Sara Mearns, the New York City Ballet star, whirls through a public park in sneakers and a lime-green bodysuit, all zany glamour with a ’90s vibe.
In a sly little film simply titled “Another Dance Film,” Mearns powers uphill past a jogger, reaching the top of an amphitheater’s seating gallery. She doesn’t stop. With the same ferocity, she plunges down the tiers, long hair whipping as she kicks, struts and hops from step to step. Ballerina as all-terrain vehicle.
The film, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, is just five minutes long, but it does a lot of work. It blows apart some key assumptions, shattering the uptight ballet-dancer stereotype and airing weighty artistic differences between Mearns and her creative team, which we hear in voice mails that accompany the film.
Crucially, it also liberates dance from illusion. Mearns isn’t in the imaginary world of the theater, creating an imaginary character. She’s herself, or a convincing version of herself, navigating the real world of cyclists, people-watchers, concrete and chain-link.
She’s not alone. “Another Dance Film” is part of a fascinating trend to strip dance of artifice by cinematizing it in outdoor settings.
Films like these have flown to my laptop over the past several months, and it feels like dancemaking is entering a new era. By setting dancers loose in the open air, outdoor filmmaking paradoxically brings them even closer to us in stunning, intimate ways, using the unique strategies of the camera.
While Mearns is bouncing down the risers in “Another Dance Film,” for instance, there’s a conversation going on about vulnerability and risk-taking. Mearns: “Look, I told Andrea like five times that I don’t want to dance on stairs!” Andrea Miller, the choreographer: “It’s okay that she feels uncomfortable. Why does everything have to be so perfect?”
The effect is intentionally droll as we watch Mearns dance the hell out of those stairs. But the point is profound. This piece is about busting out of a fancy theater setting and exposing what’s usually kept away from the public. So much real human drama is hidden behind the polish of conventional performance, but not here.
Nothing can replace the pleasures of live performance — that’s a given. Yet here’s what surprises me. As new dance works surfaced on my laptop, something beautiful happened to this art form I thought I knew. It gained strength from the natural environment. “Natural” in the fullest sense of the word: unvarnished, even un-marvelous, existing comfortably or uncomfortably in nature.
In these films you can find answers — at least, the beginnings of them — to questions that have long dogged concert dance. Where are the new choreographers? How can dance stay relevant — and speak to the moment? Well, some of the best of these films spotlight young unknowns, who might never get a chance in the high-stakes, box-office world of live theater.
And by featuring outdoor environments around the world, dance inserts itself into the urgent global conversation about climate change. These films line up with one of the most pressing human dramas of all time. They recognize that the story is outside, in the weather and the sun.
It might be in an urban alley, as in “Now,” a perspective-tilting mini-film shot in the shadowy rubble of Shanghai. Or on a stone-covered English beach in “Toke,” a meditation on isolation and belonging, performed by Danish dancer Toke Broni Strandby, who was born with one arm. He tells us in a voice-over that he never feels disabled when he’s dancing. These, along with “Another Dance Film,” can be viewed on films.dance and its social media sites, including Instagram, YouTube and Vimeo.
Companies large and small have caught on. Many have allowed their dancers to slip into the role of choreographer, as in “The Ritual,” an American Ballet Theatre film choreographed by company soloist Gabe Stone Shayer. He and principal dancer Cassandra Trenary, wearing shorts and hoodies, kick up the dark waters of the pool on the Lincoln Center terrace, and slide in the dust under the plaza’s trees. It’s a playful exploration of elemental contrasts, lovely in its casual simplicity.
Among many dance offerings on the arts streaming service Marquee TV are Washington Ballet films featuring choreography by company members. Andile Ndlovu’s “Something Human” is set in and around the open-air ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City, Md.; the film captures the location’s mysterious vibe.
The arrival of these films has been gradual but inevitable. Over the past year, dance companies around the world have pivoted to become media companies. They’re publishing blog posts and interviews. They’re live-streaming and webcasting artist talks and Zoom productions, and offering digital content such as behind-the-scenes shorts and fully staged performances from their archives. As the shutdown restrictions eased, many dance companies also turned to filmmaking.
In many cases, collaborations sprang up among producers, directors, choreographers and dancers scattered around the globe. They joined virtually, with limited rehearsals.
