Standing By: From Dance to Film (Riverside, CA)

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Four female dancers clustered face-to-face on a dark stage bathed in light from above

Performers in Standing By. Still from video

A California native, choreographer Wendy Rogers received National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in Choreography in 1978, 1991-93, and 1995-97. Additional honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Djerassi Artists Program Fellowships, and a Fellowship from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts. Rogers currently serves as a professor on the University of California, Riverside dance faculty. In the press Rogers has been dubbed "a thinking woman's choreographer" (The Bay Guardian) and her work has been lauded as being ". . . as impressive for its intellectual vigor as for cultural references that flickered with the brief intensity of a firefly's light" (San Francisco Chronicle). Circa 1996, Rogers shared her experience with Standing By, which she describes as "a dance borrowing concepts from film that became transformed into a film shaped by live performance."

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Never one for repertory, I am used to dances disappearing, so Standing By has been a remarkable experience. I choreographed the dance for performances in November, 1985, and then jumped at cinematographer Dyanna Taylor's offer to film the dance the following January. We had no idea that considerable "standing by" lay ahead, for the film did not premiere until January, 1996, ten years later.

Unlike a dance, which changes with every performance, the film footage remained exactly the same. Over the decade, Gay blinked at the same moment, the camera watched Allyson and Liz's duet from the same angle, Betsy remained pregnant with her first child. While my life and dancing changed, my former self would appear during the various phases of the project. Collaborating with myself over time proved more difficult than the other artistic partnerships of Standing By. Fortunately, I was ultimately able to talk my Original Choreographer Self out of the documentary approach. With the fresh perspective of editor David Welle, we recomposed the footage using concepts from the dance rather than real time choreography.

I work with people whose ideas delight me, so I rarely notice that as Artistic Director, I retain final say. The experience of dancing shapes my approach to collaboration. Dancing with others requires complex and swift changes between leading and following. There is also an activity that is neither -- it is a sensed synchronicity that cannot be forced or controlled. Good work often emerges from this place, but good work also comes from the skilled give and take around it.

Whether I am working with an editor or a dancer, I look for a partner who can "dance." Although I instigate, direct, and select, the dancers are fully involved in making movement and decisions. I experience working with composers, designers, and other artists as extended conversation, literally through our words, and figuratively as we respond to the material we make and show to one another.

We had a great time making the dance Standing By in the first place. Lighting designer Lisa Hefferman and I had both been working in film, noticing the theatrical potential of all the unintended scenes of a film shoot: the overlapping activities; the manipulations of light for the camera; the complex interactions of people working together or -- just as often -- not working together. In film production, discrete, hyper real pieces of world are created to fit the camera's frame, often in bizarre contrast to surroundings. During the long hours between moments of ACTION!, I began lifting ideas for Standing By.

Deciding to borrow the temporal format of prime time television, I watched The Facts of Life six weeks in a row with a stopwatch. I found the KRON-TV programmer willing to talk with me over the phone to explain the guidelines governing station ID, title sequence, number and duration of commercials, and more. From this research, I devised a basic structure.

The PROGRAM of continuously developing dance material was interrupted by SPOTS: short visually punchy, completely unrelated 10, 20, and 30 second dances. Music, originally composed by Greg Ballard, accompanied the PROGRAM. Vivid sound recordings made by Bill Fontana accompanied SPOTS. From Bill's world archive of sound, I selected Hawaiian roosters in the rain, German train station announcements, Australian ship repair, and other evocative sounds, which would give the viewer a strong feeling when combined with a singular visual image, yet would make no literal sense. For this dance, I wasn't interested in the content of film and television, but rather in its sound and rhythm.

Six women dancers dancing would constitute the content. As we made Standing By, we were aware of impending changes in the Wendy Rogers Dance Company. Betsy Claassen, who had danced with me since I formed the company in 1977, was soon to give birth and was leaving. Liz McDonough, who joined in 1979, was moving to New York City with her husband, and Louise Green, who joined in 1984, was moving on to a dance opportunity in Chicago. Allyson Green and Gay White would continue with me after the production to make something new.

Realizing, once again, that the work lives in people who leave, I was experiencing distance from the dancers, even as rehearsal situations remained intimate. In our 30s, the freedom to dance and worry about things later was replaced with responsibilities and decisions. As the first among us to embark into motherhood, Betsy, and her beatific presence in several SPOTS, filled us with anticipation. The choreography focused on movement as movement, and the process of borrowing composition from film. However, our real life situations and self-reflective states permeated the dance, consciously and in ways I only recognized later, in making the film.

