Dancer, choreographer and director Amy Gardner, says her inspiration for dance on film comes from many things. Movement, sculptural objects, ceramics, textured fabrics and art-house films, all make her pause and imagine.
“The word I like is timeless,” says Gardner, the owner of annoDam, the company she built to produce dance for both screen and stage. “I’ve always had a clear aesthetic. I like gritty, moody, dark lighting and earthly tones. I would shoot in black and white film all the time if I could.”
Creations begin in comfort of her home, which is usually in New York, but most recently her hometown of Calgary, where she is nesting during Covid-19. She has already started to collect and surround herself with antique pieces for her new space, like the 18th century, Hungarian chopping block, that she uses as an office desk.
Calgary holds many happy childhood memories. It is where she learned to dance, studying ballet, jazz, tap, contemporary and even hip hop. Her long friendship with Edge School and Edge Studios Artistic Director of Dance, Cyndi Scott, who was her very first dance teacher, led her to an 8 -year collaboration, as a guest faculty member. It’s a role she continues to cherish.
Most recently, Gardner has developed a four-part online series called The Edge Dance On Film course. “Using an extensive collection of carefully curated dance films as a point of departure, this course encourages participants to analyze, understand and interpret what it takes to develop and produce impactful dance on film,” she says.
The program of study begins with a group analysis of over 15 works of dance on film, to give context to capturing movement on screen, while also giving an overview to film making. Gardner introduces choreographic composition, character development and camera work. Students then create their own dance films, while taking a directorial approach. Gardner guides the students through each process of their films, offering both mentorship and feedback.
One Student’s Experience with Dance on Film
When students were ready to start film production, Gardner gave them the task of coming up with 10 premise lines that developed into a theme. “I decided to choreograph based on the narrative of an individual finding contentment in their current situation, and their internal struggle of still wishing to progress,” says Hunter, a 17- year-old dancer at Edge Studios.
In order to stay within the chosen theme, the dancer worked on a series of improvs, guided by the keywords: tension, repetition, melancholic and surrender. “With respect to the word melancholic, I liked the idea of acute emotion, without a clear cause. I was intrigued by the idea of someone fighting a battle, that they didn’t know they cared about enough to fight.”
Finding a location became more difficult than the dancer first imagined. She wanted to find a spot that was not distinct enough for Calgary viewers to know where it was. Aesthetically, she wanted earthy tones and a look of dilapidation.
Hunter felt the whole process came about quite naturally for her. It became a family affair, with her brother, a budding photographer, offering to assist with filming. “As a dancer I know which angles are going to look best when I hit a line or create a shape. I had a clear idea of where I wanted it filmed from. This, combined with my brother’s talent and knowledge of the camera, helped me to pull off my first creation of dance on film.”
Hunter says Gardner’s guidance helped her immensely in the cultivation of this film. “Amy’s understanding of choreographic intention and the camera angle’s affect on the mood of the film helped me. I learned a lot about the intentional meaning of camera angles, opposed to aimlessly filming dance for the aesthetic. She offered insights into the importance of developing a shot list and mindfully choreographing, with respect to the camera. It was beneficial to have a teacher so knowledgeable, in the many roles that go into creating a dance film.”
Now that the dancer has captured dance on film for her first time, she is already contemplating her next project. “I would love to try a one-take film,” she muses, having found that building seamless transitions within her work was difficult. “It had to have a transition that was cohesive with the mood yet didn’t challenge the intentions of the piece.”
The dancer found the classes very fulfilling. This has led to reflection, “In times like these, where we lack the interpersonal connection in dance, dance on film serves as a mediator to bridge the gap between audience and dancer. It is also an effective way to present dance on a platform easily accessible to those who might not be well acquainted with the art form.”
Hunter feels dance aids in conceptualizing ideas and emotions that are not easily expressed by words. Dance on film helps to capture it.
The Professional Approach: Dance On Film with Amy Gardner
It began quite simply. After auditioning and being selected to compete in So You Think You Can Dance Canada, where she placed in the top ten, Gardner was hooked on the process of camera angles and capturing movement on film. Today, she says, “I am actually more connected to the film world than I am to dance. But movement will always be a part of what I do. And I love photography,” she adds. “So really, my films combine the two things I like the most in the world.”
