Szerpentin Dance Film Festival

Szerpentin Dance Film Festival

Budapest, Hungary | 25-28 April 2019

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

What is Szerpentin?

Named after Loïe Fuller’s Serpentine Dance, the biennial Szerpentin Dance Film Festival takes place in Budapest, Hungary. It is directed by Gábor Pintér (artistic director of the Parallel Art Foundation, which organises the festival) who has been working with dance film for almost 15 years, having launched and run the EDIT festival from 2005 to 2011, then relaunched it as Szerpentin in 2017. Apart from showcasing recent works from Hungary and abroad, Pintér’s main goals are to stimulate the creation of new films and forge international relationships.

As well as showing Hungarian works to an international audience, the 2019 festival placed a premium on international partnerships and co-productions, as well as on international short films, selected through an open call which attracted entries from 38 countries. Szerpentin then presented separate blocks of Finnish, Dutch, Romanian and French films, in co-operation with festival curators from their respective countries. Also on the programme was Overground – Dancing Cities Budapest, a 20-minute film co-produced by Parallel and the French All We Can Do Is Dance project.

Just like contemporary dance itself, dance film often defies genre categorisation. Pintér likes that: he looks out for new works not only in the dance scene but also in the fields of fashion, design, photography and so on, where many artists use choreographic approaches in their films – sometimes without even realising it.

Springback at Szerpentin 2019

The Act of Breathing, winner of both the Best Film Award and the Hungarian Shorts Audience Award, was Hana Yamazaki’s diploma work for Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design. In her thank you speech, she credited Pintér and his festivals for encouraging her to make dance films herself.

An experimental animation, the film revolves around the physical and emotional qualities of breathing. It starts with enigmatic pictures of moving, rolling, ‘breathing’ plastic sheets, rendered weirdly unnatural through the animation technique. Later, a human body (dancer Gabriella Bathó) becomes more and more apparent through the plastic material, and it becomes clear that it is her body and breathing that animate the veil. At the end of this poetic story of unfolding, Bathó finally lets the veil fly away and stands motionless.

[Video no longer viewable: Hana Yamazaki (HU): The Act of Breathing]

The International Shorts Audience Award went to the Spanish film Timecode, which also won the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film in Cannes 2016 and was even an Academy Award nominee for Best Live Action Short Film in 2017. You can see why Juanjo Giménez Peña’s picture is such a favourite among audiences and juries: the most classically narrative film at Szerpentin (almost the only one), it tells a complete tale in 15 minutes, with heart and humour. Through a series of coincidences, two parking lot security guards (one woman, one man) are surprised to find that they share a secret passion: dance. Their story shows that all we need to really connect is not words but movements – and perhaps a few well-placed CCTV timecodes.

Timecodes also play an important role in track32, directed by Hungarian István Illés. Two dancers face each other from opposite sides of a busy highway, but sometimes we see them only through the lens of CCTV cameras. Tension grows as they manoeuvre towards one another through traffic lanes and frantically honking cars. Finally they meet in the middle, and engage in a dangerous and highly calculated duet. With just one wrong move, we learn what it can mean to be lost too deeply in dance and in another’s eyes. The atmosphere of constant danger is underlined by Nine Inch Nails’ Track 32 from their album series Ghosts, and by Beatrix Simkó’s sharp choreography.

István Illés (HU): track32

A lot of films in the selection, especially the French ones, placed dancers into unusual, mostly urban spaces; yet the location often seemed to serve a more decorative than functional purpose. By contrast, Overground – Dancing Cities Budapest takes this approach to the next level. The French All We Can Do Is Dance project has already visited several cities in Europe, shooting short films with dancers and choreographers, always improvised in a single shot, that are as much portraits of the dancers as of the cities themselves. Last autumn All We Can Do arrived in Budapest at the invitation of Parallel, and filmed with 10 dancers at locations ranging from hotel ballroom to tram station, airport passageway to riverbank. Overground is a 20-minute distillation of that work, and can be taken both as a crash course in Hungarian contemporary dance and as a unique guided tour through the city.

[Video no longer viewable: Overground: Dancing Cities Budapest (FR/HU)]

The winner of the International Shorts Best Film Award was Günni, directed by Hä*Wie!? Collective & Nils Löfke from Germany. It too plays with urban spaces, but in a very different way. This is one of those films that doesn’t feature actual dance at all, but very much takes a choreographic approach to movement and space. The tricky camera angles have the effect that at first we can’t fully grasp the spaces we see on screen; only through moving objects or people do they become clear. Everyday movements are taken out of context and come across grotesque and constructed, while people get into formations against geometric shapes of walls, pavements, fences or lawns. All this playfulness is matched by a soundscape that doesn’t seem to fit at all: animal noises, gunshots and screams form the background to this witty movement experiment.

[Video no longer viewable: Günni, directed by Hä*Wie!? Collective & Nils Löfke (DE)]

Many dance films originate as adaptations of stage works, but Le Faune, by French-born choreographer Joseph Simon, is much more than that: it is a fresh and modern reinterpretation of Nijinsky’s legendary piece. Four modern-day nymphs dance in a white, minimalistic ballet studio, while the camera directs our gaze through bare legs. It is almost voyeuristic, as if from the point of view of the faun himself. The weird eroticism of Nijinsky’s choreography is reinterpreted here through blurred images, close-ups of naked body parts and the intimate chatter of the nymphs, who share sexual fantasies and daydream about the faun. Debussy’s music merges with a new score by Jimmi Jo Hueting, and the poetic, almost fog-like whiteness makes a strong visual impact.

[Video no longer viewable: Joseph Simon: Le Faune (FR)]

60 Seconds Dance is an international online competition co-produced by three partners from Finland, Denmark and Norway for one-minute dance films – a format that almost seems to have become a genre of its own. Some of these films made it to Szerpentin. Bang, by Jan Vesela from Denmark/Sweden – which won the Finnish and Norwegian finals of the 2018 online competition – even got a jury’s Special Mention Award in the International Shorts category. The clashing bodies of the two dancers evoke a lot of metaphorical meanings; even Marina Abramović and Ulay’s performance Relation in Space comes to mind. Naked skin, long eye-contact and an embrace gone wrong – that’s a lot of drama for just 60 seconds.

Jan Vesela’s 60-second short film Bang (DK/SE)

Beside the film screenings, Szerpentin also offered some extras, including an improvisation dance event by Willany Leó collective in cooperation with visual artist Martha Kicsiny, and the artist talk and archive film screening ‘Then’, marking the 30th anniversary of the end of the communist era in Hungary. The next edition of the festival is planned for 2021, but in the meantime Pintér has an exciting time ahead: the Hungarian selection of short films will travel to festivals all around the world, while more and more artists are asking for his help in developing and realising their dance film ideas as well. His most important and perhaps most challenging task will be to find funding opportunities and co-producing partners for his many plans. 

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Budapest, Hungary