POOL International Dance Film Festival 2020

POOL International Dance Film Festival 2020

| 09–12 September 2020

Note: some videos below will no longer be viewable 3 months after publication of this article

POOL international dance film festival is Berlin’s festival for dance shorts. Founded in 2007 and based at DOCK11, its reach grows every year; for the 2020 lineup, the jury selected 28 films from around 760 submissions. Beatrix Joyce and Evgeny Borisenko joined forces to watch the shortlisted films and the festival’s selected ‘Pearls’ and 2020 prizewinners. They then met up to share their opinions at a fancy bar in Prenzlauer Berg. Read on to join them there…

EB: Beatrix, in the films you watched, did you notice any recurring motifs?

BJ: Although the majority of the films were made before the pandemic, I noticed that in this year’s selection there was a running theme of solitude. There were many solos which seemed to revolve around self-expression in isolation, and the ‘single dancer in the woods’ was a recurring pattern. Sometimes this sense of isolation was creatively depicted, like in the flamenco-inspired piece This Dance Has No End by Fenia Kotsopoulou and Daz Disley. It was shot in black-and-white in a dark room, with the sound of the dancer’s steps bouncing off the walls. There was a real sense of the body still having agency in this void, which spoke to me in these times of being thrust into the unknown.

Agency in the void: This Dance Has No End by Fenia Kotsopoulou in collaboration with Daz Disley

Another film, Betonhimmel by Lukas Steltner, set in Berlin, featured an urban dancer on the streets, with the frame flipped so the sky was at the bottom and the dancer at the top. This placed the focus on the relationship between the city and the sky in an upward motion, and I found this movement towards the great, open sky uplifting. But with other films I found the combination of melancholia and loneliness hard to bear, especially while sitting in a theatre with single seats positioned at a 1.5 metre distance from each other.

[Video no longer viewable: Lukas Steltner’s Betonhimmel]

EB: I also saw a few films that evoked the feeling of unrest and loneliness so present during the pandemic. For example, Half Life by Milena Twiehaus was not a video but just an ensemble of still shots with two dancers moving to romantic piano music that ends in a very poignant way: with photographs of windows shot from outside, set to the sound of friendly chat. four songs by Sita Ostheimer, a work which actually came about during the pandemic, was choreographed by video calls and consisted of four different vignettes, two solos and two duos. Shot in the studio, they were about dance and nothing else – quite different from the other films. It was really simply edited and produced, but the choreographic vocabulary was incredibly rich, with a constant building-up of intensity and a sheer visceral dance chemistry. I even thought that this is a piece I could really appreciate seeing on stage – not something I would say about the majority of the other films.

Sita Ostheimer: four songs. Simply edited and produced but with an incredibly rich vocabulary

And finally, there was another film that really stood out for me: Breath to Breath by Miloushka Bokma. Unlike the majority of films shot either in urban jungle or at a studio, this used a very theatrical setting – a sort of a greenhouse with an elevated amphitheatre of seats, but instead of spectators there were plastic bags full of water.

An uncanny theatrical setting for Miloushka Bokma’s standout Breath to Breath

BJ: Yes, the films you are describing sound like they each have very different aesthetics. I enjoyed the diversity of formats. Some were art films while others were closer to music videos, where the editing and choreography expressed the music visually.

EB: I actually had the impression that there were too many ‘music videos’ – short illustrative dance elements set to music tracks lasting between two and six minutes. I kept asking myself: what would be the added value of those dance pieces on their own?

BJ: Indeed, when looking at them from an art perspective. But from the vantage point of pop culture, you could argue that this is an opportunity for mainstream music videos to actually incorporate contemporary dance, rather than stick to the usual narratives and choreographies.

EB: I also noted that there were quite a bunch of what I’d call ‘dances in a studio’ filmed with one long shot against a monochrome backdrop with little to no research in terms of filming or editing. Though these dance-in-studio films were made before the pandemic, they again reminded me of our current situation: this must be the only way many artists are getting to show their work.

BJ: In terms of format, I think an interesting comparison can be made with the Aerowaves FRAMEWORKS festival that took place online in June 2020. FRAMEWORKS consisted of commissioned works by Aerowaves artists, created as a response to the pandemic and as a means to move dance online. There were some very interesting pieces by artists, like Joy Alpuerto Ritter & Lukas Steltner and Masako Matsushita, that explored how we can expand the format of dance film by means of positioning laptop cameras in different rooms or using screen videos of internet browsers. At POOL, there was not so much crossover into the digital realm. However, a film I found exemplary in its approach to editing, was Falling by Qian Min, which was one of the ‘Pearls’. There was a really beautiful coherence between the dancer’s movements and how the editor was interpreting that, in terms of rhythm and pacing. For example, a shot of the dancer’s head falling slowly was followed by a shot of a chair toppling over, so in this way the movement was continued across shots.