Life in Grey
When Montreal director Jodeb asked her to dance in his film Life in Grey, Gardner accepted, but with a caveat. “I told him, ‘Sure, but only if I can choreograph it.’” He agreed. And in Gardner’s words, “The film is narrative about a dancer, a director and perfection. It turns into a massacre.”
Gardner explains that developing the choreography for Life in Grey was a bit different than how she would normally work today. “It was so specific. I was asked to create a piece of choreography that could be replicated using blades on my arms, that would hit my targets. I created this solo on myself over several days in the studio. Then, when on location, I had to place other dancers in the room, so the choreography would affect them.”
The choreographer has since designed a free-flowing approach to creating movement that works well for her. “I enter the choreography not knowing what I am feeling, but I am always questioning something. The viewer will interpret the end-result of how they see it and how it applies to their life,” she explains, not wanting to influence the viewing experience.
Choreography begins with a mood board. “It’s a board of concepts and movements. I rarely go to the studio on the first day, with a full idea of what the end will be.”
Instead dancers are completely involved in the choreographic expression. Gardner asks each one to create movement that evokes the mood she is looking for. “Then, I shape it for the camera,” she says simply.
The film Fuel was the next big project for Gardner. It co-aligned with a move to New York City and the launch of annoDam. Her mandate is to further the development and appreciation for contemporary dance.
“When I am directing and not just working on choreography, I have much more control,” says Gardner. Fuel was her very first film, in a dual role, and one for which she is most proud. She wanted to create a political dance film. Feminism, human nature, and current social situations were the themes she chose to explore.
Fuel was greatly influenced by the shooting location. “I would love to begin every film by picking the location first, before doing anything else,” says Gardner. Fuel was shot in one location, an old warehouse, that has several rooms and hallways. “When I scouted it, I was mentally able to create the general concept for each scene, based on the rooms and how the dancers could interact and move through them.”
In one room Gardner saw a sewing table, now without its machine. “I remember thinking, this is where the women were domesticated.” When the camera first enters this room, the view is of a hand protruding through the gaping hole. As it glides around, the lens shows the viewer a woman, cramped down below it.
In Fuel, a male trio dances in the warehouse’s hallway. “I imagined the camera walking down the hall to reveal each man in their own room. To me these rooms felt like prison cells,” Gardner recalls. “Once the camera stopped, we would see them slowly emerge and go into their dance. It was after imaging the design of the shot that I was able to create the choreography.”
“The camera is the perspective of the dancer,” explains Gardner, who like to capture movement on 35 mm film.” And while she does enjoy the visuals of a steady cam, she prefers using a hand-held camera, “It’s shakier, but it feels human, which I love, it’s less technically driven.”
When it comes to camera shots Gardner says, “I like a mix of wide and close up. It is important to have wide shots to capture the dance. But adding a close-up can be very impactful.”
She also likes tops shots, “They can be fascinating because that is the only way you can ever views dance from above and it really changes the movement.” And for fun she adds, “Or dancing on a glass floor and filming from below.”
New Dance On Film Projects with annoDam
Filming has recently wrapped on the short film called Blood Echoes. It was commissioned by Gabe Stone Shayer, a dancer with American Ballet Theatre. The film will premiere later this year
Currently in production is the film The Gold Inside, set to have its World Premiere in 2022. This film is comprised of 22 shots captured through the lens of one cinematographer, working with one dancer, as a guiding muse. It explores different emotions, through various elements of time.
“The goal is to have 11 dancer and cinematographer pairings for The Gold Inside. We have completed four so far,” Gardner outlines. “In one pairing there are two dancers, who wanted to be filmed together as a couple.”
The first stage involves Gardner randomly selecting a word from the dictionary to which the dancer is to respond with movement. The second stage is a serious of interview questions, which the dancer answers through dance.
It is All About the Magic
When making a comparison between dance on stage and dance on film, Gardner has this to say, “The ephemeral nature of dance on stage is what makes it beautiful. It only ever happens once. The limit is that there is no camera magic, or painting of the scene, as there is on film.”
We will await to see what magic Gardner’s future projects achieve, as she continues to bring contemporary dance to film, capturing movement, with her own grace and style.