Essay: The Delicate Dance between Choreography and Cinematography

The following is an essay that was assigned in BPA 404: Contemporary Performance Practices 

 The Delicate Dance between Choreography and Cinematography

             When I decided to seriously pursue a study in film, I had already had a long-standing love of the movie musical genre, however it wasn’t until I watched Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain from the perspective of a filmmaker that I realized that Donen and Kelly had created something different, something that set them apart from their predecessors; it was possible for the camera, and therefore the audience, to be an equal partner with the performers on the silver screen. They were able to show that the movement of the camera was as important to the story as the movement of the dancers. Although most believe that the relationship of dance and film is simply for entertainment purposes, it has, in fact, developed into an artistic practice that transcends both stage and screen to create a new and dynamic cinematic language.

             The initial relationship between dance and film was one of practicality: as a documentation device. Until the film camera was invented, documenting dance that could accurately convey the intentions of the choreographer was extremely difficult. Written dance notation systems, such as Laban’s and Benesh’s tried to mimic the music notation system but were not successful. Because both were very complex and could not clearly communicate how pieces were to be performed, they were not widely used. Written descriptions, pictures and the passing down of traditions through teaching were as close to preservation as anyone could get. However, with the advent of the film camera, dance could suddenly be documented. “In modern dance, where movement vocabulary often emerges from the physical idiosyncrasies and distinctive aesthetic of the choreographer, there is great value in accessing film and video to study repeatedly the elements of dance, including the nuances of choreographic style, compositional structure and the development of movement dynamics or expression” (Homsey 124). Renowned modern dancer-choreographer, Ted Shawn would use a 16mm crank film camera to document his all-male dance company in the 1930’s. He was able to film over 60 dances for archival purposes, and many, including Kinetic Molpai (1935) are still viewable today.

             By and large, the advantages of film far out-weigh the disadvantages, however the drawbacks are significant enough that filmmakers needed to find ways to overcome them. Early films tended to be static, akin to an audience member in the front row of a stage show. Performances were recorded from a wide-angle in order to capture the full body of the dancer’s movement; the camera rarely moved. One of the first recorded films that clearly demonstrate this was of Annabelle Moore in The Serpentine Dance (1895) by Thomas Edison. Standing on a small stage, Annabelle waves the flowing material of her dress to truly capture motion within the picture. What was missing was the motion of the picture. A contributing factor to the awkwardness of early dance films was that what was once a three-dimensional performance had been reduced to a two-dimensional medium. “Movies were trapped within a huge picture frame, with dancers often moving out of the frame to disappear into the void. But it was the camera that had to dance. With input from the choreographers, filmmakers soon began experimenting… moving the camera closer to the dancers, using a variety of shots and angles” (Billman 12).

           A new spacial awareness took hold. Although filmmakers began moving the camera around to employ different perspectives, such as overhead or birds eye view shots and extremely wide shots, close-ups were reserved for singers. Rarely did the camera get closer than a medium size on any of the dancers. Busby Berkeley’s films 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) included wide shots of hundreds of dancers and dozens of pianos. This practice continued to include Fred Astaire’s The Bandwagon (1953) and the famous ceiling dance from The Royal Wedding (1951). “Keeping Astaire and his partners in full frame at all times and having the camera follow them afforded Astaire seamless long takes that allowed the viewer to realize the physicality and immediacy of the dance” (Billman 13). One could argue that close ups are useful only to actors or singers as they convey their emotions through their faces, and dancers express emotions through their whole body. However, I would agree that “to shoot a creative dance film in a continuous long wide shot is to miss the power of close-ups and the subtleties of choreography: a turn of the head, a movement of the hands” (Siebens 221).

           It was around this time that choreographers realized that if they wanted to have their vision of a performance properly executed, they, themselves would have to learn how to use the camera. Gene Kelly, dancer-choreographer, took this task seriously and tried to “tame” the camera. “Kelly learned right from the start that the moving image demanded a dynamic relationship between performer and camera. The simple recording of dance as a theatrical performance merely mimicked the spectatorial position traditionally associated with the proscenium” (Gerstner 57). Kelly’s goal was a true representation of his vision, which would be broadcast to the masses on the big and little screen.  Over time, Kelly would create a three-point method to his “Choreography for the Camera”. 

