In December I finished teaching a new module/course in screendance at Roehampton Dance. It’s for final (3rd) year students and is in the ‘choreography’ bracket of the undergraduate programme. You can see the module blog at http://screendanceautumn2012.wordpress.com. I’d like to discuss three things in relation to the module: technology, problem-based learning, and their interests.
The temptation in teaching screendance (or perhaps any choreography module that has a reasonably tight relationship to video and/or digital technology) is to lean heavily on skill development for the students. It occurs to me, however, that there are only five skills students need to begin to work with and develop ideas:
- power a camera on and off (although not necessary if they use their phones) and recharge battery
- transfer/ingest media from camera to computer with whatever software is available (we used FCPX)
- export to Vimeo and/or YouTube
Of course we did work with other skills – sound, tripods, handheld cameras etc – but I was inspired by how quickly the students were up and running with cutting short videos and although they certainly ran into software and hardware troubles, mostly they found a way to make it work.
This is how I’d like to imagine technology working – that it simply dissolves into the background so that aspiring screendance makers can deal with their materials and ideas, and not with technological complexity (which they can approach later in their working lives).
In the module, the students and I focused on looking at a lot of films (and searching for films they hadn’t seen, and then watching them in ways that they might not be used to), and using problem-based tasks for them to develop short studies. One particularly strong task was led by a guest lecturer – Gemma Donohue – who had them used disposable film-based cameras to shoot a series of stills that they built into films in FCPX. For some students, they had never used a camera with which you couldn’t immediately see the ‘results’ of your photograph. Gemma worked with them on a range of approaches to light and framing, and backed up the mini-project with a feast of visually-oriented books on photography and film.
I took a deliberately open approach to the kinds of films the students might make. In other words, although we spent time discussing what screendance might be (or has been historically), they were encouraged to think of choreography as being a very broad range of approaches to thinking about – and working with – things like framing, editing, subject matter, camera movement, physical action and sound. The students ended up making very few conventional screendance films (by this I mean making films that are ‘about’ (or involve) people dancing), and they seemed to be happy to defend their work as being screendance in many different forms.
The ambition and commitment of the students to follow their interests was exciting but part of me worries how the term ‘screendance’ might start to lose value if any or all films can be viewed (or defended!) as screendance. What are the alternatives? To keep teaching screendance within a very harrow definition of the kinds of films that should be made? Or to risk undermining a discipline that is still finding its feet within dance, visual art and cinematic traditions?