Was there anything like Choreography for the Camera before Deren?
SNYDER: No. Well, I take that back, because we don’t really know. There was another woman named Loie Fuller, fifty years before Maya, who in her later years was doing experimental films in Europe… (Clark, Hodson & Neiman, 288)
This quote, taken from a 1977 interview with Maya Deren friend and dance scholar, Allegra Fuller Snyder, locates the films of Deren within a specific genealogy: the history of film utilising choreographic content and form. Snyder is referring to the work of turn-of-the-century American dancer, Loie Fuller, who pre-dates Isadora Duncan regarding the elevation of the female dance soloist, working outside the institution of ballet, to the status of ‘artist’. Fuller began her performance career as an actress, received international acclaim for her ‘serpentine dances’ and was filmed by the Lumiére brothers. She went on to direct her own screen work including the feature film, Le Lys de la Vie (1920), of which only an excerpt remains.
Fuller is the logical precursor of Deren in relation to this particular history for several reasons. She was the first artist, male or female, to claim credit as both director and choreographer for her films (1) (Sommer, 53). While Deren never credits herself as ‘choreographer’, she shares a general credit with Talley Beatty for A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945) and a ‘choreographic collaboration’ credit is given to Frank Westbrook for Ritual in Transfigured Time (1945-46). Deren certainly compared her process to that of a choreographer, stating for example that Ritual… “is a dance” and talking about “the choreography of the whole” (Clark, Hodson & Neiman, 629). Like Deren, Fuller embraced contemporary technologies making them part of the aesthetic fabric of her work. Fuller’s stage performances utilised electric lighting, coloured gels, magic lanterns, shadow-play and projections to create spectacular onstage effects, making her experiments with film a logical development of her art. Deren also utilised the full technological scope of her medium in exploring what she saw as its distinguishing elements: its condition as a space and time art form. Multiple exposures, jump cuts, slow-motion, negative film sequences, superimposition, freeze-frame and angled cameras are just a few of the cinematic effects utilised by Deren. Finally, both Fuller and Deren pioneered radical aesthetic roles for the human body in motion, placing it at the centre of their aesthetic and technological explorations (2).
What is also of note regarding Snyder’s quote is the gap between the two artists: Fuller’s fame emerging out of fin-de-siècle Paris and Deren at the beginning of a new, modern era of avant-garde filmmaking. This latter period would produce generations of directors working with dance and film including Charles Atlas, Shirley Clarke, Yvonne Rainer, Amy Greenfield, Dawn Kramer, Norman McLaren and Hilary Harris, right up to today with artists like David Hinton, Wendy Houstoun, Philippe Decouflé, Isaac Julian and Clara van Gool.
The question of dance and the influence it had on Deren’s radical film aesthetic is one that has been generally avoided, perhaps due to the challenges presented by interdisciplinary work (3) (Franko in Nichols, 131). That dance had a special significance and aesthetic function for Deren is clear. Having migrated to America from Russia with her parents at age 5, Deren graduated from Smith College with an MA in literature in 1939 and in the same year became secretary to Katherine Dunham. Dunham was a commercially successful African-American female choreographer and anthropological researcher of Caribbean dance. Her fieldwork and writing on Haitian dance obviously had a strong impact on Deren who went on to pursue her own research in Haiti. In the recent documentary, In the Mirror of Maya Deren (Douglas Wolfsberger, 2001), Dunham describes Deren “performing” at a company party, dancing wildly to drumming music, and there are other references to Deren’s aspirations as a dancer in accounts of her time with the Dunham company (4).
This history prior to her first completed film project in 1943, Meshes of the Afternoon, clearly informs Deren’s work, not least of all her collaborations with Dunham dancers, Talley Beatty and Rita Christiani. Five of Deren’s films contain explicit dance content: A Study in Choreography for Camera, Ritual in Transfigured Time, Meditation on Violence (1948), The Very Eye of Night (1952-55, released 1959) and Divine Horsemen (a posthumously assembled montage of Haitian footage shot between 1947 and 1954). But a choreographic sensibility regarding cinematic production, an attention to the articulations of the performing body and the use of movements and gestures outside the familiar, are all elements that can be found across Deren’s oeuvre.
