Dance for the camera
by Ileana Citaristi, Bhubaneswar
e-mail: ileana5@hotmail.com

Feb 19, 2003

Dance is certainly a wonderful thing to film because it is all action and motion, which is exactly what film should be. If in the West, Merce Cunningham, the father figure of post-modern dance- who as early as the 70's was experimenting with effects of time and space on the television monitor- is considered the pioneer of choreography staged directly for the camera, in India , even before that, in 1948, Uday Shankar, the father figure of the renaissance of Indian classical dance, released his film ‘Kalpana', with 80 dance sequences entirely directed and choreographed by him.

When films stop being a two-dimensional recording of existing choreographies and become a creative collaboration between movement, rhythm, camera and editing process, the roles of the choreographer and the film director become interchangeable and often the two merge into the same person. The new genre to emerge from this creative collaboration is referred to as ‘dance video' or ‘screen choreography' in the West; in India we find this close collaboration taking place for the production of dance sequences choreographed as inserts of commercial films. Apart from this, there are still very few films directors and still less choreographers to have ventured into the exciting and highly creative venture of shuttling from real space to reel space and vice versa.

As the cinematic space is different from the concert space, it has its own logic. The space created by the dancer is delineated by the gestures, is filled by the melody and punctuated by the beat. The cinematic space is delineated by the lenses, is filled by the light and punctuated by the cuts.

I suppose the most difficult thing for a choreographer who is used to conceive and direct the dance formations by standing at a central point in front of the dancers, is to forgo the symmetry created by this view angle and to adopt the versatility of the camera angle as reference point.

While this continuous shifting of focal points can be confusing, at times can also come to one's rescue, especially when one has to compose a sequence of dance with an actress or actor who is not a trained dancer. In these cases the camera gimmickry can cover up for movements not perfectly executed. But we dancers and choreographers also know very well how a wrong angle of the camera or a wrong panning movement can be deleterious to the choreography.

When somebody composes a dance sequence for a commercial film, what should be kept in mind is that the dance is going to be a subsidiary element and has to serve the needs of the plot.

The original sequence of the choreography and the length of it may not at all be maintained in the final output of the film. In a commercial Bollywood film, a sequence of dance can hold for several minutes only if the hero and/or the heroine are dancing and singing in it. If it is a presentation only by professional dancers, no matter how good it may be, it will be shown in bits and pieces, with frequent undercuts in between.

In the first film for which I did the choreography, Jugant, directed by Aparna Sen, the heroine is a dancer and choreographer, sensible to the events around her and reacting to them through her dance compositions.

Besides having to compose few sequences of dance which the heroine herself has to perform, I had to conceive also two thematic group compositions, one on the issue of the dying birds, the oil leakages and the Gulf war, and the second on the damages incurred by the farmers due to the construction of dams and the consequent floods caused by them.

For the first of the two sequences, I used the two styles of Odissi, for the birds flying in the background, and Chhau for the dying bird in the forefront; the sequence is hardly three minutes long, it has been kept intact at the editing table and has won me the National Award for best choreography by the Directorate of Film Festival in 1996. I suppose it was just a different experience for the jury members from the sequences of dances they were used to seeing during the screening of average Hindi films, and that created the impact.

For the second sequence I had been given a Bengali folk song, a sort of lament from the part of the farmers, describing their plight at the erection of the dam in the proximity of their village. I had composed the entire song, but finally what was kept in the film, was only a small part, shown from an open window, at the back of the hero while he is conversing over the phone. I thought the intention of the choreography was completely lost.

I had not been shown the rushes of the film and I had been kept out from the final process of editing and mixing so I saw the entire film only at the Festival venue. I thought the space given to the dance sequences was too less in comparison with the length of the film; I made this observation to the Director but she said that more dance would have disturbed the flow of the story! I learnt quite soon that you don't have to become too sentimental towards your creation when you work for films, because your baby does not belong to you!