1. The camera’s movement can give a “sense of speed and vitality” through zooming in and out, dolly moves and cranes, etc. “…the camera must pan faster or more quickly than the figure performing in front of it… moreover, the use of vertically placed objects within the mise-en-scene… maximizes this dynamic effect” (Gerstner 57).

2. Placement of the dancer within the frame was extremely important; the whole body with outstretched arms and toes.

3. “Characterization through the dancer’s performance” (Gerstner 57). For Kelly, that meant that dance was an integral part of the narrative story and not simply a performance piece. “Kelly aimed to use dance as a vehicle for the development of a character within the context of an overall narrative” (Genne 75).

           The combination of these three points created “a complete package of performance… one that organizes camera movement, body movement and a dynamic mise-en-scene” (Gerstner 58). In the sequence You Were Meant for Me, it is obvious that Kelly’s method was being employed. The camera crane would follow a singing Kelly in a medium sized shot, but then proceed to cut to a wide when he and Debbie Reynolds, playing his love interest, would begin to dance. What is stunning is that each time the camera paused, it would land in a perfectly composed shot. Whether it was over her shoulder to an earnest Kelly confessing his love to her, or to Reynolds who dances into her own close-up, each moment was perfectly timed, as if the camera too were dancing with the lovers. “The moving camera served a duel purpose: it both recorded the dance gesture and enhanced it, along with the drama the dance played out” (Genne 75). The camera movement added a subtle but incredibly compelling energy throughout the film that could be felt in every dance sequence and every scene.

          Camera movements are intrinsically tied with our personal psychological interpretations. It is a dialogue that filmmakers have taught audiences to recognize over time on a subconscious level.  “With vertical movements, the upward motion seems soaring and free precisely because it conforms to the eye’s natural tendency to move upward over a composition. Movements in this direction often suggest aspiration, spirituality, power and authority…” (Giannetti 94). Downward movements tend to suggest negative connotations, such as loss of power, death, and weakness. “Since the eye tends to read a picture from left to right, physical movement in this direction seems psychologically natural, whereas movements from right to left often seems inexplicably tense and uncomfortable” (Giannetti 96). Kelly and Donen would often use the camera crane to create large-scale movements. It would go from an extremely wide shot that would show the entirety of the set and then smoothly sweep inwards and down into close-ups of the actor’s face and vice versa. In the iconic Singin’ in the Rain dance “The camera that strolls in front of Kelly at the opening and swings out over the street adds its own kinesthetic ‘punch’ to his dances” (Genne 75). Also notice that although Kelly insisted on the frame to be large enough to encompass outstretched arms and feet, the frame was also rarely bigger than that. I believe that the intent behind that was to get as close to capturing the facial expressions of the dancers without sacrificing the ability to see the whole body. On occasion, when the facial expressions were especially important during a dance sequence, Kelly and Donen would cut to a closer shot as long as you could see the full bodies of the ensemble dancers surrounding them. Kelly and Donen would often switch to a slightly different angle in order to get the tightest framed version of the performance, making for more camera set-ups for a single dance routine. Another notable difference between Kelly and his predecessors is the way he choreographed for the sets. As mentioned previously, most dance routines would be choreographed and filmed as if set on a proscenium stage. Even though the camera would feel like it was moving, due to intercutting of the shots, on closer examination the camera seems only move horizontally. Kelly, on the other hand, would often utilize other planes or lines of action to take advantage of the whole set. You can see this in the tap sequence of Moses Supposes, although it was rare for the camera to do a complete 180-degree turnaround. That is most likely due to the fact that film sets at that time did not physically build the fourth wall of the set, which is where the lighting would ultimately come from.

