Arts Desk

Not What Comes to Mind When You Think of Dance Films

Over the past couple of years, some friends and I would get together on an irregular basis to watch dance films—from a variety of eras, countries, and styles. We loved it. But every time I’d invite newcomers, they’d have to be convinced to try it. Invariably, they’d get into it. But first, there'd be that initial, dubious hesitation. “Dance on film? Really?”

Apparently, the concept of dance videos inspires immediate visions of boredom and somnolence in people. Maybe they imagine it’ll be hours of watching a performer move on a dark and distant stage.

Maida Withers, a longtime choreographer and modern dance professor at the George Washington University, knows all about that attitude. She’s been documenting movement on video for the past four decades, and will be showing eight short dance films tonight at Artisphere.

“There’s zero understanding [by others] of what dance on film might be,” she says. “Most people can’t bear to watch a dance film for more than ten minutes, unless it’s a full-blown narrative like Black Swan or The Red Shoes. But narrative is hard for dance.”

So these pieces are intentionally brief and varied. And none of them even vaguely resembles that far-away-stage, fixed-camera model.

A couple of the shorts were created a few years back, but six of the eight are brand new. One of them, Tuk, uses footage taken in Utah some years ago and juxtaposes natural images with those of dancers moving on site. Another, Collision Course—aka Pillow Talk, sounds kooky and playful: three characters wrapped in bed pillows try to dance with one another.

The most intriguing is a pair of video portraits Withers’ tech team created of dancer Tzveta Kassabova. The wily Withers talked her way into using one of the city’s most upscale video studios, and was able to shoot Kassabova’s movement on a green screen. Later, animators applied a range of images that aim to illustrate the essence of Kassabova’s dancing and, ultimately, her character.

Kassabova will also be performing in person at tonight’s screening, as will electronic musician Steve Hilmy, who scored many of the films. And Withers herself will be there to take questions and talk with the audience.

In truth, she says, it’s not that she loves video. She simply sees it as another way to expose people to dance. At heart, Withers is still very much a dancer. “Dancing,” she says, “is the ultimate experience in life.”

DANCE:FILMS is tonight 8 p.m. at Artisphere. $12.

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