Translating the film edit into live dance performance posed great challenges. The format called for an immediate change from the PROGRAM to a SPOT, and then to another SPOT, and so on -- like a television program with commercials. Unable to materialize in a new place instantaneously, the performers needed to enter and exit. This activity completely ruined the effect of film disjunction. So we invented the convention of a ten-second segue in darkness accompanied by the sound of a train moving along tracks to cover the live edit.

Since several SPOTS occur in succession, I located them in isolated, specific stage areas that could be lit one after the other. Stage lighting was used for the PROGRAM, and SPOTS were framed and lit by film lighting equipment and personnel. Crew would enter during the dancing of the PROGRAM. Dancers stayed focused on their dancing without seeming to notice the crew in their midst as [the crew] set up and dismantled lights and props for SPOTS.

Dancers wore a classic version of black leotard and tights for the PROGRAM and changing combinations of white and colored sweats, socks, down vests, and other familiar rehearsal gear for the SPOTS. The costume regimen, designed by Sandra Woodall, was so rigorous during the succession of SPOTS that we had to make time/place charts for each dancer and practice costume changes to get up to speed. Performing the piece was as exciting as a sports event.

We had one weekend to film the dance. Shooting in 16mm color, Dyanna Taylor wisely put the most production value in the SPOTS, which we planned as single takes. Colorful images and singular movement statements, compressed into small spaces and short times, made SPOTS cinematic from the start. The on-stage film lighting had already been designed for the live performance. During the shoot, lighting designer Lisa Hefferman and Dyanna Taylor had the complicated task of lighting for the camera a stage lighting design that included film lighting. We worked to keep the feel of stage lighting. Lisa had designed one section with saturated blue light in a band close to the floor so that the dancers were immersed in it as they crawled, rolled, and undulated. Occasionally, heads and limbs would flash up into a gold light focused just above the blue. Dyanna moved in close to capture the shadowed blue bodies and gold glimpses. Although unusually dark and contrasting, this "dolphin section" was extended through various takes for the film.

It is a good thing that Dyanna had extensive Aikido training and documentary experience. Toward the end of the shoot, as we ran out of time, she winged through sections making inspired improvisational choices. Post production was much less exciting. I worked with two different editors over the next two years. The effort to create a continuous rendering of the dance failed. Then divorce separated me from the abundant film resources of my ex-husband. The miracle of a grant from the Dance Program of the National Endowment for the Arts was followed by a series of amendments and extensions.

Fortunately, David Welle, who has a background in theater and film, took on the task of editing. By that time, I had enough distance from the dance to see the film more clearly. Together we looked at the footage and came up with ideas for a new version, free from the constraints of following the stage production. David understood the non-narrative material. We agreed on a disjunctive style that would reflect the initial investigation of televised programming and the formal device of the film edit that inspired the choreography. We completely let go of the original format.

We began by throwing out long sections of the PROGRAM. The excitement of dancers filling the stage with action dissipated in camera shots wide enough to show them all. Tiny figures in empty space above and below did not register the choreography. The SPOTS and close-ups, solos, duets, and close-together passages of ensemble dancing became the film.

Attention shifted more to the performers. We included shots of dancers, still and close-up, long enough to notice small movements of eye and face. We found ourselves reversing my initial choreographic process, discovering instead opportunities to bring sensibilities of live performance into film. While onstage we had worked to eliminate entrances and exits, we now let the dancers move in and out of the camera frame. These and other devices acknowledged the camera's presence and the interaction of the real time of live performance with the swifter expectations and the non-linear possibilities of film. Material shot as inserts and the variation of takes provided repeated motifs and compositional options for a structure to support the disjunction.

David took the boxes of workprint away and came back with a film that was completely familiar yet full of surprises. We were ready to finish the film at last. That's when we found out that the lab had lost all of the negatives. After several months, all but two crucial rolls were found. Judicious re-edits and film made from the work print eventually solved the loss.

Paul Dresher composed music expressly for the edited film. We preserved sound recordings by Bill Fontana for most of the SPOTS, and Paul's two-part score brought out the new structure of the film. During the course of Standing By, the music overrides the sonic interruptions of SPOTS and plays with the dynamics of the edits as well as the action within the frames. Just as Dyanna and David completely remade the dance with their perception through film, Paul's music changed it again for me.

Working with these artists was a wonderful adventure. I have never worked on a project over such a long span of time. For all the delays and calamities, I would do it again -- some things differently, of course. The next film will be a few minutes long.