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Fancy Footwork

The filmmaker as choreographer

In Mitchell Rose’s latest short film, 111 individuals around the world perform dance moves to a bubbly synthesizer track. While most of the participants are clearly new to modern dance, they are having a great time with the simple hops, skips, and robot arms. But the dizzy euphoria of it comes from lightning-fast match cuts: Every two seconds, the setting changes—from a park in Paris to the rim of the Grand Canyon to a yard in Papua New Guinea. The dancer switches from old to young, male to female, graceful to endearingly awkward, shorts-clad to sari-wrapped. The choreography is the one thread tying it together.

Globe Trot, just three minutes long, has already won eleven awards on the film festival circuit. The burgeoning field of dance-film, says Rose, A73, is not about recording dance—“the film itself is the dance.” The choreography in Globe Trot, while enjoyable, could be any set of steps; it’s the cutting-room work that tells the story. A dance-film, Rose says, “can only exist as film.”

That principle applies to Rose’s comedic film Deere John, in which a businessman passing a construction site fantasizes a pas de deux with a big yellow excavator. The metal behemoth’s clawed shovel delicately reaches toward its partner’s outstretched hand. The two frolic and spin—one on his toes, the other on its tracks. It’s a classic Hollywood falling-in-love montage that could only be done through a camera.

Rose took his first dance class in his sophomore year, at Tufts’ Experimental College. “I needed phys ed credit, and I thought it would be a great way to meet girls,” he says. Yet he fell for the idea of expressing ideas through movement. He became Tufts’ first dance major, designing his own plan of study. Then he went on to train in New York City with the choreographer Alwin Nikolais and to start the Mitchell Rose Dance Company, where his performances were marked by their humor. (“Woody Allen, with more than a dash of Abbie Hoffman thrown in,” a reviewer in the New York Times wrote.)

In 1991, after years of touring, he decided it was time to move on to a more durable—and less physically punishing—art form. He applied to the American Film Institute directing fellowship, a small program usually reserved for experienced filmmakers. His application included videos of some slide shows he had made to fill time during costume changes at his dance performances. One was a pseudoscientific exploration of the dance that elevator riders do to reposition themselves as others step on or off. It got him in. He started the AFI program on his fortieth birthday and set his sights on making pirouette-free feature films.

But dance had other plans for him. When he heard there was a dance media fellowship at UCLA, he felt he had to apply. He ended up making a series of dance-films, including Deere John, with a dance company in Portland, Oregon. Now, most of his films are dance-based. They’ve been screened everywhere from Times Square to Kosovo.

Rose also teaches dance-film at the Ohio State University. The course is offered through the Department of Dance, but he runs it like a straight-up film class. “It can be hard for dance students to stop thinking theatrically—that everything has to be front-facing,” he says. “You can think of space as bigger than that, that time doesn’t have to progress sequentially, that the choreography can be in the editing. It isn’t making up steps and then filming them nicely.”

Globe Trot, for example, was less a dance production than an exercise in getting people to follow directions remotely. (Rose says he’s always been fascinated by the passed-out pilot scenario: can the control tower really talk the nervous passenger through landing the plane?) He had to recruit fifty filmmakers from around the world and get them to follow precise composition rules—such as fitting the performer into forty percent of the height of the frame, with knees at the one-third mark—so the films would come together smoothly.

The first submissions he got back were depressing—the dimensions were wrong, the camera was too close, the dance steps were misinterpreted. “I was asking too much,” Rose thought. Later submissions were more promising, and editing technology helped him work around some of the errors. If you look closely, you can see where he added some extra buildings around the Taj Mahal to fill space. Still, it took fifteen months to produce three minutes of film.

Rose hasn’t given up on getting people to land the plane. He’s working on a plan to crowd-source still images of a thousand cancer survivors and edit them together, six per second, into a stop-motion animation of a dance. “It would be an incredible statement on the courage and resilience of humanity to see this dance happening, and know that every single person is someone who has survived.” Live dance may be thrilling, he says, but only film can make magic like that.

JULIE FLAHERTY is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. Some of Mitchell Rose’s films can be viewed at mitchellrose.com.

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