Light breaks around the dancer submerged in darkness — something shifts as the shroud lifts revealing the backdrop of a forest that once seemed like an unlit room. All is not as it seems. Dancer Desmond Richardson breaks free as spare strains of saxophone and a drone of sound set the scene. The struggle is real in Edging Normal, an almost 11-minute film with music by nine-time Grammy Award-nominated saxophonist Dave Koz and classical/popular-music mash-up composer, Steve Hackman. The film debuts Feb. 22 as part of Films.Dance, a series of 15 short films produced by Jacob Jonas the Company. The free film series began January 25 and will premiere a new film online every Monday through May 3 at Films.Dance.
“In the beginning of the pandemic I produced a few short films and realized we could do it safely, and that was the motivation to make this series: how to bring people together, how to make dance visible, and how to leverage this time creatively instead of working against it,” said Jacob Jonas, executive producer of Films.Dance.
Shot during pandemic constraints, Films.Dance was still able to incorporate 150 artists from 52 cities in 25 countries, with films shot on location including Amsterdam, Brazil, China, New York, and Nigeria. Instagram and Zoom played a large role in communication and productivity. The producers used Instagram to reach out to artists and for private messaging while Zoom was utilized to introduce the artists to each other and for virtual rehearsals that were recorded. The production team of Jacob Jonas with assistant producers, Jill Wilson and Emma Rosenzweig-Bock operated in Los Angeles, working with on-location production companies where they were shooting to make sure all logistics were taken care of.
“It really comes down instinctually to trusting artists whose work that I admire and then pairing them together and then seeing what the result becomes,” said Jonas.
Built around the four main collaborative elements of dancer, filmmaker, choreographer, and composer, all contributors evolved from a desire to bring people together and make dance visible, with Jonas selecting the collaborators.
A good example is Kaduna, the first Films.Dance release, shot on location in Nigeria that highlights the dancing of the Ebinum Brothers. Jonas had cultivated a relationship with them on Instagram a year earlier and they came to mind as a pairing that felt right to him with Kaduna choreographer Vinson Fraley’s approach. The production team then researched to find a Nigerian-based film company, and brought co-director Ridwan Abdullateef into the project. Frequent Jonas collaborator and composer, Anibal Sandoval, who had been exploring ambient and experimental music and sound design, incorporated sounds of Nigeria from city streets to singing from women of the Gbagyi tribe in Kaduna, Nigeria, into the film. Geography played a role, as Jonas said, “how can we make the location one of the characters in the film,” wanting to highlight environments beyond North America and also issues like climate change and global warming that affect the world.
Most Films.Dance projects started with choreography, bringing composers in at the end, to lay down music on top of the visuals. Match, which debuted on Feb. 15, started with music first, composed by Jay Wadley, two-time winner of the Charles Ives Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The music is frenetic and at times like the score of a Walking Dead episode, as violins played by Marina Kifferstein and Garth Nuestadter create unease. For Match, five choreographers mapped out their sections, providing direction to the 46 dancers located in 20 countries who filmed on their own devices. The TikTok-style of dancers swapping moves and switching frames transports the viewer around the world with an overarching message of shared humanity as music and movement tie people together. A lull of musical tranquility rooted in nature provides a respite in the middle of the film before catapulting back to the violins’ foreboding energy. Plume” will premiere on April 26 as Match’s acrobatic counterpart, with music performed by Grammy Award-winning violinist, Hilary Hahn.
The throughline in Films.Dance is a shared sense of vulnerability and persistence, as illustrated in Toke, a documentary-style film featuring Danish-born dancer, Toke Broni Strandby. Set in London, directed by NONO with music by composer Paulo Gallo, the film premiered Feb. 1. Films.Dance projects also share connection as a theme and of the plucky resilience to rise above circumstance, as seen in Another Serious Dance Film, premiering March 15.
“Connection both virtually and in person has been very hard to put our fingers on. I think artists tend to be really great messengers of creativity and connection,” said Jonas. “I think that film [Another Serious Dance Film] shows that sense of isolation and togetherness.”
It is at once jarring to hear the voicemails as the lyrics in Another Serious Dance Film — they are a sign of missed connection, of technology stepping in to connect. The tinny spoken voice brings its own music. And as New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Sara Mearns’s voice drifts in, there is something universal in her words: “I’m going through a dry spell. I just feel empty ... My body felt like the fastest Formula-One race car at the beginning of quarantine and now I just feel like a really old Nascar that goes really slowly around the track.” Jonas said this film was instigated by Mearns and her missing that feeling of being watched on stage. She dances in a broken-down theater in New York, symbolic of how the audience for performed art morphed from in-person to online, an assemblage of sparklers lighting up her final moments in triumph.
“We see what a need there is for this kind of work even if there wasn’t a pandemic — this virtual connection,” said Jonas. “We’re already working on the next 15 right now. We hope that Films.Dance becomes a place and a platform that’s sustainable long term.”
Watch the series on Mondays at 9 a.m. PST through May 3 as a new films premiere on Films.Dance, Instagram, and their Facebook page, with weekly conversations to explore the themes of the pieces and creative processes of the collaborating artists.
The Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts and the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts teamed up with Chicago’s Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater to present Films.Dance in partnership with Somewhere magazine.