Mid-week Maya: A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Mid-week Maya: A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945)

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The films of Maya Deren are widely available online and I will post links when possible.  Here is a link for A Study in Choreography for Camera.

A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945)I have but one observation about A Study of Choreography for Camera which could be taken as a complaint, but think of it more as a question to trigger thinking about the way we name art.  If left to my devices, I would rename the film to A Study of Choreography with Camera.  The "for" to "with" is a crucial change because while dancer and choreographer Talley Beatty is certainly performing for the camera, Maya Deren introduces the most movement in her films to date and creates a film which enters into a partnership with Beatty.

So far, Deren's films have not had much movement of the camera, and the way she conveyed location transitions - no matter how strange - was through carefully selecting venues which follow the dream logic of her lens.  With A Study of Choreography for Camera we find her playing with movement, showing how it can both accentuate the world of the performers, while still finding unique spaces for them to perform in.  It starts with another one of those delightful moments of surprise I've come to anticipate, but am still not fully prepared for, as Deren invisibly edits two panning shots together to watch Beatty meditatively performing in the woods.

The wooded setting can be a disaster for directors who can't find ways to make the surroundings work for them.  But Beatty's dance contains two elements which blend together magnificently with the surroundings.  He keeps his back firm, creating a lovely parallel with a tree, and his limbs are as contorted and stretched out as the trees around him.  They are in harmony with one another, and that harmony continues when he dances off and lands in a home.  Here I was struck by the background design and foreground action finding peace with one another.  Beatty dances against a dark wall, and stops just shy of the border where it turns to white.

Following the logic of the film, Beatty's dance is at peace with the natural, and darker colors.  But when he jumps he begins a curiously vicious set of spins as Deren's camera centers in close to his face.  To this point we have watched Beatty's body in nearly constant full frame, but now we're stuck with him and his furious twirling.  To understand this moment we have to look at the other part of the frame, the white marble bust of a triple-faced Hindu deity.  What once seemed violent is now deeply reverent instead, as Deren stops her camera for the purpose of giving Beatty its full attention as he simulates the god.

Considering Deren's fascination with other cultures, and Beatty's reputation for making politically critical dance routines, the shot ends on a note of harmony.  Both camera and dancer pay their respects, and once this is done it comes as little surprise that the camera follows Beatty in shots which edit him making an impossible leap back to a cliff where he allows his body to rest.  All throughout A Study of Choreography for Camera Deren and Beatty are in a partnership, pacing their energies either in camera motion of strength of dance, to maintain harmony.  The best directors know how to do this, balance the fore and backgrounds with the soundtrack and performances in a way which allows each their space but still working with one another.  Deren's simple experiment accomplishes this wonderfully, and left me wondering what hidden treasures lie in the choreography of Beatty.

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Posted by Andrew

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