Dancers turn filmmakers

Fly...Fly Again by Deepali Salil

Fly...Fly Again by Deepali Salil

A silhouette stretches across a tunnel, an eye looks through a window, hands are entangled in ropes, and feet gracefully move in sand — evocative images draw the viewer to the screen to experience dance through the eye of the camera. With a severe second wave of COVID-19 diminishing the possibility of returning to stage any time soon, the camera has firmly entrenched itself in the world of dance. It has emerged as a critical eye, a choreographic companion, and a creative collaborator. Several young dancers are turning to filming their dance to connect with the audience and their own practice in innovative ways.

Beyond performance structure

A recent dance film festival titled ‘Chakshu’, organised and curated by dance scholar Arshiya Sethi and Kathak dancer Sangita Chatterjee, screened many such interesting films. “Dance has a fascinating filmed life beyond performative spaces and performance structures. The pandemic has foregrounded dance’s relationship with the camera,” says Arshiya.

For Sangita Chatterjee, the tryst with the camera began last year during the lockdown when she felt she was losing touch with her practice. “I felt a vacuum when we were all locked in and I couldn’t move. As a dancer this was extremely disturbing. It made me question myself: why do I dance?” Her first film emerged from this questioning, as she began documenting her daily practice on the phone camera. Playing with different emotions, movements and angles, she realised the camera has its own presence.

‘Mirage’ by Sangita Chatterjee

‘Mirage’ by Sangita Chatterjee


“When we record live performances, the camera is a passive tool, but with a dance film, it becomes an active participant, part of the choreography and composition,” explains Sangita. Her second film, Mirage - A Lust for Life, was conceptualised and directed by her to engage more deeply with the possibilities of the medium. The recce to find the right locations, working on the frame, and making visual compositions made her experience her dance differently. “I was clear about the concept and the kind of images I wanted in the film, but what exactly I would do, how I would move was left to the moment. I just listened to what that particular site was telling me to do.”

The story of spaces

Contemporary dancer Surjit Nongmeikapam agrees that intuition plays a major role in dancing with and for the camera. Unlike the largely pre-choreographed stage performances that most dancers are used to, the camera and location offer the possibilities of spontaneous acts. “In a dance film, more than technique, the resonance of the space is important and I try to merge my body with the site.” For him, the concept of a dance film is rooted in strong visuals, while the theme and story follow.


“I begin with a strong image, and improvise with the resources available. The choreography emerges from there.” In his latest film, Samnaba, the main resource was a black pot (longpi chafhu) and the concept of the film is inspired by the Japanese philosophy of Kintsugi. “The dancer’s body is important, but the resources and environment are crucial guiding factors in a film.” The option to do several retakes makes it easier to play and explore different compositions and quality of movements, but it also poses the challenge of continuity when working with a specific narrative. For Surjit, dance films are not new; he has been making them for over a decade now, and says that, “Time, space and body should come together to get the right shot. The camera and location provide a new adventure, room for freedom and exploration.”

Contemporary dancer Shilpika Bordoloi also prefers intuitive spontaneity. Filming became part of her choreographic process while researching for a project on the Brahmaputra and its socio-cultural aspects. Later, the camera became a constant companion as she collaborated with filmmakers to explore the medium further. Her first dance film, Nature of Nescience , is an abstract exploration of magic and mysticism. “It was an adventure,” she recounts, “we were working outdoors, using natural light, without any pre-choreographed movements. It was about being present on the location and I improvised in reaction to the geography.” With about five days of shoot, the footage was edited into a short film. Bordoloi believes that concepts of direction and choreography get merged in a dance film and that it is a collaborative process. “In this medium I find it difficult to have specifics of who directed, who choreographed, etc. because as a performer I am responding to the moment and making choices of how to move, at the same time the person behind the camera is also making intuitive choices about what and how to capture this. With so much footage, editing also becomes an important part of the choreography!”

The way in which a dance film finally comes together on the edit table presents several choreographic possibilities. The storyboard, which is an important part of pre-production in most films, may emerge much later in a dance film.

‘Nature of Nescience’ by Shilpika Bordoloi

‘Nature of Nescience’ by Shilpika Bordoloi


Collaborating with filmmaker Manoop Chandran for her directorial debut presented many moments of awe and learning for Bharatanatyam dancer Deepali Salil. The film Fly... Fly Again was shot over two days in Kerala and took about two months to edit. However, the concept had been brewing in her mind for over two years. “I had initially conceptualised it as an aerial act but when that did not work out, I decided to go ahead with it myself.”

Collaborating with dancer Sayani Chakraborty, she decided to explore movements and impressions derived from the Bharatanatyam vocabulary. Reflecting on the possibilities of the medium for classical dance, she says, “Classical dance is rooted in a certain tradition that we follow, and to take the concept of stage out of the dance is a huge shift. I was amazed at the multiple layers and perspectives that come across conceptually with the different ways of seeing the camera offers.”

Kathak dancer Sumedha Bhattacharyya has been diving into research and practice around dance and camera for a few years now. Talking about these intersections, she says, “As classical dancers we are trained more to look at the end production. Working with the camera has made me aware kinaesthetically, and also mentally, of the process of dance. The process of dance filmmaking is not a linear one for me; intuition, improvisation and a lot of uncertainty and unpredictability are important to fathom the process and I draw from my Kathak training.”

While she has worked extensively with the camera before and also runs a project titled, ‘Duet with Camera’, her latest film started out as an experiment during the lockdown. In Jam Upload Download Upload Jam she danced while holding the camera. “The possibilities of working with the lens are immense, the intentionality of using it is important. The camera has the possibility of being treated as a subject, to take on different roles and metaphors, and present different kinds of looking.”

As dancers explore form and content with the camera, experimental and innovative works are emerging, with shifts between choreography and direction. From using archival videos of dance performances to dancing for handheld cameras to choreographing specifically for the screen, dance filmmaking may be the new lens that dancers use to experience and understand their art better and to communicate with the audience.

The author is a Delhi based arts researcher and writer.

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Printable version | Jun 28, 2022 3:14:20 pm |