The short, atmospheric outdoor films that resulted combine the primal force of dance, the rawness and poignancy of the outdoors, and what filmmaking can do with time, space and sound: slow motion, close-ups, the use of wind and birdsong. The effect can be deeply emotional.
“Filmmaking is such a powerful art form of its own,” says choreographer Jacob Jonas, who launched Films.dance last January. “When dance is onstage, your perspective is fixed based on where you’re sitting. But in film, you can isolate part of the body, a hand or the head, and use filmmaking to capture what you couldn’t ordinarily see live.”
There’s only so much you can do in a theater with set and lighting design, Jonas adds. Film can whisk us off to real-life spaces: “We want it to feel like you’re traveling,” he says, “and allow the location to play a character in the film, and let the dancers and sound designers respond to those surfaces and environments.”
Jonas, 29, directs a contemporary dance troupe called Jacob Jonas the Company, in Santa Monica, Calif. He’s long worked in film for his troupe and commercial projects, and when the pandemic froze the normal, in-person creative strategies for dance, he saw filmmaking as a solution “to keeping the art form alive when the curtain was down.”
Jonas set a goal of 15 films themed around nontraditional collaborations. He wanted the project to feel global, and ended up with locations around the world — Brazil, Nigeria, Spain — as well as movement artists from more than 25 countries and young, untested choreographers.
“Theaters often don’t want to take risks on newer artists because of ticket sales,” Jonas says. “With this platform, we can prove that those collaborations are successful.”
The films were all produced remotely. Jonas brought together dancers and choreographers who’d never worked together, and they’d start creating over Zoom. After shooting, the film went to Jonas for editing, and he’d find a composer to score it. In four months, Films.dance has more than 50,000 followers on Instagram and more than 2.5 million views across all platforms.
That number illustrates another plus of these films: their reach.
Jonas has a new collection in the works, filmed in Moscow, Tokyo, Cape Town, South Africa, and elsewhere. They’ll starting premiering in September, through December.
These new films aren’t the first to explore outdoor settings through dance, of course. In the recent movie version of “In the Heights,” the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, an urban intersection and an oceanic swimming pool frame the most exhilarating dance numbers. Wim Wenders made beautiful use of open-air sites in “Pina,” his extraordinary 2011 documentary on the late German choreographer Pina Bausch. The filmmaker chose seemingly perilous locations for brief, explosive performances of excerpts from Bausch’s dances — busy Berlin street corners, the lip of a canyon, a tiered stone terrace. I’ve watched them over and over, enthralled. (Some are available on YouTube; they’re among my favorite dance clips.)
Open sky, open energy. Dance feels rougher, more dangerous outside.
Is it the animal in us that craves the outdoors, even virtually? Or is it an awakened desire, stoked by nature, of the sedentary spectator to join in the dance?
To be sure, the transition from theater settings to outdoor filmmaking hasn’t been easy. It can be hard on everyone, the dancers most of all.
Production manager Vin Roca likes to say he’s in charge of everything at American Ballet Theatre that doesn’t sing, dance or speak. But in late June, he found himself spearheading a frantic effort to keep the company’s portable outdoor stage from scorching the dancers’ feet in the midday sun.
The company was filming the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet” on the Wave Hill estate in the Bronx, where lush gardens and a rustic stone balustrade offered a graceful site. There was even a level patch of grass for the stage.
But there was no shade. Dancers Cassandra Trenary and Calvin Royal III hid under lighting reflectors to escape the heat. As the hours ticked by and the sun traveled the sky, the shadows didn’t match up. Worse, the stage with its black surface became a baking sheet, hot enough to melt Trenary’s pointe shoes. To cool it, the crew mopped it down between takes.
Then came the jets, one after the other, flying into the camera frame.
Still, the shoot was a success, poetic in its own right, and gesturing toward the company’s earlier live alfresco performances and its July road trip across the country.
“Doing it outdoors really added a sense of time and place,” says Roca. “It adds uniqueness. To have it feel like this expansiveness is coming out, and this lightness, celebrating all these things we were doing outdoors.” The film was added to the company’s “Summer Celebration” online fundraising gala.
Now the question is, how will outdoor filmmaking fit into the wider scheme of dance? My guess, and my hope, is that it’s here to stay, even with the emphasis now on live performance as companies ready themselves for fall seasons indoors. Dance companies can use what they’ve learned about filmmaking in natural environments to increase their audience, give young choreographers a chance, open new creative paths — and change the dance landscape.