ANIMATION AND DANCE: APOTHEOSIS OF MOVEMENT
Answering a question in an interview about her beginnings as a dancer and first days in the ballet school, Pina Bausch said that she liked to dance because she was afraid to speak, and the movement was the only way for her to feel. Summarising the moment of her initiation, within a time span of half a century of life and artistic career, the famous choreographer directed us towards the quintessence of the notion of dance: to feel the world around oneself by feeling oneself and vice versa.
Focusing the attention of the animation lovers on the concept of dance as a theme or motif in animated films, the Animateka Festival affirms in the best way possible the approach to the ritual, social and artistic dance as man’s ontological foundation. In the essay entitled The Philosophy of Dance, the great French poet and thinker Paul Valéry emphasises that each epoch that has possessed an understanding of the human body and experienced in a certain sense its mystery, sources, limitations, combinations of energy and sensibility, has cultivated and revered dance. The base experience of dance is an amalgamation of the body and the spirit.
What is the additional significance of Animateka’s retrospective Animation and Dance? It is exactly in shedding light on the mutual relations between these two artistic forms, both of which base their expression on movement. Dance is a unique art form owing to the fact that a dancer’s expression relies solely on the movements of the body, while the dancer in an animated film owes his or her corporeality to the animator as the creator of the dancer and the dance. Anthropologists explain the origin of dance as an expression of man’s immanent need to reach beyond the borders of the mechanical laws subduing the body, or as a manifestation of the social nomos that is at the core of the human history. The limits of the human body are pushed even further by the implications of the animator’s daring idea, thus evoking a deliberate investment in the inquisitive potential of the body that at a certain imaginary moment could free itself from the limitations of the real world.
An honorary position in the rich retrospective of dance featured by Animateka is dedicated to the visual essay Pas de Deux by Norman McLaren. While the black background staging the ballet choreography tests the spectator’s spatial perception, the concept of time is redefined by the multiplying movements retaining the preceding trajectories of the dancer’s body; leaving an impression of self-contention, the figures are an illustration of Merleau-Ponty’s hypothesis of the body being the centre of the universe, an entity that translates its own traces into reality.
The stylistic adaptation of a moving human body as conceived by Erica Russell in her Feet of Song is an occasional heraldry of anatomy, no more than a sketch swung to motion by exotic dance which, obediently subdued to the rhythm, turns into ornamental sequences or whirls of graphic symbols. These are statements of the body. Russell glorifies the miraculous contrivance commonly known as the body, enjoying its metamorphosis, its ascents and downfalls, plays and whims. The conclusion: dance IS a language. (Moreover, dance is always a harmony of different languages, which is probably why the tragic ballet genius Vatslav Nijinsky described himself in his Diary as ‘an artist in singing through dance’).
The semantics of the kinaesthetic effect is even more obvious in Janet Perlman’s film Bully Dance, with every single movement and every activity of individuals and the community of zoomorphic figures unfolding to the rhythm of music. The rhythm of music is the rhythm of life. The viewer recognises the essential function of dance as a social ritual: the tribalism of the new age becomes emphasised by establishing strong relations with the roots of the community. However, disturbed communication codes may endanger an individual, whose dance then becomes a struggle to overcome problems.
As much as an individual must subdue to the forces of common laws, dance is (still) a way to keep oneself away from these laws. The key words for understanding the messages of the dance trilogy by Arnaud Demuynck are freedom and resistance. The dance performed by a girl on a cliff, mustering courage for the final leap in the film Signs of Life conveys a powerful message on the existential apprehension of an individual. In the film Breakout, the dance performed by the escaping prisoner before the barrel of a gun is an affirmation of life in an absolutely hopeless situation. Finally, The Shadow of the Veil is a socially engaged perspective of the position of a woman in the family and society, where a Muslim girl resorts to dance to protest against the rigid rules.
Dedicating his film Orgesticulanismus to his father, the wheelchair-ridden cerebral-palsy patient Mathieu Labaye explores the concept of the thinking body that becomes a medium for the inner freedom. While the first part of the film shows vector-driven human figures resembling marionettes endlessly repeating the same movements, the second part introduces the inevitable (and expected) infringement, with the frantic modern dance forcing the body to break out of its own boundaries. Before the film moves into the sphere of the abstract, suggesting the transience of the physical existence, the body will become reduced to a danse macabre performed by a skeleton...
On the other hand, the skeletons featured in the Disney burlesque The Skeleton Dance, guided by the skilful hand of the animator Ub Iwerks, bring in the cheerful spirit of Hollywood’s golden age. The gleeful ‘South American Jive’ of the film stars appearing in Tex Avery’s Hollywood Steps Out, as well as the dance of the walrus-like ghost spurred by Dave Fleischer rotoscopy into a dance resembling that of the lucid bandleader Cab Calloway, are some of the examples of the American production of the time. It is clear that the dance presented here has no artistic aspirations, but the retrospective Animation and Dance addresses the general, social functions of dance as well.
Abstraction as a vehicle of expression in film lies on the opposite end of Animateka’s dance spectrum. The work of visual artists Memo Akten and Quayola entitled Forms represents an almost paradigmatic example of this approach. Here, the human body of a moving athlete is transformed into seemingly anarchoid swarms of geometric shapes, thus finding its own symbolic substitution, while transcended to the level of dance choreography by the suggestive score. And this is the magic moment, an apotheosis of movement of its kind, where the innermost meanings of dance and animation are mutually sublimed.
The retrospective Animation and Dance is a diverse and dynamic programme, full of exciting films that move the senses and stir emotions. Can we really ask for more from anything, even from the art of animated film?
Milen Alempijević (1965), writer and author, is a member of the Serbian Literary Society. Apart from popular fiction, he is an author of texts on jazz and film art. He is currently preparing a book of essays on animated film, The Art of Exaggeration. He works as Film and Video Programme Editor and is Art Director of the international animation festival ANIMANIMA at the Cultural Centre in Čačak, Serbia.