Deren and Cinematic Performance
In his introduction to the new book of collected essays on Deren, Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, Bill Nichols sees the filmmaker’s preoccupation with dance, play, games and ritual as being connected to the concept of ‘depersonalization’ Deren describes in her essay, “An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film”:
The ritualistic form… creates fear, for example, by creating an imaginative, often mythological experience which, by containing its own logic within itself, has no reference to any specific time or place, and is forever valid for all time and place… Above all, the ritualistic form treats the human being not as the source of the dramatic action, but as a somewhat depersonalized element in a dramatic whole (Deren in Nichols, 20).
For Nichols, it is through the embodiment of the performers that the films move beyond the personal to the collective (Nichols, 10). Equally significant, and related to the displacement of ‘character’ and the role of the human figure in Deren’s films, is the condition of dance, play and ritual as modes of physical performance that resist the literary filmic models that were so derided by Deren. She opposes the dominance of a ‘literary approach’ to filmmaking, suggesting that the art form would be better off had it pursued the silent film form (Deren in Nichols, 39), a point given weight when one considers the absence of scores and dialogue in her films; At Land, A Study in Choreography for Camera, and Ritual in Transfigured Time are all silent, and none of her films feature spoken word (5). The lack of production hierarchies and set shot-lists in early silent cinema, along with the use of extreme close-up, suggested another cinematic alternative to Deren (Nichols, 50). The framing of fragments of the performing body in close-up, such as Chao-li Chi’s skin sliding over his ribs in Meditation on Violence, reveal mini-choreographies at the body’s periphery and unravel the privileging of the face and spoken word in narrative-based cinema. Such shots are sometimes enhanced by Deren’s use of temporal distortions such as slow-motion, effecting a kind of motion study that also evokes early cinema practices. Her meandering and often dream-like plot structures are the clearest proof of her rejection of cause and effect linearity, and her disregard for traditional film credits and of her own role as a performer (6) are further evidence of Deren’s resistance to the hierarchical structures that dominate film production.
This brings us to Deren’s notion of verticality in film. In a 1953 symposium on “Poetry and the Film” (7), Deren describes a model of cinema that reveals her insight into contemporary conventions of filmic structure. She describes “horizontal” film structure as affiliated with drama, “one circumstance – one action – leading to another”, and how this develops and delineates characterisation in film. Alternatively, “vertical” film structure, or “poetic structure”
…probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned with its qualities and its depth, so that you have poetry concerned, in a sense, not with what is occurring but with what it feels like or with what it means (Deren in Sitney, 173-4).
Deren’s articulation here of an alternative to the narrative drive of classic fiction film anticipates Gilles Deleuze’s definitive treatment of the issue in his cinema books (Deleuze 1986 & Deleuze 1989). His model of the “movement-image” describes the basis of the linear progression of an action-reaction filmic structure while his “time-image” was the result of a perceivable “slackening of the sensory-motor connection” of the central protagonists in post-war fiction films (Deleuze 1989, 3). Instead of anticipated responses from the actors and logical repercussions, the time-image is characterised by “purely optical and sound situations” that fill the space where something is, for example, “too powerful, or too unjust, but sometimes also too beautiful, and which henceforth outstrips our sensory-motor capacities” (Deleuze 1989, 18) (8).
Given that the horizontal model is connected by Deren to character development in film, one can apply the vertical to physical performance beyond characterisation. An application of verticality that has particular resonances for dancefilm can be drawn out in relation to Talley Beatty’s edited leap in Maya Deren’s A Study in Choreography for Camera. The inevitability of the subject’s relation to the ground and the effects of gravity undergo a transformation here as the figure is unbound or ungrounded. The cinematic play with gravitational reality captures the dancer’s radical and ‘moving’ destabilisations, the manipulation of verticality and balance that constitute dance practice. Such moments in Deren’s films demonstrate a play along another axis that interrupts the drive or logic of a linear thrust and in this particular film, that logic in the temporal continuity of the choreography played out against spatial discontinuity. These sequences create a poetics of human motion that is dancerly and, like dance, operate outside functionality. Here, play and flux around the gravitational centre is combined with temporal discontinuity to create a window inside the film onto the spectacle of motion.
