Mitchell Rose describes himself as a choreographer and performance artist turned filmmaker. His experience in both disciplines is easily seen in his recent work Exquisite Corps, which made the rounds on Facebook recently (or watch above). The video reads like a who’s who in American choreography with 42 choreographers dancing around the country as if together. It included tons of artists Creative Capital has supported over the past 17 years—including Meredith Monk, Faye Driscoll, Kyle Abraham and Ann Carlson—so we loved watching it. I touched base with Mitchell to find out more about the process of making the work and how dance can translate on social media.
Alex Teplitzky: Can you describe the process of making the video? How long did it take to make, and how did it all come together? Were there any difficulties in making it all come together?
Mitchell Rose: Exquisite Corps was a two-year process. It would have taken even longer, given how technical it is, but I had already done two years of R&D on a previous film, Globe Trot, which was applicable to this project. (You can see the Globe Trot manual here which will explain some of that.)
Each participant was told to watch the entire accumulated edit and then decide where they felt the trajectory of the choreography should go. They had to start by perfectly repeating the previous person’s final movement so there would be a motional continuity. They should dance for 2–10 seconds. (Most people did 10–15 seconds so I would have to find a suitable place to edit.) And they should do a number of takes to give me editing options. (Each participant was responsible for finding a helper to shoot it for them.)
So I would send them:
• the accumulated edit.
• a photograph of the previous person in their final position with a superimposed grid to help with alignment.
• a rehearsal video of the previous person’s final movement playing over and over again in both normal and slow-motion.
• a manual I had written which covered camera and technical aspects, how to align yourself in the frame, choosing a location, how to import and send the footage, etc.
• and at least one lengthy email addressing issues of this particular point in the film, for example, “All the action has been far away for a while so why don’t you dance towards camera.”
They would send me the footage and I would edit it in. About half the time it would work, and half the time it wouldn’t requiring a reshoot and further lengthy emailing.
But as meticulous as the process was, the greatest difficulty was, as it always is, scheduling. It was a lot of work to find the participants, and then to juggle availability. When it was a choreographer’s turn the ball would be in their court and all I could do was wait. There were a number of times when people took as much as six weeks (I’ve been very busy but I’m going to really try to do it next week) and then would eventually drop out. (Thanks.)
In February of this year, frustrated by the glacial momentum, I decided to go to New York and blitz through shooting a number of choreographers myself in a weekend. So I went and shot Elizabeth Streb, Meredith Monk, and four others. Not only was this a welcome infusion of momentum for the project, but shooting it myself allowed me to begin moving the camera, a nice bit of development at a good time in the film. Later on, I had Ellen Maynard, one of my star dance-film students from Ohio State who now lives in New York, shoot seven or eight choreographers for me. I completely trust her and so she could keep the camera movement going and help the piece build to an energetic crescendo.
Alex: I could be wrong, but I feel like dance is one of the last art forms to find a comfortable translation on the web or in social media. It’s such a physical, present medium and resists digitization. With nearly a million views just on Facebook, your film has had a huge success online. Do you envision a new future for dance on the internet/social media?
Mitchell: As both a practitioner and professor of dance-film, unsurprisingly I disagree with the notion that dance “resists digitization.” I think dance and film/video fit together in a perfectly natural way. Hitchcock said that silent films were “the purest form of cinema” and that filmmakers “should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” Dance then is a natural language for cinema.
Alex: Dance is one of the mediums which I am least knowledgable about, and yet I was captivated by the video and intrigued enough to research some of the choreographers I didn’t recognize. I think it’s clear that your video resonates with people like me, who are outside or on the margins of the dance world. Can you describe or speak to the effort to bring new fans, especially ones coming of age now, into the fold?
Mitchell: It’s not possible in our society to avoid near-constant contact with media and so we all are conversant in film grammar. It’s a language immersion program.
When I was a choreographer, many people would tell me that while they enjoy watching live dance, they don’t “understand it.” (They didn’t understand that they DID understand it.) But film can convey an experience of dance that audiences are naturally receptive to—because in our film-savvy culture they already speak the language and feel like a native.
Dance has long had a presence in film. But Busby Berkeley or Fred Astaire is not the sense of “dance-film” I’m talking about—those are examples of dancing that is filmed beautifully. My perspective of dance-film is not merely recording some dance. The film itself IS the dance. It can only exist as film. The elements that make dance dance—motion, musicality, space, design—are melded with film language into a cinematic reimagining of dance.
As to whether I “envision a new future for dance on the internet/social media,” the web is just a content delivery platform and social media makes content spreading easy. Whether a dance-film is playing on the web or on a TV or in a theater doesn’t affect the work itself—it’s only a question of scale of the image. I’m quite confident that a major part of dance’s future (if not the largest part) includes intertwining with media. Audiences are increasingly couch-bound. The touring dance company model is shrinking. It’s incredibly expensive to mount theatrical performances. Dance-film can be made for very reasonable costs, so for dance artists looking to make work and have it be seen, it makes sense. But it’s not just that it’s practical—it’s good! The hybrid of dance and film is exciting for our media-driven culture. Film grammar frees dance from the confinements of space and time. And you only have to warm up once.
Alex: In your Huffington Post article you begin by talking about the business of art, but describe it as competitive, only to realize later that it’s more like a family than a sport. What do you see are some of the benefits of working together rather than against one another?
Mitchell: Yikes. I didn’t mean to convey that sentiment in my HuffPo article. I don’t think that I’ve come to discover art as resembling a family. I always have. And I’ve always regretted that a sense of competition also exists which feels unseemly in the family. I know I’m not alone in this.
I think everyone feels, when they hear that another artist has gotten a grant that they too applied for, a conflicted mix of and congratulations and competition. (I deserve one of those. My work is as good as theirs.) Sad as it is, it’s only natural. There’s not that much money and not that much support for the arts out there. But of course my higher nature recognizes that we are all part of a great community, each of us intrepidly fighting the good fight for a noble cause.
So yes, art is a business but it’s also a form of love. And love flourishes more in union than in separation.
To find out more about Mitchell Rose’s work, check out his website.