            Choreographers would eventually take the camera in their own hands to create shots from the dancer’s perspective. “The free movement of hand-held camera is in stark contract with the mechanized and highly controlled movements…” (Kerner 706). Takahiko Iimura, Butoh filmmaker, would integrate the camera into Anma (1963) by jumping into the set and surrounding himself with the performers, creating a feeling of being immersed within the dance. While the camera was only catching glimpses of the performers, the overall effect was more tactile and stimulating versus the traditional viewpoint of seeing the whole, which ultimately is more objective and less personal. “With this category of butoh film there is no suppression or disavowal of the filmmaker’s body. While the strategy of fixing a camera effective effaces the filmmaker, with this integrated strategy, there is a tendency to use a hand held camera… the images on the screen corresponds to the movement of the filmmaker” (Kerner 706). In an interview with Iimura, he states “my hand [is] an extension of the camera, or camera as an extension of my hand” (Kerner 712). The NFB dance film, Phillep Baylaucq’s Lodela (1996) uses small cameras physically attached to the dancer’s body to create immersive shots. Baylaucq would also shift the camera, the audience’s viewpoint, to completely different perspectives, which would throw into questions the spectator’s notion of what is up and what is down. “Interaction with the ‘subjective’ camera brings about an entirely new relationship to gravity and the regular limits associated with the traditionally horizontal dance surface” (Szporer 171). The dancer’s bodies would contort and shift in the light, dancing both by themselves and with each other simultaneously.

            Motion capture has come onto the scene as a way to explore movement and dance. However, dancers are now reduced to little white balls of motion. “Right away we lose all vision of muscle and flesh, and with that a sense of effort as well, since we can no longer make out the actual struggle and sweat of the performing body. The face also vanishes, and with it the expressions that signal intention and feeling” (Kaizer 108). But is this a detriment or is it simply different? As the audience looking at the moving white dots on the screen, seen correctly our brains can correlate the pattern as a moving body. In Ghostcatching (1999) by Bill T. Jones, Paul Kaiser, and Shelley Eshkar, the choreographer is also the performer but ultimately ends up disembodied as pure data. “…there is no small irony in the exciting prospect of this most natural of human phenomena –the dance- being transformed through the medium of technology into a  poetic parallel of virtual incarnation” (Jones 107). In this case, the computer now controls the camera movement and the editing of the piece to create a distinctly cyber experience. 

            Editing is as crucial to the process as the filming itself. “Generally speaking, the greater the number of cuts within a scene, the greater the sense of speed it conveys” (Giannetti 141). Cutting and pasting the bits and pieces of celluloid together helps to create the rhythm of the scene, and with every scene, the entirety of the film. “Editing together the shots of [Gene] Kelly’s dance sequences added a new and specifically cinematic ‘pulse’ to the dance” (Genne 74). Kelly would often be in the editing suite with his editor to insure that the cuts were precise and would go unnoticed by the audience. “Cuts from one shot to another occur in relation to musical counts and interact with changes in tempo, orchestration and song section, as well as with dance gesture” (Genne 74). This creates a musicality and energy to the whole film that is unified by the editing. When it comes to editing choreography, there is a delicate balance between showing the emotional and displaying the physical feats of the dancers. Both hold equal weight; however the placements of the shots within a sequence can dictate the strength of the emotional impact it will have on the audience.

            Together, dance and film have shared a history of discovery, exploration and innovation. From the early days of the silent era, where the camera remained static in order to document movement for the first time, to the golden age of movie musicals with their sweeping crane shots, to the cybernetic reality within pixels and data streams, dance and cinematography are inexplicably interlinked. The difference between a dance performance that is live on stage and one that is on a screen is by the camera’s distinct ability to capture the performance. Through close-ups and wide shots, heart racing tap numbers and slow, intimate waltz’, the audience is transported by the camera from their seats and into the dancer’s embrace.

Work Cited

             Giannetti, Louis D. Understanding Movies. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.:                                    Prentice Hall, 1976. Print.

Billman, Larry. "Chapter 2: Music Video as Short Form Dance Film." Envisioning Dance  on Film and Video. Ed. Judith Mitoma, Elizabeth Zimmer, and Dale Ann. Stieber. New York: Routledge, 2002. 12-20. Print.

Kerner, Aaron. "Takahiko Iimura’S Butoh Films: Cine-Dance In Anma (The Masseurs) And Rose Color Dance." Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 3 (2013): 703. Project MUSE. Web. 5 Oct. 2014.