In her writing, Deren also suggests that the interiority inherent in the novel form, when applied to the screen, led to the development of ‘symptom-action’ gestural clichés or ‘visual clichés’ that summarise, through a reductive physical action, emotions or responses which would be developed over pages in a novel. According to Deren, such clichés mask the “effort of transcription” for an audience familiar with this mode of screen performance by standing-in for, or symbolising, “the literary terms in which the film is actually conceived” (Nichols, 40-1). Deren also writes of the use of gesture in everyday life and the uneasy transition to the dance stage or screen:
In creating a new form, the elements must be selected according to their ability to function in the new, ‘unnatural’ context. A gesture which may have been very effective in the course of some natural, spontaneous conversation, may fail to have impact in a dance or film (Deren in Nichols, 23).
That, in Deren’s opinion, dance and film share issues regarding physical performance is telling. Deren rejects both over-coded or cliché gestural performance and the everyday body as, in one way or another, inappropriate for her ideal cinema. What Deren turns to are stylised gestures and dance.
Paul Valéry, writing in 1936, provides a useful definition of dance in relation to more familiar bodily movement:
…an action that derives from ordinary, useful action, but breaks away from it, and finally opposes it… [so that] …all action which does not tend toward utility and which on the other hand can be trained, perfected, developed, may be subsumed under this simplified notion of the dance… (Valéry in Copeland & Cohen, 62)
This definition of dancerly movement which distinguishes it from the cliché and the everyday, can be used to explore gestural operations in Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time. Rather than quoting familiar, signifying actions or trying to represent everyday, utilitarian behaviour, the physical performances in this film trace trajectories and loiter along gestural routes that escape into ‘verticality’.
Ritual in Transfigured Time as Staging Gestural Play
In Maya Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time we have gestures that invite us to move into step with them, abandoning the comfort of the known and giving ourselves over to so many strange partners. This silent short begins in a domestic environment, moves to a party scene, and ends with modern dance performed in an outdoor setting. The film’s continuity is established by an emphasis on gesture and/or dance throughout.
The ‘party’ scene in this film is a climax of beckoning gestures that are repeated, stylised and transferred among the close crush of the crowd. An extended arm comes into frame again and again, finds its mark, drawing someone in, moving on. The welcoming, ingratiating, engaging movements are so familiar and so much what a gesture is thought to be: sociable, functional, meaningful. They represent what we could call an invitation to a ‘call and response’ encounter. Like Gene Kelly’s typical open armed finishing pose, both sending out and hauling us into his gestural world, an extended arm in any context is a gesture calling for a response.
In Ritual in Transfigured Time, we are ‘lead into’ the party scene through a series of gestures in a domestic environment that shift between conforming to and abandoning this definable context, thus initiating our passage into the unexpected. A woman can be seen through a doorway; she is seated and feeding a hank of yarn to someone out of sight. Another woman sees her and raises an arm as if to attract her attention, but then we see she is directing this gesture elsewhere. There is no response and she moves toward the seated woman through a different doorway, arm still raised, the awkward gesture shot from several angles and slipping away, almost between shots, from any determined function. There is a cut to the seated woman who is frozen in position and who consequently proceeds with her gestures of labour, now in slow motion and under the pressure of a strong wind that blows the last wool from her hands. She is then held for a long time in a gesture of release, her arms up and eyes closed as if in surrender. So, we know we are not in Kansas now and are prepared, to a degree, for what is to come. These opening gestures both present themselves in and across the space-time of the film and call attention to themselves in the way they inhabit the same. The duration given them, the different perspectives, the temporal distortions applied to them and the way they are performed emphasize their non-functional nature and establish the gestures’ place at the centre of the action.
If we really attend to these movements, our labour discovers in the repetition of these gestures a constant productivity that sets up its own circuit of expression, operating outside any systems that would contain or explicate them. And this is not produced through performance alone. The repetition of the shots that make up this scene and the constant fluidity within and between those shots, play their part in the attention drawn to the gestures. It is through the filmic treatment that these familiar gestures of engagement move away from any obvious meaning; the filmic treatment is an intrinsic part of the gestural work of the film.
These are gestures that pursue their mark but never realise an impact – the performers draw each other near as if to speak or embrace, only to meet face to face and move on without resolution. The movement of the gestures through space and time overwhelms the moments of proximity that defuse and transform into new trajectories. As spectators, we enter into the dance through a lack of resistance, foregoing an accumulation of results for an indulgence in proximity or contact with the unknown.
