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Screening times

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Image from International Screendance Festival Freiburg, Germany. Photo © Franck Boulègue
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As Covid has brought screened dance and screendance into close proximity, four screendance curators look at the dynamics between them

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The seemingly relentless march of digital media into our everyday lives has only been accelerated by the global coronavirus pandemic. More than ever before, we shop online, work online, communicate online. Dance has, of necessity, shifted online too.

Screened dance or screendance?

In some ways, this is nothing new: dance and film have been partners since the beginning of cinema, and ‘screendance’ has developed into its own distinct art form. ‘Screendance, in a very wide definition, consists of choreography that’s been created specifically for the screen, and directly in collaboration with audio visual materials,’ says Marisa Hayes, a screendance specialist and the co-curator of the International Video Dance Festival of Burgundy, France. ‘In the 40s, Maya Deren, a seminal figure in the development of the genre, said that a filmdance’ – specific terms have changed over time – ‘is a dance that cannot exist anywhere else outside the film.’

In short, Hayes is pointing towards the difference between screened dance and screendance. For many, the former – making recordings of live performance available on the internet – is problematic. Much stage work does not translate well into the digital space, yet as an economical way of showing dance for presenters and audiences alike, there is the worry that screened dance will replace live performance. This has been exacerbated by strides forward in livestreaming and scheduled viewings that somewhat recreate the collective sense of theatre. Streaming’s potential to reach wider, global audiences without touring-induced carbon emissions also can’t go unnoted.

A chance to experiment

Regardless of their take on screened dance, many artists have been turning to the screendance during the pandemic: an artform that allows them to create work that will be seen in the medium it was made for. This experimentation has been encouraged by dance organisations, who are offering funding, commissions, and online screendance workshops. ‘In November we had so many requests to join our workshops that we couldn’t fit everyone in: 40 people applied and there were only 15 slots. We ran an extra one in December to accommodate the interest,’ says Adriana Almeida Pees, director of dance at Theater Freiburg in Germany, which is also home to its own International Screendance Festival.

This new-found interest is largely welcomed by the screendance community. ‘Screendance is perhaps used to a sort of modus operandi of being a niche, or the poor cousin of other artforms. Now, there’s potential to expand and diversify, and to reach across to popular culture,’ says UK-based Claudia Kappenberg, founder editor of the International Journal of Screendance citing the BBC/Netflix crime drama Giri/Haji’s concluding dance scene as an example of screendance infiltrating mainstream media.

Some, however, are wary of screendance being viewed as second best to live performance. ‘There are many artists who have been working in screendance for years, who have been trying to encourage appreciation of the medium as something different from live dance, not in competition with it,’ says Hayes. Furthermore, Kappenberg argues that ‘in the history of the arts there has always been this idea that photography would be the death of painting, or that cinema would be the death of theatre. This has never come to pass. So screendance won’t be the death of live dance, ever. It would be great if they collaborated more.’

Fenia Kotsopoulou, This Dance Has No End (GR/UK, 2018), film still Daz Disley (from Grounded festival 2020). Photo courtesy of the artist
Fenia Kotsopoulou, This Dance Has No End (GR/UK, 2018), film still Daz Disley (from Grounded festival 2020). Photo courtesy of the artist


Collaborations between screendance and live dance do already exist. Adrienne Brown, for example, directs Wicklow Screendance Laboratory, a festival located just outside of Dublin, Ireland. ‘It straddles film and live dance. It’s very important for me to still have dancers in the space,’ she explains. ‘There’s no difficulty in bringing the two together, it’s all about the art of dance for me.’

Screendance can also help choreographers reshape their approach to documentation. ‘In the theatre we experience the surge of energy that happens on stage. That can really get lost in the recording process,’ says Hayes. ‘With screendance, we’re saying that instead of being loyal to how we view dance on stage, which is a wide angle shot, we might actually be more true to the nature of the work by using close ups and camera movement to gain certain dynamics, energy, and feelings.’ A prime example was English National Ballet’s Winter 2020 digital season, which saw choreographers who were supposed to show work as part of their Reunion programme at Sadler’s Wells – including Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Akram Khan, Stina Quagabeur, and Russell Maliphant – collaborate with directors to reimagine their creations for screen.


