If you were studying or reading about the history of dance on camera, or dance for film, or screendance or whatever term you want, Maya Deren’s two-minute film A Study in Choreography For Camera (1945) would be right up there as one of the classics regarding choreography on camera. Strangely enough, I did not learn about this very incredible woman in my undergraduate studies but came across her in my postgraduate honours year. She’s a big name in a small canon, which I think may make her easy to miss. She seems relatively unknown in the dance canon but huge in the dance on film canon. Perhaps it is just my sweet ignorance. Either way, you don’t want to miss out on Maya Deren.
Before I write about the film, here are some interesting things I never knew about Maya Deren: She was born in Kiev, 1917. Her family moved to New York in 1922. For a while she was the personal secretary to Katherine Dunham (wow). Aside from being a dancer and choreographer, she was also a poet, photographer and probably most well-known as a filmmaker and for her experimental films (Here is a really good article on her from the website ‘Senses of Cinema’). She studied English Literature and her master’s thesis title was “The Influence of the French Symbolist School on Anglo-American Poetry”. Also she looked like this (and also I am in love with her):
A Study in Choreography for Camera is exactly what the title says it is but manages to somehow also be about something else that is ephemeral and beautiful. The thing that makes this film so unique and original, is it was one of the first to really explore what film does to time and space and movement from a dance perspective. It so succinctly shows us how film enables the choreography of body and geography (this was a term Deren used often). I’m stealing a quote from the article on Senses of Cinema here, but it’s so good. Deren wrote that “The movement of the dancer creates a geography that never was. With a turn of the foot, he makes neighbors of distant places.”
The opening shot catches you completely offguard, as the dancer (Talley Beatty) duplicates himself and appears again in a new frame, a familiar trick that somehow has stayed fresh. How does this film manage to be silent but also have rhythm? And not just any rhythm but a rhythm that builds and swells? How does this film make one aware of circular motion? Films and screens can be so rectangular and so framed, but here you truly feel the revolving motion of the camera, turning on one axis and looking at the swaying world beyond, utterly frameless. We are reminded of this circular motif at the end of the film again, completing a different sort of circle.
If you want to show a dancer the magic of what film can do with movement – all you have to do is show them this piece. If you want to show a filmmaker that bodies and movement is probably what they should be focussing on – show them this film. If you want to remind a feminist that (despite the extremely patriarchal decade of the 1940s), sexy ingenious female filmmakers were producing quality and timeless works of art – just show them this film. You can either show the film to aforementioned hypothetical folk here at UbuWeb or you could watch the YouTube video right now (same as UbuWeb but without opening credits).
Also, try watch her other works, lots of it is on YouTube. At Land is amazing. Also, here are a few pictures so you can fall in love with her, too!