Editor’s Note: Choreographer Meryl Murman, whose work has been presented in NYC, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Austin, London, Madrid, Berlin, Nice, Johannesburg, South Africa, and most recently at the Contemporary Art Center’s 40th Anniversary Season in New Orleans with The Lipstick, nominated for a 2016 Big Easy Award for Outstanding Choreography, has ventured into the intersection of dance and film. Dancer and writer Lydia Straka recently talked with Meryl about kinesthetic cinema and Meryl’s upcoming projects.
Q: On your website, you view dance as an exploration and an experiment; you even have a research tab describing terminology such as “dance as a wound” and “sound body.” Which of these concepts do you investigate in le Pain and in ways of forgetting?
A: Probably all of them in different ways and different capacities. One of the things that’s specific about le Pain and ways of forgetting, in terms of the entire body of my work, is that they’re both film. So, this concept of “kinesthetic cinema,” which is something that defines my work in film, is primary.
Basically, kinesthetic cinema is in some ways a really academic way of saying action movies. But, when you say action movies people automatically think of what’s contemporarily become that genre in terms of violence, lots of shoot outs, car chases, and things like that. I’m a little more interested from an academic and also just curious standpoint in what really denotes an action movie. I’ve read a lot of research that questions whether that’s even really a genre. Action movies don’t tend to have such a cohesive, thematic thrust.
At any rate, kinesthetic cinema, especially what I define that as, is a holistic cinema practice where everything comes from the body… right down to how I direct the camera and how I edit. Sometimes, obviously, I speak to my cinematographer or my editor, but the primary resource, mode of communication, and way of doing things… happens through physical actions and reactions in real time. That’s pretty key, I think, to both of those projects.
Q: I think the idea of dance research can be difficult to grasp because usually it’s thought of as scientific and strictly academic. How does one conduct dance research?
A: All sorts of different ways. When I started to work in film, I was curious about this intersection of film and dance. It’s something that began for me in high school. I was dancing for a TV show that was being shot locally in Cleveland, where I grew up. The choreographer didn’t show up on set one day, and the director randomly selected me from among the dancers to step in as the choreographer on the spot. He realized pretty quickly that I was making some really interesting choices as far as how to compose movement in the frame.
Later, I invited filmmakers, cinematographers, editors, lighting designers, and production designers to come take movement classes. I did this in New Orleans about seven years ago. Most of them had never danced before. I was just teaching them the basics of movement. It wasn’t so much actual dance steps as much as just how to fall onto the ground, how to release, how to give weight, how to share weight, and how to move fluidly up and down your spine.
From there, I started to bring dancers into the lab, too, so we had dancers and film people in the lab together. The people who work in film took what they know about film, and the people who work as dancers took what they know about dance, as professionals finding some sort of new, interesting common ground between the two.
One thing that very quickly people who worked as cinematographers were realizing, including the guy who shot le Pain and ways of forgetting, Christian Hardy, is that there’s so much that he learned in the dance classes that directly influenced his job on Hollywood sets. When having to operate a crane and follow subjects, like wild horses or children who don’t necessarily do things that they’re told to do, you are operating this enormous instrument, and you can’t kill them. You want to get a good shot, so you really have to physically be able to anticipate what they’re doing. So, having weekly practice of physically anticipating through improvisation someone else’s movement is just a healthy exercise.
Q: Moving on to some questions about film, I saw on your portfolio that le Pain started as a staged duet. In my experience, when you film choreography it can lose a lot of the energy and depth that comes across in person. With this in mind, what adjustments did you make to le Pain when transforming it into a film?
A: That’s been an ongoing question and interest of mine. [Dance on film] was often very unsatisfying–why is this not as flattering on film as it is in real life?
Your perception as a dancer is really different even from someone who is sitting a few feet away or several feet away watching. I was really interested in…bringing the audience into the experience of what it’s like to be moving with that person. That’s something that cinema can do that is harder in a live performance. I think when people think of choreographers, they think that choreographers are the people who make the dance steps. Equally, if not more important, is how we compose the space and the viewer’s experience of the movement. So, kinesthetic cinema became finding ways where a cinematographer is dancing with the dancers, rather than the prime language of film based in the gaze, based in someone seeing, capturing, and shooting a subject through that visual point.
The edit is even more complicated because it takes something that’s alive. Live performance is finite. It happens in the moment, and it’s gone, and it will never happen again. With the edit you’re making something infinite. You’re choosing what that movement is, and then it’s endlessly reproducible.
One thing you’ll see in action movies is there are often times a lot more cuts. I take that to the extreme. There are so many cuts sometimes in a given second, to the point that that if I went to film school, they’d probably be like “Oh my god, what the fuck are you doing?” I’m interested in fracturing the body and… literally showing the viewer every time the body shifts its weight or every aspect of the movement. It’s fun. It’s almost like you’re controlling a puzzle or a puppet–if my arm goes here and then it releases down there [moving arm diagonally across chest], I’m following that shot by shot by shot. It creates, then, this sense of movement.
I do play with breaking the gaze, directly addressing the camera, and flipping the notion of what film even is and what performance is. What performance is factors into my performances, so inevitably what performance is and what film is factor into my films. I’m not afraid to reveal the apparatus of this being a film set and this being fabricated. I look at… how we can peel the layers away to get to something potentially more authentic. Is there even authenticity in anything we do? I mean, we ourselves are performing 24/7, but we perform different version of ourselves in different situations. This is something I’m always looking at in all of my work, but when you add film there’s an additional layer of what is this thing that we’re doing.
Looking at action films, so much of it is about… the spectacle of the body, which is fascinating for someone who comes from a somatic practice. There’s often this spectacularization of the male body. People often ask me “Why do you work so much with men when you’re female?” I do work with women as well, and I feel like my films are incredibly feminine and come from a feminine standpoint. If we constantly leave the hegemonic, dominant side of the equation unaddressed, it just remains this dominant, hegemonic thing. Truth be told, masculinity is… very fluid and not one thing, but it’s so often represented as one thing. I’m very interested in how can we take the spectacle of the male body and disrupt popular notions of what that means and looks like in order to say something about what it means to be female in contemporary society. It takes a few more leaps of people’s imaginations, but there’s actually something really relevant there. The films are extraordinarily personal, but they’re being channeled through other bodies and other sources.
As part of a kickstarter campaign for her current project, “ways of forgetting”, Meryl Murman’s film “le Pain” will be screened at Santos (1135 Decatur St.) on Tuesday, July 11th at 9:00 PM. “le Pain” was an official selection at East End Film Festival London (won Audience Choice Award), Madrid International Film Festival (won best editing award), St Tropez International Film Festival, Washington DC Independent Film Festival. It also recently screened at Anthology Film Archives in NYC as part of RADAR NYC: Exchanges in Dance Film Frequencies. To support and learn more about Meryl as well as her new project, “ways of forgetting,” visit https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2103592602/ways-of-forgetting?ref=creator_nav