Mid-week Maya: Ensemble for Somnambulists (1951) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Mid-week Maya: Ensemble for Somnambulists (1951)

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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 Ensemble for Somnambulists.

Ensemble for Somnambulists - 1951I’ve made my love of dance movies no secret in the five years writing for this site, and part of the joy of watching Maya Deren’s films is getting an idea of where the genesis of these movies and routines originates.  Ensemble for Somnambulists continues in the excellent tradition of Meditation on Violence and A Study in Choreography for Camera.  But those films used, to great effect, environments which can easily exist.  There is some subjective travel within the editing, but the motions and images within the frame  could be found in just about any town.

What makes Ensemble for Somnambulists so exciting is how Deren constructs an impossible environment and still finds ways for the performers to interact within and on it.  The harsh polarization of the film stock is important to this, as the figures appear as ghosts within a sea of darkness, and it’s impossible to tell whether they are floating or coming into contact with ground which can’t be readily seen.  The biggest hint involves the tilt from a collection of lights as stars to the darkness from which the performers emerge.  “Somnambulists”, after all, are essentially sleepers in motion and we are not accustomed to seeing people act out their dreams.

But this is precisely what makes Ensemble for Somnambulists so beautiful.  With the camera, stock, environment and dress of the performers they are able to act out their dreams without going to sleep.  This makes the title another in Deren’s canon which has a double-meaning.  The ensemble is both for dreamers as observers, as the starry transition and bright figures like wisps of a deep dream, and dreamers as dancers, able to act on their impulses in an environment they could not “realistically” visit.

This is why it’s so important Deren unmoor the camera and blend the figures together.  Gravity does not seem to have a hold on these dancers as they twirl in the air and seem to twist around an infinite expanse of space.  When they do collide it is not with the ground but each other, and their bright bodies seem to fuse and come apart like cells combining then splitting.  Whether one or many they are able to move and exist as a single unit in perpetual harmony, setting a peaceful tone which was only occasionally brought into view in Deren’s previous two dance films.

So Ensemble for Somnambulists takes on a third meaning, providing a literal instruction on how to accomplish art within the impossible.  When Deren made this film the earth was six years away from launching its first satellite into orbit.  But Deren anticipates a weightless space and with the beautiful choreography and images shows how such a weightless performance may exist.  It will not be of the performers battling against one another, as any push would send them into oblivion, nor the environment, as there may be little to be had, but rather to move as a peaceful and perpetually shifting organism.  Deren creates a nearly genderless, race free, beautiful experience unmoored from gravity with Ensemble for Somnambulists – as much a wonderful philosophy as it is an experience.

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Posted by Andrew

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