EB: Yes, a short video about dance is actually a very difficult exercise. It’s not only about the medium of dance and choreography, it can also encompass spoken word, setting, and finally also of course filming and editing. Some of the films didn’t take into account the mixture of all those mediums which, even taken separately, require a huge amount of different skills. It became evident to me that for many dance makers it was a big challenge to juggle dance, film and music and produce a well-balanced dance film. Sometimes the film editing was a bit raw, sometimes the accent was exclusively placed on dance or on music. That is why some works felt like trailers for a full-length film, and others like Instagram-edited snippets.

BJ: And how about politics?

EB: What I noticed is the near absence of films with a strong political statement. The only one that really stood out for me was Never Twenty One by Kevin Gay, Henri Coutant and Smaïl Kanouté. Making use of spoken word, including statistical data and real stories, it tackles the issue of gun violence in American suburbs, where a young person of colour has statistically more chances to get shot down in the streets than a US soldier in Afghanistan. We see a young man dancing in the streets, then in claustrophobically narrow corridors, the dance consisting of constant trembling, violent kicks, twists and twirls. On his skin, lots of words are written in white chalk, like tattoos. In the end, though, we see him on a theatre stage and here the film loosened its grip for me: it has suddenly become a bit too narrational. Anyway, it was the only one of the films I saw to have such a strong political statement, and it was very poignant and masterfully made.

BJ: Yeah, I think the way he shifted his hands so that the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ were alternately visible, was very clever. I kept reading new things into his tattoos.

EB: There was also ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ written on his skin!

BJ: I agree that that moment he’s in the theatre takes us a little bit out of the reality of the streets.

[Video no longer available: Kevin Gay, Henri Coutant and Smaïl Kanouté’s Never Twenty One]

BJ: The city played also played a very instrumental role in Risques by Thomas Gerard, featuring the African American-dancer in Paris.

EB: And afterwards we were taken on a very different journey with Lunar by the award-winning duet Daniele Caetano and Natasha Vergilio – a real video art piece.

BJ: Yeah, Lunar engendered a mesmerising, mystic atmosphere. As it was set in the forest, I was immediately imagining a witch, as the protagonist was somewhat androgynous and their figure was hard to make out in the ominous darkness. The piece was playing with light and shadow, illuminating the body and the skin in different ways.

EB: I still remember that scene when we see overlaid videos of a hand cautiously touching a bare torso, both being translucent. This intricate film trick depicted so well the disconnection of physicality and the lack of human touch we are all living through at the moment. In other films this feeling of loneliness was present only in a very literal way, and Lunar moves it into a truly symbolic dimension.

Daniele Caetano and Natasha Vergilio’s Lunar – a mesmerising, mystic video art piece

BJ: I just want to ask you one more question – about emotion. The genre of dance film sets itself apart from cinema by the difference in approach to narrative: dance films don’t necessarily require a narrative, or if there is one, it’s more fragmented, like in Never Twenty One. So I’m wondering, does that allow us to perceive a more visceral emotional layer, or is it the narrative in cinema that powerfully draws us in?

EB: I think it depends on the quality of the films. The emotional aspect was very aptly translated through choreography in four songs, and through filming rhythm, colours and dense cutting in Lunar (in which we hardly see any ‘dance’ per se). And Never Twenty One is so powerful and emotional mainly because of the script and the relationship between the text and the image. So there are numerous channels to explore.

We already talked a bit about the importance of these short films for the artists, but I was also asking myself about their place in the saturated art scene. We can see short videos featuring choreography in art museums, where they frequently form part of larger installations. They are also used for promotional purposes on the artists’ websites. But the films we have seen this week at POOL go way beyond these forms, and there were more than 760 films submitted for the competition. I would love to ask all the makers what they each think of the place this fragile and mutable art form occupies in their practice, and in the art world in general, for it already seems that this is really a unique and niche genre.

Note: Never Twenty One is the first part of a trilogy. Part 2, Yasuke Kurosan is MEP (Maison Européenne de la Photographie) at Paris, 11.11.20 until 03.01.21 (details here). Part 3, So Ava is at MAC Lyone France, 06.10.20 until 03.01.21 (details here)

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Dock11, Berlin, Germany