Screendance: The Newest Genre

An Interview with John Watson


John Watson is a photographer, videographer and arts promoter based in Eugene, OR who cofounded the Northwest Screendance Exposition in 2015 to encourage the making and viewership of dances created especially for the camera. He discusses the expo as well as the larger implications of dances for film, or screendances, both in terms of choreography and audience.

John Watson


How did the Northwest Screendance Expo get started?

I was the publicity and marketing house manager for the Lane Community College performing arts department. A huge part of that department was the dance program. I set up a Facebook page, got a little camera, and started posting short videos of dancers preparing for concerts. It was supposed to be a “behind the scenes” look at their processes. I went into a rehearsal one day for a faculty concert, and saw an amazing multimedia piece that two dancers and a video artist had put together. They were dancing in a spotlight between two scrims that had what they were dancing projected close-up. I looked at that and said, “My God, you can make art with this video stuff! That’s what I want to do!”

I started working with dancers, playing around. I made a couple short films. Then Doreen Carroll, a dancer in town, visited as an invited artist to our faculty concert one year. We hit it off, and she told me she’d like to work with me on a screendance. We were sitting around one day having coffee, asking ourselves what we were going to do once our screendance was finished. We didn’t just want to stick it on YouTube. We knew other people around town who had been making screendances, so we decided to put together a little festival.

That was in 2015 at a local arthouse cinema. We put out a call for entries and were surprised to receive some really cool screendances, even from overseas. The first expo sold out two shows. Doreen left after the second year to go to school, but I took it into the third year, and now we’re looking at year four.

How is the expo organized?

In the past, we’ve had one main event: the short films program. This was shown in the afternoon and evening of one day. The second year, we also opened the festival to documentaries, so we showed the short films in the afternoon, the documentaries in the late afternoon, and then the short films again in the evening. At the end of the evening Q & A, someone suggested it was too much to take in in one day. We couldn’t afford the theater rental for two days, but this past year the University of Oregon offered us the use of their dance theater for two days for only a cut of the box office.

How would you define screendance? Why is it relevant right now?

Screendance is a genre of dance wherein the choreography is created especially to be filmed, and the dance is completed in the camera and editing room. It’s a dance for film that would never have the same impact if it was recreated for the stage.

Every dancer I know under the age of 30 has started playing with screendance. A lot of it is just having fun; dancers will use their smart phones, go out into a field, make a video, and start to stitch together a screendance out of it. Then there are people who are really serious about it, and put together films that take a couple years to finish. Their production value and choreography is really developed.

It’s all in the cinematography, such as using the camera to zoom in, playing with different angles, creating distortions, or following the dancer around. It’s using the camera show more than you could see from a single point perspective.

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Do you feel like there are barriers to entry to making screendance, especially with regards to video editing software?

Most of the screendance artists I see are just dancers filming themselves with a camera. The cinematography is done by dancers by and large because most professional cinematographers don’t understand dance. Some cinematographers are open-minded and willing to work with a choreographer, but dancers, for the most part, are doing it for themselves.

As far as editing, there’s a program called iMovie that is standard on everybody’s mac. That’s where a lot of the screendance work is done. I used to use iMovie before I graduated to Final Cut a few years ago. It’s pretty straightforward to make a screendance on iMovie. Final Cut and Adobe Premiere are somewhat straightforward too, but they have so many choices of things you can do in the program, and that gets confusing to a lot of people.

I don’t see editing being a barrier to entry. Cameras certainly aren’t. If the camera on your phone isn’t good enough, you can go to a used camera store and find a basic camera for cheap. Also, there are incredible film editing programs that can be downloaded straight to your phone. I started with a free phone app called Splice, and I recently switched to another free program called Filmmaker Pro, which lets you crop and color correct right on your phone.

Dance is not as able to be commodified the way visual art, music or movies are. Do you foresee screendance as a remedy to that?

Usually, when people record dance, it’s from a single vantage point, maybe two, but it still records dance on a stage. If choreographers want their work to live beyond the performance, filming the piece is necessary, but it never looks as good as it does from the audience. Several screendance writers have discussed that if you’re watching a film of a dance, you’re watching it once or twice removed from the actual event.

With screendance, it’s not a recording of a performance; it’s a product in and of itself that involves the combination of choreography and cinematography. The point is to create something you’d never see on a stage. We need to find a way to create a connoisseurship so that we can create a market for people to collect screendance. I don’t see any difference in collecting screendances than in collecting classic movies. There are a few compilations of screendance floating around out there, so we’ll see how it grows. It’s all about educating people about what it is.

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What do you envision is the future of screendance?

As our dance artists in their 20s turn 30 and 40, I think we’re going to see screendance become a lot more prevalent and recognized as an art form. There will be more audience appreciation and exposure.

Technology-wise, I am so excited about some of the stuff coming out. Augmented reality is being used in a lot of different fields where some sort of scene or animation is mapped over a visual, like the Pokémon Go game that came out a couple years ago. In my own screendance work, I’m trying to figure out how one might stitch together a virtual reality dance project. The technology is coming.

From there the next question is: How do we get audiences involved? It’s important to find a way to enjoy virtual reality dance collectively, not just downloading it to your computer. Going to a theater and sitting in front of a stage is a huge part of the dance experience. When we figure out how to make that work with virtual reality, I think it’s going to transform dance.

Any other thoughts?

Our significant challenge right now is educating people about screendance. Once they see it, they love it, but explaining it before they see it is trickier. If you say it’s filmed dance, they’ll respond, “Oh I saw a show on TV of the Bolshoi doing the Nutcracker!” So the very first challenge is to come up with a succinct description that will make people interested in this new genre.


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