Gerstner, David Anthony. "Dancer From The Dance: Gene Kelly, Television, And The Beauty Of Movement." Velvet Light Trap (2002): 48. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.

Owen, Norton. “Chapter 9: Ted Shawn’s Moving Images.” Envisioning Dance on Film and Video. Ed. Judith Mitoma, Elizabeth Zimmer, and Dale Ann. Stieber. New York: Routledge, 2002. 61-65. Print.

Genne, Beth. “Chapter 12: Dancin’ in the Rain: Gene Kelly’s Musical Films.” Envisioning Dance on Film and Video. Ed. Judith Mitoma, Elizabeth Zimmer, and Dale Ann. Stieber. New York: Routledge, 2002. 71-77. Print.

Jones, Bill T. “Chapter 17: Dancing and Cameras” Envisioning Dance on Film and Video. Ed. Judith Mitoma, Elizabeth Zimmer, and Dale Ann. Stieber. New York: Routledge, 2002. 103-107. Print.

Kaizer, Paul. “Chapter 18: Frequently Pondered Questions.” Envisioning Dance on Film and Video. Ed. Judith Mitoma, Elizabeth Zimmer, and Dale Ann. Stieber. New York: Routledge, 2002. 108-109. Print.

Homsey, Bonnie O. “Chapter 21: Capturing Dances from the Past.” Envisioning Dance on Film and Video. Ed. Judith Mitoma, Elizabeth Zimmer, and Dale Ann. Stieber. New York: Routledge, 2002. 123-125. Print.

Szporer, Philip. “Chapter 30: Northern Exposures: Canadian Dance Film and Video.” Envisioning Dance on Film and Video. Ed. Judith Mitoma, Elizabeth Zimmer, and Dale Ann. Stieber. New York: Routledge, 2002. 170-171. Print.

Siebens, Evan E. “Chapter 40: Dancing with the Camera: The Dance Cinematographer.” Envisioning Dance on Film and Video. Ed. Judith Mitoma, Elizabeth Zimmer, and Dale Ann. Stieber. New York: Routledge, 2002. 221. Print.

Video Cited

"7. Kinetic Molpai (1935) by Ted Shawn.mkv." YouTube. profesionalesartes, 18 Feb.  2011. Web. 07 Nov. 2014. <>.

"Thomas Edison's "Anna Belle Serpentine Dance"" YouTube. Trailers Si And/Or Fi, 2 May 2009. Web. 07 Nov. 2014. <>.

"42nd Street - Lloyd Bacon (1933)." YouTube. Violamusica, 19 Feb. 2010. Web. 07 Nov. 2014. <>.

"Gold Diggers of 1935 Lullaby of Broadway." YouTube. Gerard Tondu, 7 Mar. 2011.  Web. 07 Nov. 2014. <>.

"I Love Louisa ...The Band Wagon." YouTube. My1990ful, 4 July 2010. Web. 07 Nov. 2014. <>.

"Fred Astaire's Famous Ceiling Dance." YouTube. Cheyennewong, 30 May 2006. Web. 07 Nov. 2014. <>.

"Singing In The Rain - You Were Meant For Me (Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds) [HD Widescreen]." YouTube. Lbarnard86, 28 Sept. 2009. Web. 07 Nov. 2014. <>.

"Singing In The Rain - Singing In The Rain (Gene Kelly) [HD Widescreen]."YouTube. Lbarnard86, 1 Oct. 2009. Web. 07 Nov. 2014. <>.

"Singin' in the Rain - Moses Supposes.wmv." YouTube. David999mn, 9 Oct. 2010. Web. 07 Nov. 2014. <>.

"Tatsumi Hijikata - Anma ( The Masseur ) 1963." YouTube. Butoh Brazil, 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 07 Nov. 2014. <>.

"13. Ghostcatching (1999) Chor. Bill T. Jones Digital Artwork. Paul Kaiser & Shelley Eshkar.mkv." YouTube. Profesionalesartes, 29 May 2011. Web. 07 Nov. 2014. <>.