While more sustainable through the global pandemic, screendance is still facing challenges. ‘Makers can’t assemble large casts of dancers and technicians together,’ says Hayes. As a result, many have resorted to low tech models and collaborated at a distance using methods such as the exquisite corpse. ‘It’s kind of a collage effect, where one person will contribute a segment, send it down to the next person, and make it almost like a chain letter.’ While this method has achieved viral success on social media – take Matthew Bourne’s reimagining of his production The Red Shoes as an example – it is questionable whether these types of films would be able to find other modes of distribution. ‘High-tech aesthetic values are still important to a lot of film festivals,’ says Hayes.

Methods of presentation have also altered. ‘It’s not just theatre people who are missing out on live performances, film people are missing the excellent conditions of seeing a cinema screening and the collective experience that that represents,’ says Hayes. ‘An overwhelming majority of screendance works are intended to be shown in a cinema: just because they are moving images doesn’t mean they can be transplanted onto the internet,’ she adds. ‘You also have installations where there may be another visual element or sound element that accompanies the work. You wouldn’t be able to propose that sort of setup online.’

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Final Cut Pro image with dancer on wooden floor
Image courtesy of Wicklow Screendance Laboratory, Ireland

The need for curation

As a result, curators of virtual screendance festivals need to think carefully about whether the work they feature will lose certain qualities in a digital context. ‘Curated programmes are constructed with care. They allow us to develop a certain line of thought, explore a certain theme, and to contextualise work in a certain way, maybe accompanied by presentations, conversations, or text,’ says Hayes.

Kappenberg was involved in two such curated festivals during lockdown last year. Grounded, her own online season of screendance, was hosted by Coastal Currents (UK) and co-curated by Fiontán Moran from the Tate Modern. ‘The audience numbered roughly 1600 people for the five programmes we presented. We could never have achieved this in a cinema in Brighton or London.’

Kappenberg was also involved in South East Dance’s Vision 2020 programme, which saw artists from the UK organisation’s autumn season recommend screendance works to be shared on their website with written commentaries. ‘I was part of one of the programmes’ online conversations with Cara Hagan, who was in the US at the time. People from as far afield as Argentina joined us,’ she says. ‘We were a completely international group talking together on screen. It was very beautiful, this sense of community.’

Not all online screendance videos are part of intricately curated programmes. The alternative sees individual artists upload their works to ‘websites like YouTube, where you are free to look and discover, which can be really interesting,’ says Hayes. In this context, however, Brown is concerned that ‘the audience may be fickle, that works aren’t seen in their entirety, and that great works may get lost in the vastness of the internet.’

Digital fatigue

With so many online dance offerings available, many audiences are developing ‘digital fatigue.’ ‘I’ve noticed it myself. People have sent me links to streamings that I know are going to be good, but for the three hours I have free in the evening, I don’t want to be looking at a computer screen before I work on it again in the morning,’ says Brown. She does concede that ‘younger people are already used to watching things online, I think it’s more natural for them.’

In order to combat ‘digital fatigue,’ a process of helping audiences to become ‘screendance literate’ may be in order. ‘One of the biggest risks that we run is audiences not appreciating to what extent the camera and the editing are part of the choreographic process,’ says Hayes. ‘These days, they are often done by the dancers themselves, who bring a certain choreographic gaze and understanding to the project.’ Yet Kappenberg thinks we should not underestimate audiences. ‘There are a lot of literate audiences out there. We all understand we are in a difficult time. The whole world has had to change. Perhaps this sense of looking anew is something people are more prepared to do.’

Camera person and dancer, vertical shot. Workshop at Video Dance Festival of Burgundy, France. Photo © Franck Boulègue
Workshop at Video Dance Festival of Burgundy, France. Photo © Franck Boulègue


But what will happen after the pandemic eventually ends? Will screendance return to cinemas and leave the online realm it has been adapting to? ‘I really hope that we’ll be able and maintain some of the positive aspects of streaming technology in terms of accessibility and reaching different audiences,’ says Hayes. Her festival in Burgundy, for example, is hoping to re-establish in person showings and workshops, but offer online alternatives for those unable to travel for budgetary and geographic reasons.

And what of screendance’s new audiences? Will their pandemic-induced interest in the art form continue once theatres reopen? Or will it have been a temporary substitute for the live experience? I think we’ll see a decrease in online screenings, as people will be keen to swap sofas for plush velvet theatre or cinema seats. But of necessity, makers and audiences have realised the potential of screendance as a medium, and have become more adept at producing high quality artworks: compare the grainy videos we saw back in March 2020 of creatives choreographing in their living rooms to the slick, edited films we’re now being presented with. One can only imagine what strides forward we may witness over the months of Covid restrictions to come. 

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