On Friday, November 13, eighty-six Netflix, keep those pizza menus in the kitchen drawer with all the rubber bands and dead batteries, and tune into Drinks & a Dance, an evening of ODC/Dance Films accompanied by The Family Coppola’s Director’s Cut Chardonnay and Director’s Cut Cabernet Sauvignon delivered to your home.
This triple bill features Love on the Run (2011) plus two public world premieres, Sleeping Beauty and Walk on Air (against your better judgement). That’s twenty-four minutes of screendance tapas, small bites to go with your oeno-indulgence.
After watching all three films, I spoke with ODC/Dance Artistic Director Brenda Way and filmmaker Natalia Roberts about my impressions so that they could correct them. Kidding! You can’t be wrong about screendance. Only about exit polls.
I’ve been teaching screendance classes at UC Berkeley for several years. My syllabus focuses on Hollywood films like the three Fs — Footloose, Flashdance, and Fame — as well as Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story, and my all-time favorite dance film, Saturday Night Fever. Time permitting, I throw in the Step Up franchise. The dancing in these films does critical work; attending to it helps us discover hidden (and not so hidden) ideologies and anxieties of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and nationhood. But for the most part, the audiences for these films come for the story; the dancing, whether it supports or subverts the narrative, is in service of the story.
The three ODC films also tell stories but through the medium of dance itself. Dance is the star. Though some feature choreographies that have moved from stage to screen due to the pandemic, these films are not videos of dances originally made for the stage. Rather, they are original dance films. Uninterested in trying to repurpose the choreography for the camera, Brenda wants to see what the camera can see, “skin, facial expressions, connections, people in a personal way that you can’t see when they’re on the stage.”
Natalia loves the way you can see both the full-body choreography and the dancers’ faces on film, though finding ways to highlight both can be challenging: “Dance is a particularly hard medium to film because you can’t really see someone’s face and feet at the same time. And there’s a competition between capturing the feeling tone of a dance and capturing the full choreography. In order to see the whole dance in film you often lose the emotional resonance. So close-ups and camera angles work in dialogue with the dance to capture what it feels like.”
Brenda attributes Natalia’s ability to “respond to primary physical information in the dance” to her background in dance and choreography. Natalia has had “the luxury of seeing dance in many different contexts: from the inside, as an ensemble member; in the studio setting, which is very intimate; and in a massive hall. The magic of film is that you can have all of those experiences at once.” Natalia even lets her experience as an audience member dictate what she decides to do with the camera — if she finds herself leaning forward in her seat, for example, she tries to reproduce that kinesthetic reaction in and through her filmmaking.
In the theater, you get to choose as a viewer where you train your eye. Maybe the lighting or some other audiovisual element directs your gaze to a degree. But with film, you have to follow the camera’s eye — how it sizes up Travolta’s strutting pelvis or zeroes in on Jennifer Beals’ dance double’s “maniac” piston thighs. And despite the ways the visual effects of dance are corralled into the service of often dubious mainstream narratives, dance’s kinesthetic power can produce what Deirdre Sklar calls “vitality affects,” “the complex qualities of kinetic energy inherent in all embodied activity.” We can recognize vitality in our very tissue. Brenda found that viewers who saw Sleeping Beauty “felt close to the individual dancer as a person dancing, a feeling that superseded the aesthetic aspects of the work.” In other words, they felt the dancers’ vitality, a way of being touched, which so many of us are craving these days.
Love on the Run (2011) begins by asking non-dancers what they think modern dance is. Viewers will delight in the variety of responses, including Brenda’s personal favorite, “I think it’s lame.” The film was made for a program called “I Speak Dance,” which brought together university dance classes with other students in other disciplines such as physics. Brenda: “I was looking to let people into an unintimidating mood about seeing dance. It did achieve a common ground between those who were familiar and those totally unfamiliar with it. It alerted them to the physical expression of their everyday lives as movement potential.”
Walk on Air gets dirty — literally. Dancers bound and thrash in the dirt, mud, and water comprising the stunning McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma. Filmed during the pandemic, Natalia managed to create a sense of togetherness. She explained that the section when Cora and Allie run along a tree-flanked path, they kept ample social distance: “The way it’s filmed pushes them closer together.” Brenda appreciated the way the film offers a felt sense of the landscape: “The dance wasn’t just set in it. It dug down.”
I thrilled to the way the dancers’ labor is foregrounded in the film, allowing all the pristine dancing to reveal itself as gritty practice. Both stage and screen can conceal or reveal the labor of dancing. Ballerinas who have danced the role of Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (ballet, not ODC film) comment on the unbelievable power and strength it takes to perform it — all while making it look effortless. So, no matter how regressive or antifeminist a narrative might be, if you pay attention to the dancing, you find the empowerment. Brenda: “One of the original things we talked about a lot and tried to embody was the beauty of effort, which, as a human capacity, is a beautiful thing. One of the reasons we wore shoes in the beginning [read: at ODC’s conception] was that it didn’t disappear the fact that you put your foot down and make a sound, it didn’t obliterate the human weight.” Indeed, my favorite part of going to the ballet is hearing the toe boxes strike the floor — that irreverent sound breaking through the Tchaikovsky.
Natalia pulled together the over forty one-minute clips of ODC dancers dancing in their living rooms and outdoor spaces at the beginning of the pandemic to create Sleeping Beauty. I consider the film a movement essay about the relationship between vulnerability and virtuosity. ODC has a history that values equally and simultaneously both virtuosity in the conventional sense — the technically difficult trick — and the virtuosity of the everyday. Sleeping Beauty allows you to be mesmerized by both. The film’s voiceover features Brenda’s thoughts when the curtain rang down on the company in March: “We are waiting to wake up. Obviously, we’re still dancing but the dance company is dormant. The concept of a dance company that I’ve worked on for 50 years is dormant. We can’t have what’s been for 50 years a dance company family where we spent seven hours a day together.” Brenda, Kimi, and KT committed themselves early on to that particular concept, “to develop a language that incorporated the various capacities of the dancers, which takes a lot of time. The curtain did ring down on that concept. We’ll see how long until the kiss of awakening, how soon we’ll be able to do the work together and entice enough people back into the theater to be able to pay the dancers what they need to live. It took a long time to get there and it took a pandemic to end it.”
Natalia emphasizes that the film captures the moment of its creation: “We made the film in May when the company had just been laid off and we hadn’t switched over to a project based company yet. I added the Black Lives Matter photographs during the last week of editing because those protests had just happened a week prior. I took the footage of people wearing masks when it was still new. Everything that happened in that film was happening for the first time. We were at the point when we still thought we could open back up in the fall. I had to push Brenda to put more hope in the film!”
The moment in Sleeping Beauty when I realized that the choreographies in the bedrooms and backyards were choreographies of the studio and stage was like a gut punch. That’s when I felt the loss Brenda describes — these dances were built together, and now, we’re alone.
Brenda is not hopeless, but she’s also realistic: “My immediate feeling when everything shut down was I wasn’t interested in film. The loss was too much for me. I feel like I’ve been redeemed by working on these projects that actually mean something to me. I saw the end of a career. Natalia lifted me up. That’s a wrap.”
Witness Love on the Run, Walk on Air (against your better judgement), and Sleeping Beauty on Friday, November 13, 2020 at ODC’s Drinks & a Dance. Reserve your spot at odc.dance/films.
 Sklar, Deirdre. “Remembering Kinesthesia: An Inquiry into Embodied Cultural Knowledge.” In Migrations of Gesture. Eds. Carrie Noland and Sally Ann Ness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.