My second experience was with a big budget Bollywood film; the still unreleased ‘Minakshi, a tale of three cities' directed by painter M F Hussain. There are both advantages and disadvantages working for a big budget film; the advantages are that if you need at the last moment a couple of dancers more, you can fly them from wherever they are in 24 hours. The disadvantages are that, with great names like A R Rehman as music composer, you are getting the musical score only a couple of days before the shooting and you have to compose and work with the dancers almost during the shooting itself.
The sequence of dance was for a qawaali song to be shot at night during a marriage party celebration. I had heard the music only once, four or five months before the shooting and I had been given the text of the poem, a lyric inspired to the Sufi mystic, well in advance. The director wanted something based on the whirling movements of the Sufi dancers but conceived in a creative and innovative way. I decided to work with three styles of dance: Kathak, Chhau and Kalaripayattu. There was no access to the place previous to the shooting and as I say, I got the music only forty eight hours before the dancers reached me. We had two and half days before the starting of the shooting. The number of dancers I had assembled turned out to be too less for the huge courtyard at our disposal; I kept on adding to the number until at the end I had about 25 female Kathak dancers, 4 male dancers who knew both Chhau and Kathak and 4 Kalaripayattu artists.

While the structure of the choreography was built in a relatively small space indoor, a good part of it has been worked out on location itself. The real rain we had for four consecutive nights, the lucid black stone of the courtyard shining under the lightings, the splashing water accompanying each step of the dancers, undoubtedly added some magic dimension to the choreography.

The original dance sequence, about 6 minutes long, was completely subverted during the shooting; the dance situation was a pretext for the hero to spot the heroine for the first time. Since the heroine, Tabu, had to leave earlier, all the sequences including her were shot first. I was worried that there would not be continuity between the end of a dance sequence and the beginning of the next one in the final result, since the position of the dancers and that of the camera kept on changing with each new shot. But Santosh Shivan, the camera director, told me that I should not worry about that because in films that kind of continuity was not required.

It was difficult for me to look at the dancers through the monitor during the shooting; my tendency was to look directly, as I would do on stage, to see if the dance was correctly executed and the symmetry maintained. Slowly I learnt, and by the time we shot the sequences of dance by themselves, without the intervention of the hero and the heroine, I was sitting near the cameraman adjusting my view angle with that of the camera.

One of the cameras used for this film was the Jimmy Jib, called in this way by the name of its American inventor. With this camera, the operator does not need to look through the view finder but by sitting in front of the monitor, he electronically operates the long crane which holds the camera. The movements of this kind of camera are extremely swift and can create a new choreography by matching or creating counterpoints with the movements of the dancers. I would have loved to have more time to explore all the possibilities of this fascinating duet between camera and dance, but the shooting schedule did not permit it. I could only have a feeling of it by watching whatever we were shooting through the monitor.

About a month later, I was in an old plywood factory in North Bengal, to create a piece of dance for Gautam Goshe's latest film ‘Abar aranye'. It was a waltz piece, a fantasy inspired to the hero and heroine by the sight of the surrealistic atmosphere created by the abandoned machinery of the factory covered by cobwebs and rust. We were back to the old style of shooting, where the cameraman sits with the camera on the top of the crane and on the other end the crane boys keep on adding or removing weights to allow the camera to pan from up to down and vice versa. The first signal was given by me by tapping on the back the boy who was supposed to remove the weights from one end of the crane; this would give a command to the other two boys on the other side who would pull down as fast as possible, the camera and the cameraman. It seemed the whole operation was never quick enough; we had to repeat the same sequence at least twenty times before the movement of the camera could match that of the dance. I was remembering the electronic camera of the previous film but at the same time enjoying being part of the entire effort.

More questions than answers have arisen from these experiences, which I hope I will have the possibility to solve during future assignments. Some of the questions are: how much right the choreographer has to intervene during the shooting of the dance sequence? How much can she impose her view in terms of camera angle and camera movement during shooting? And should not be the choreographer be present at the editing table while the dance sequence is been cut and mixed? I suppose these are questions, which can be answered only through more experiments being carried out between choreographers and film directors in contexts not necessarily linked to feature films but during collaborations which have the dance and the camera as the main protagonists.
Ileana Citaristi presented this article 'Dance for the camera' during the Seminar held in Delhi in connection with the Kathak Mahotsav 2003 from 10th to 14th of January.