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By Jennifer Edwards
Dance, Film, and Creative Process
This past summer, Skidmore College students and their professor explored what it means to fully give over to a collaborative process, and to do so while making something unchangeable and concrete. Brought together through the college’s Faculty/Student Summer Research Program, Rubén Graciani led four of his students in creating two dance films that they collectively choreographed, shot, and edited on and around the Skidmore campus.
Graciani, who teaches modern and contemporary ballet technique, among other courses, performed with the Mark Morris Dance Group, Kevin Wynn Collection, and Joe Goode Performance Group before joining the Skidmore faculty in 2008. He now makes work through his newly formed company, RG Dance Projects. Though he generally creates large, movement-rich pieces for the stage, he has recently become interested in making dance films.
Skidmore students Corry Ethridge and Emily Pacilio during the filming of Complete This Work Which We Began. Courtesy RG Dance Projects.
The two films that he made at Skidmore last summer, he says, “evolved from a slow accumulation of ideas that coalesced into each individual film. I knew I wanted a stark and/or limiting environment. And I knew I wanted the characters to be struggling with their ability to connect to one another.” Inspired by a section of Alfred Schnittke’s choral symphony called Complete This Work, he began to think about “those moments of disconnection between two people, when both are looking at the same issue but see two distinctly different things.” From this grew the film Complete This Work Which We Began.
“I just thought we would follow Professor Graciani’s direction and make a piece,” says Corry Ethridge, a double major in psychology and dance who performs in Complete This Work, which is set outdoors in a massive sand pile. The process, however, turned out to be much more complex, extending far beyond the studio, media lab, and filming sites. The students formed close relationships, eating their meals together and spending every day together for two months.
This closeness served the process well, as other factors were in constant flux. The sand pile was being moved, with a backhoe, over the course of the project; every morning, when the dancer-filmmakers arrived on site, their set was completely different from the day before. “There was always this feeling of, We don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re going for it,” says dance major Emily Pacilio, who graduated in the spring and was Ethridge’s partner in Complete This Work.
“You can do things on film that you can’t do in a live performance,” she adds. Complete This Work opens with the dancers moving in reverse, and both films speed up and suspend movement, creating cinematic, emotional environments reminiscent of how one might piece together the recollection of an encounter. As viewers, we see well-crafted vignettes that lead us from intimate gestures to full-bodied motion, coming together in a logical but non-linear fashion.
The second film, Terra Arcana, also a duet, was shot in and around a lake. Graciani says it was a challenge to transplant the choreography (created on dry land) into water. “At first it looked like the dancers were just swimming,” he recalls. Even though they had rehearsed in a pool on campus, there were different constraints in the lake and much had to be changed on the spot.
This example of ceding control and giving everyone an active voice in the process had a huge impact on his students. “Synthesizing five viewpoints into one film was very difficult but highly gratifying,” says John Schneider, an economics major and dance minor featured in Terra Arcana. “I’m so excited by the attention the films are getting—we’ve submitted them to festivals, and our college is focusing school-wide attention on our work.” Additionally, a paper written by the group was presented along with the films at the Upstate New York Undergraduate Research Conference in September.
For Cameo Lethem, a double major in dance and neuroscience who was Schneider’s partner in Terra Arcana, the experience was a chance to learn about performance quality. “There was no audience to respond to—instead we listened and responded to the environment and then tried to translate that into something interesting for the viewer.”
For Graciani, teaching his students to adapt in the moment was rewarding. “My favorite quote is a Buddhist saying: ‘Leap and the net will appear,’” says Graciani. “It’s how I create—take the leap, trusting that you are onto a solid idea, and then see what happens without being afraid to make 90-degree turns from your original idea, if that is where the process leads you.”