 2001: 39) of dance by neglecting a narrative, but has also created more dramatic tension than it could on stage by the use of close-ups and multiple camera angles.

Bibliography

Dodds, S. 2004, Dance on Screen: Genres and Media from Hollywood to Experimental Art, UK, Palgrave Macmillan

Smart, J. 2001, ‘The Disruptive Dialogue of Dance for the Camera’, UK, Intellect pp 37-47

ST. Petersburg International Dance Film Festival “Kino Dance”, 2004

www.kinodance.com/russia/films_program3_2003.html (accessed: August 19th, 2010)

Video Dance 2001

http://www.filmfestival.gr/videodance/2001/filmindex_uk.html (accessed: August 19th, 2010)

Filmography

Cornered (1997) directed by Michael Downing from Dance For Camera, 2003 [DVD], US, First Run Features

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