A woman walks the streets of Hong Kong, probably on her way to work, until she can't anymore. She drags her feet but they won't move, as though they have been turned into a tree stump. Dancing is the only way forward. She picks herself up and starts all over again, making seemingly regular but abstract movements with her body as it assumes a kind of rhythm. Over the next 10 minutes, we see the familiar through an unfamiliar lens as the film tries to keep up with the character: At one point, as she makes a forward bend, almost touching ground, so does the camera, giving us an upside down view of the world. Featuring striking black and white cinematography, real locations — puddles, crowd, gleaming high-rises — and with a note in the end that connects it to the Hong Kong protests of 2019, Come Rain or Shine (2019, pictured above) is what would be categorised as a dance film, a genre that combines the energy of a live dance performance with the language of cinema.
Dance films have often been a sidebar in festivals in the past, or been showcased online like in 2020, when the dance platform Narthaki showed a collection of films made by choreographers and dancers (the pandemic gave the genre a boost as performers turned to virtual audiences). Manifest is the first attempt in India at a full-fledged, offline festival dedicated to dance films. Organised by an artist couple, Ashavari Majumder and Abhyudyay Khaitan, it screened close to 40 films, including a restored version of Kalpana (1948), directed by the legendary dancer and choreographer Uday Shankar; and Come Rain or Shine, which won a prize at Manifest. Majumder and Khaitan represent the worlds of dance and films respectively. The festival was born out of their shared interest in finding a common ground.
Khaitan explained that there are four kinds of dance films: Recordings of dance performances; documentaries on dance; mainstream feature films with dance as a subject — like Black Swan (2010), or closer home, ABCD (2013) — and films in which dance is the "primary language" of expression. This last category is what Manifest wanted to showcase. Such films can be difficult to follow unless you have an understanding of dance, which has its own coded language, but for those who are not from a dance background, the films can also be an entry point into the art form.
Initially, Khaitan struggled to make sense of dance films. "When you are used to watching narrative-driven films, you know what to expect. But when you are watching these kinds of visuals, it's a fresh perspective on the camera," he said. R Narayan Kumar, a teacher of cinematography who attended Manifest, elaborated on how the camera can give us an experience of dance that watching it on the proscenium cannot. Cameras offer multiple views, like close-ups and top shots, for example, of a dance show on stage. The performance in dance films, on the other hand, largely take place in spaces that range from natural landscape to someone's bedroom. "The challenge for the filmmaker is to represent that space in the best possible way," he said.
When it came to curating the list of films for Manifest, Majumdar and Khaitan often found themselves in disagreement. She'd like the choreography in a particular film while he would argue the film wasn't cinematic enough, or vice versa. There were, however, some films that hit the sweet spot.
One of them was Hyun-Sang Cho's Pin Drop. The 10-minute film unfolds in a cafe with sterile white interiors, full of customers including a group of girls in eye-popping costumes. Most dance films use their wordlessness as a device, but Cho's film finds a narrative reason for it: The characters in Pin Drop don't speak because they are glued to their phones. The dance set piece is part-Hollywood musical, part-K-pop. And like the New Korean Cinema, the film is a mix of social critique and inventive filmmaking, style and humour. Pin Drop was a clear crowd favourite, with a repeat screening on the last day before a Q n A session with the director, who was present in person. (He said that it was originally staged as a play, and that they shot it in a cafe right below their studio).
The other film that jumped out also happened to be Asian. Wong Tan Ki's It's Not My Body: Chapter III features Tan Ki himself, performing miracles with his body for the camera, amplifying them with sound effects, change of lens, editing. The film broadens the definition of dance, likening it to stunt, or physical comedy. With cinematography and editing credits, besides directing and acting, Tan Ki evokes one-man auteur acts like those of Buster Keaton, or Bruce Lee for that matter. It was a reminder that the relationship between the moving body and the film camera goes back a long way.
One of the highlights of the festival was getting to watch Kalpana on the big screen. The film has found a new life after Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation restored it in 2012. Scorsese described the film as "hallucinatory" and one can see why: Indian dance expressions are married to cinematic tricks like superimposition and practical effects (such as a prosthetic arm falling off), as in a dream sequence early on in the film. It's considered India's only feature length dance film — somewhat ironic given how integral song and dance is to Indian cinema.
A screening of Kalpana was a fitting choice for a first of its kind film festival in India that looks at dance films as a genre, but the other Indian selections could have been more dynamic. The pandemic saw dancers and choreographers capitalise on the medium like never before after the shutdown of live performance spaces left them with little choice. The Indian circuit produced a number of films that experimented with the form, and to not have them shown here seemed like a missed opportunity — a bunch of them will be screened online as part of the In/Motion Chicago's International Dance Festival starting August 25. However, Manifest is doing its bit to boost dance filmmaking in India, like selecting a number of dancers and choreographers for an incubation lab where they were mentored by filmmakers like Arjun Gourisaria (Sthaniya Sambaad, 2009) and movement artists like Anita Ratnam to make their own short films. Majumdar and Khaitan hope to make Manifest an annual fixture.