F is for Fantasy: Breaking Down 26 Filmic Gestures into a New Typology

On Thursday, March 3rd at 8:00pm at The Alchemical Laboratory The Bellwether will present “ACTION!”, a work by choreographer and filmmaker Sarah Friedland and collaborators that explores a new filmic dance typology. This typology is built on intensive research of iconic film gestures (i.e. hours of watching and rewatching lovers kiss, vampires bite, wizards falling to their deaths, and at least 23 other genre-associated gestures for each letter of the alphabet), collaboration with illustrator Diane Zhou, and live choreography with dancer Jenny Sevy and sound artist Assaf Gidron.

As a dancer and film watcher myself, I often feel that some of the dance that captivates me most (both performing and watching) is dance that is able to evoke the same level of emotional grandeur and intensity as a film. When I learned about Sarah’s work I was curious to know: how was she breaking down that emotional intensity? How did she begin the process of digesting those emotional narratives via a physical language? Here’s what she has to say:

Diane Zhou

Diane Zhou

Angela: Why film? Why film gestures?

Sarah: So, I’m a filmmaker as well as a choreographer. For a long time, working in both spaces, I always found myself exploring the link between the two. At some point, I came to notice the way in which film narrative is drawn through physical movement, and that movement is choreographed.

For example, you know that moment in Titanic when Rose is at the prow of the ship with her arms out and Jack is behind her? I started observing that when I went to places with high elevation, I would often see people physicalizing that moment, trying to approach the feelings they remembered having when watching the film. I became fascinated with exploring how bodies describe that relationship.

Angela: How did you go about choosing genres for each letter of the alphabet?

Sarah: To start with, I decided upon genre because I realized that the gestures that stood out to me were generally closely attached to genre. That gesture of a cowboy getting shot belongs to the Western genre for example. So basically, gestures are tied to genre. Gestures are generic.

At the same time, I began to notice through this study of genre that gestures are not necessarily wed monogamously to one genre. For example, the way a man draws a gun in a cowboy film is not totally different from the way a man draws a gun in an investigative drama. So part of the work became trying to figure out where there were distinctions in movement among genres, and where there weren’t.

Another important piece of selecting genres for me was the history of gesture. In doing initial research, I came across existing film typology that usually renders movements as poses of an isolated part of the body. A literal description of a movement’s meaning is attached to the typology’s visual representation. So when I thought about how I would approach iconic gestures, I was thinking about how to animate typology and how I could deconstruct gestures. The alphabet seemed like the right way to organize gestures.

So to your question about how I selected genres for the alphabet, I already had five or so genres in mind that I knew I wanted to explore. There were also a few that simply made sense by nature of how physically they are described in film. I then filled in the rest according to genres for which I could imagine movements. There were a few letters of the alphabet that were tricky, so those few are a bit of a stretch. “x” for example, there just aren’t that many genres that start with the letter “x”! I went for “Extraterrestrial” as a compromise.


Lord of the Rings Fellowship of the Ring, Alien 3, and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Stills: Lord of the Rings Fellowship of the Ring, Alien 3, and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Angela: I’d love to dive into the process of how you broke down iconic gestures. For example the for letter “f.” Why did you choose falling as the iconic gesture to describe fantasy?

Sarah: For me, falling is an example of a gesture that cuts across the whole genre of fantasy. There are so many different kinds of fantasy films, but the gesture of falling seems to be reflected in most if not all of those kinds. Falling is an example of how certain basic narratives occur through different physical choreographies in film.

In this case, falling is usually a death. In fantasy, deaths frequently take place from a high point. Protagonists generally fall to their deaths in slow motion, facing upwards, arms outstretched, in a sort of iconic Jesus moment. Interestingly, villains tend to fall to their deaths facing downwards, shoulders rotating forward, and not in slow motion.

Another thing I find fascinating about falling is that it represents film’s ability to imagine the body experiencing other dimensions of time and space that we mostly can’t in life. For me, no matter how much release technique in dance I study, I’ve never experienced the same total weightlessness and floating as in film’s falling fantasy deaths. I find that I move in ways that approximate that sensation, but it seems like I actually have those physical memories. It’s interesting to me that we seem to think we’ve had these physical experiences, but we never have.


Diane Zhou

Diane Zhou

Angela: How did you begin the process of breaking down the iconic falling gesture?

Sarah: The illustrator, Diane Zhou, and I had gotten together to talk about building a dance notation that was filmic. We wanted to create a new notation that would draw upon filmic approaches to describing movement – storyboards for example – while at the same time updating existing gesture typology. It was through that conversation that we came up with parameters for how we would build the notation.

So, when I selected the falling gesture, I did a lot of research and selected three film clips that I felt best captured the gesture I was interested in. I sent those three film clips to Diane along with an accompanying written description of how I would explain the falling movement to a dancer. We then went back and forth a bunch to sort through details of the illustration – are arms straight or bent? Is the head this way or that way? And so forth. We decided on arms outstretched with the body getting smaller and smaller. We wanted to be sure to evoke as many iterations of the gesture as we could without limiting the illustration to just one version of falling.

Angela: How did you communicate the illustrated breakdown of the fantasy fall with your dancer, Jenny Sevy?

Sarah: I think there are two answers to that. In the past when working with film gestures and dancers, I would have some examples of the gesture for the dancers to watch, have a conversation with them about their physical memories of the gesture, and then I would articulate verbally how I understood the physical progression of the gesture. From there we would play with memories of those gestures and understanding how those did or didn’t change the physicalization of that gesture.

For Thursday’s performance, part of the sound score for the show is me speaking the written description I had sent to Diane for the illustrations. So for example, “Rotate the arms, tilt the head back slightly…” and so on. As performers (myself and one other dancer), we then physically respond to those verbal descriptions. Through the progression of the piece, we explore the process of choreography, live, that I would have practiced with dancers in the studio in the past. So, bringing our physical memories of the gesture to bear.

In the first moment of the fantasy fall, you see the head go back, a beautiful rolling of the top of the head until the body goes, arms outstretched. In the piece, we focus on that beginning moment. Part of what’s interesting to me about falling is the question of what happens when you physically can’t accomplish a gesture (in this case falling)? What do you do with it? I find, for example, that I can create that feeling of weightlessness for myself for just a moment through breath, the top of the back…

Angela: What’s next for you after this project?

Sarah: Well, in the immediate “next,” I’ll be revisiting this piece with the new knowledge gained through the process of making it. For me, this piece was a really good way to return to detailed research of tracking gestures in film. I had been working with five or six genres for a while, and for this piece I worked with twenty-six. It really expanded the way I look at these topics.

Also, I’m really interested in the question of how can we uncouple the gesture from the body designed as the right body to perform it? So, for example, what happens when a cowboy’s shooting gesture is performed by a woman? What happens when a kiss is performed by two queer bodies?

In the almost-immediate “next,” I’ll be directing a music video for a local band, which will be an interesting opportunity to engage with new knowledge gained from this piece.

In the further-off-in-the-future “next,” I’d really like to explore using film material as the actual material I choreograph with, rather than using film material as inspiration for choreographing on other bodies. I’d like to explore what it’s like to edit filmic bodies in a way that makes choreographed series of gestures look like a dance. Maybe a cowboy dances with a vampire!

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