Maya Deren is most commonly discussed in relation to the history of avant-garde filmmaking and the significance of her role as a woman working in a male dominated industry (9). Examining Deren’s work in light of her connections with, and interest in, dance, foregrounds aspects thus far overlooked in critical approaches, such as corporeal performance in her films, the privileged role given to the moving body, and the influence of choreographed performance on the techniques, aesthetic and overall structure of her films. Beyond this, the gestural operations at work in a film like Ritual… can be read as a dancerly exchange between the on-screen figures that open up the action to the spectator, drawing us into the dance.
Clark, A. VèVè, Hodson, Millicent and Neiman, Catrina, eds, The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works. Volume 1 Part Two: Chambers (1942-47), Anthology Film Archives, New York City, 1988: “Interview with Allegra Fuller Snyder” by Allegra Fuller Snyder
Copeland, Roger and Cohen, Marshall, eds, What is Dance? Readings in Theory and Criticism, Oxford Universal Press, 1983: “Philosophy of the Dance” by Paul Valéry
Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson & Barbara Habberjam, University of Minnesota Press, 1986
Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson & Barbara Habberjam, University of Minnesota Press, 1989
Nichols, Bill, ed., Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001: “Introduction” by Bill Nichols, “An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film” by Maya Deren and “Aesthetic Agencies in Flux” by Mark Franko.
Sitney, P. Adams, ed, The Film Culture Reader, Prager Publishers Inc., New York, 1970
Sommer, Sally, “Loie Fuller”, The Drama Review, Vol. 19, No.1, March 1975
- Sally Sommer writes that Fuller made her first experimental film in 1904 and made “at least 3 more”, copies of which no longer exist.
- Another point of connection between the two artists is the Symbolist movement in literature. Fuller was the subject of writers such as the French poet Stephané Mallarmé, and Deren’s MA thesis was titled “The Influence of the French Symbolist School on Anglo-American Poetry”. Like the Symbolists both artists resist narrativisation in their work, aiming at a transcendental aesthetic by turning their attention to the concrete terms of their medium.
- Mark Franko states emphatically; “There has been no work to my knowledge that links Maya Deren to the American modern dance tradition.” Franko’s article directly addresses Deren’s relationship to modern theatre dance. There is also the larger issue of a lack of scholarship on Deren due to the much anticipated second volume of her collected work following the release of the first volume by Anthology Film Archives in New York in 1984 and 1988. This is pointed out by Nichols in his introduction to Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde.
- Some Dunham dancers believed that Deren “aspired to become a dancer with the company”, but was disappointed due to her apparently unsuitable physicality, her racial background (the company members were all African-American at the time) and the fact that “Dunham would prevent her from joining the dance classes, reminding her that she had been hired as a secretary and not as a dancer” (Clark, Millicent Hodson & Catrina Neiman, Note #51, 504)
- See also Deren’s acknowledgement of her debt to silent comedies. (Clark, Hodson, Neiman, 287-8). Deren’s criticism of the domination of the cinema by writing, literary models and adaptations, pre-empts the literary theories of film that went on to dominate cinema studies for a certain period and which have came under criticism themselves.
- Deren omits a performance credit for herself from the films in which she stars, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), At Land (1944), and Ritual… She does not credit performances in general except for the dancers she collaborates with.
- This symposium was organised for Cinema 16, an early New York film society, by Amos Vogel. The other panelists were Willard Maas (filmmaker), Arthur Miller (playwright), Dylan Thomas (poet) and Parker Tyler (poet and film critic). In her article, “Poetics and Savage Thought”, Annette Michelson contextualises this symposium as a significant event in the history of film theory, and describes the reception of Deren’s ideas by this group of men (Nichols, 22-25). The papers from the symposium were published at the time in Jonas Mekas’ Film Culture, and can be found in The Film Culture Reader, ed. P. Adams Sitney, Prager Publishers Inc., New York, 1970, pp.171-86.
- Renata Jackson also makes this connection to Deleuze’s film theory in “The Modernist Poetics of Maya Deren”, Nichols, pp.66-67
- See for instance: Nichols; Maria Pramaggiore, “Performance and Persona in the US Avant-Garde: The Case of Maya Deren”, Cinema Journal, Vol. 36, No.2 Winter 1997, pp.17-40; Patricia Mellencamp, Indiscretions: Avant-Garde Film, Video and Feminism, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1990; Lauren Rabinovitz, Point of Resistance: Women, Power and Politics in the New York Avant-Garde cinema, 1943-71, University of Illinois Press, Urban & Chicago, 1991