Writers, performers, and many other creators know that the medium they choose to express themselves can have a great impact on how their message is perceived. Performing flamenco dance live vs. on camera, for example, can change the connection and level of intimacy dancers have with their audience.
One artist who can speak to this experience is Esmeralda Enrique of the Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company. Enrique served as the artistic director on the short dance film, Reflejos del Tiempo, which will be shown at the Fall for Dance North (FFDN) festival in Toronto.
In discussing the creation of the film, Enrique shared her insights on the differences between choreographing and performing live compared to for the camera.
A Brief History of Dance on Film
Dance has been used as an intimate form of expression throughout history to share stories with others or to dance together in celebration. But unlike books and paintings, which can be produced and then passed on through generations and across great distances, dance originally could only be enjoyed in the present moment.
The invention of the film camera in 1891 changed that: dance could be recorded and shared the same way that printed and painted works could be.
The first dance to be filmed is credited to Ruth St. Denis for her “Skirt Dance” performance, filmed by Thomas A. Edison in 1894. Despite this amazing advancement in entertainment and technology, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many dancers were weary to be filmed because of how choppy the camerawork made their movements. Not only did this affect the aesthetics of the dance, but it also resulted in a disconnect between dancer and audience. Instead of a fluid performance, early dance films often looked similar to thumbing through a flip book.
However, as technology progressed, the smoothness of a dancer’s performance could be properly captured by the camera, bringing the opportunity for intimacy with the audience into this new medium.
Adapting Dance for the Camera
Translating the intimate, real-time framework of a live performance to a structured film set can be a challenge, especially for those new to the world of film production.
Enrique shared that the choreography for Reflejos del Tiempo was adapted from the original live version by Daniel Ramos. Ramos’s version was inspired by a style of traditional folk dance and rhythm called Sevillanas, which shares similarities with flamenco. Enrique and Ramos worked together to create a new dance, blending Sevillanas and flamenco.
Originally, the dance was meant to be performed live as part of the Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company season, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the shows to be canceled. To still give the story a platform, Enrique met with film director William Yong to discuss adapting the performance for the camera.
Music was one aspect of the performance that was revisited for filming. Sevillanas traditionally uses live guitars and castanets (hand-held percussive instruments) to accompany the dancers. Enrique wanted to keep this touch of the past by incorporating castanets in Reflejos del Tiempo, using them in combination with a soundtrack featuring layers of different instruments and vocal performances that could be added in post-production to play throughout the film.
Yong also suggested using props to tell a story for the camera in a way that cannot be easily told on stage. Plastic mirrors placed around and beneath the dancers in certain scenes could convey the idea of the dancers reflecting on their own past and the history of the movements they were making.
By finding this balance between tradition and the modern day, Enrique and her production team were able to create a new story for a long-loved form of dance.
Creating a Connection with the Camera
Directors for the stage can control the environment of their audience in terms of location, lighting, temperature, sound, and even smell. Choreographers for live productions must also consider what every set of eyes in the audience may see depending on where they travel on stage. This can create an impossible task of wondering what each individual will perceive.
A film director, on the other hand, forfeits those controls but can dictate where the audience directs their focus. Because the camera is the eye of the audience, film directors can target one point of action and align whatever background is visible to act as a support to this focus.
“Sometimes, on the stage, you don’t catch the intimacy,” said Enrique. “When you’re watching live, you can’t be as close as a camera can be.” With the influence of the camera’s presence in their choreography, Enrique, Ramos, and Yong could have a stronger impact on where their audience’s eyes travel: the camera can move across the set, whereas the audience is stagnant.
Performing Live vs. on Camera
Many dancers experience a change in intimacy with the audience when performing on stage compared to for the camera. Live performers can have an ongoing dialogue, receiving immediate feedback based on audience reactions. When being filmed, however, dancers often have no idea how they’re going to be perceived until the final product is released.
Although film gives dancers the opportunity to redo and perfect their movements through multiple takes, it also can take more of a physical and emotional toll compared to a single live performance. During a live performance, dancers can use adrenaline to carry them through the one or two hours they need to perform at a high level of intensity. On the film set, dancers must pace themselves so they don’t burn out halfway through a shoot. This exhaustion can be both physical and mental, as dancers are constantly assessing where the camera is focusing.
For some dancers, being hyperaware of the audience’s gaze through the camera is a source of added pressure. For others, knowing exactly where an audience is looking at a given moment is a relief as they know where to channel their energy depending on their role in each scene.
For Enrique specifically, dancing on stage and dancing for the camera often feel quite similar. “When I’m being filmed, I feel that the camera is the audience. So, it’s not that much more different from performing live because I have that sense of what the audience is seeing.”
Whatever medium a performer uses, their goal is to create a connection with their audience. From the live stage to the film set, finding some level of intimacy with their viewers that keeps them engaged is essential to the success of a performer’s story.
The Fall for Dance North festival will run from September 26th to October 7th, 2023. Reflejos del Tiempo will be shown during the 8-Count: Short Dance Film Series on September 27th, 7:30pm at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema (506 Bloor St. W) and September 28th, 7:30pm at York University’s Sandra Faire and Ivan Fecan Theatre (Ian MacDonald Blvd.) For more information about FFDN and to purchase tickets, visit https://www.ffdnorth.com.