40 North Dance Film Festival showcases the storytelling power of dance and cinema


Dance and filmmaking have a long and memorable history. Think hippos twirling on pointe shoes in Disney’s animated “Fantasia” (1940), Gene Kelly dodging a downpour in “Singin’ in the Rain” (1950), or Michael Jackson’s monster moves in “Thriller” (1983).

In fact, if you ask dancer and choreographer Blythe Barton, the marriage between dance and film can be traced back to the very first motion picture.

“Initially, film didn’t have sound; it was all silent film,” said Barton, co-producer of the 40 North Dance Film Festival, an event that begins Friday and continues at different venues through Oct. 6.

“Essentially, film started as dance on camera because it was all captured movement. All the stories, all the slapstick was done with movement set to a musical score. That’s dance in its broadest sense.”

Now in its fourth year, the 40 North Dance Film Festival continues to celebrate dance in its broadest sense, but it’s a new, digital world, with technological advances and greater accessibility than ever imagined.

Choreographic storytelling can be accomplished simply with a single camera or extravagantly with cinematographers, musicians, animators and lighting experts. A film festival offers a win/win in that dancers meet with the common purpose of sharing ideas and reaching wider audiences through technology, and cinephiles have an opportunity to witness the entertaining and often illuminating results.

The 40 North Film Festival began with three co-founders and a three-and-a-half minute side project.

Barton choreographed Chelsea Zeffiro performing a solo dance and the duo collaborated with a videographer to make a short film that screened in Los Angeles. But there was no place to share the work in San Diego, where Barton and Zeffiro reside.

“We brainstormed, and in 2015, we started developing the festival,” Barton said.

“We opened submissions to people all over the world, and we got about 50 films from 13 countries, the second year we got 100 submissions, and now we have about 160 submissions. Los Angeles has a huge dance film festival, and there’s one in New York, of course. But we are the only ones doing a festival that is publicly producing dance film events in San Diego.”

Rebecca Correia was the third co-founder in the beginning, assisting with marketing, sponsors and providing non-monetary awards to filmmakers. That first year, the festival featured a documentary from Brazil about a ballet school for the blind, and Correia, who has since moved to New York, connected with a pointe shoemaker and the festival was able to donate nearly 50 pointe shoes to the school.

Encouraged by their early success, Barton and Zeffiro continued the festival’s momentum, which expanded this year to include four venues, panel discussions with industry experts, a dance jam with live music at the Whistle Stop and a selection of film premieres. The movies explore cultural dance, social and environmental issues and the personal experiences of dancers through the language of movement.

“Dance on camera is not just choreographing bodies; you are honing the audience’s eye,” Barton said. “In a sense, you are choreographing what the audience sees at any given moment.”

The film events that Barton and Zeffiro are most excited about begin Friday at the Museum of Photographic Arts, where choreographer Cara Hagan’s movie “Cygnus” reveals the serene beauty of Minnesota’s Battle Lake. And the sensual, seven-minute film “A Guide to Breathing Underwater” by Raven Jackson explores experiencing intimacy and the body’s relationship to its surroundings.

Zeffiro said she is looking forward to moderating a panel discussion at Art Produce on Oct. 4, which brings San Diego dance professionals together to discuss the ways the body archives movement. Professional dancers keep their years of training stored in the body — it’s not written down like a piece of music or a work of research. Yet it informs all future creativity. Dance film is one of the unique ways to capture and record that “body of work,” or an independent artist’s personal expression, without words.

“You are integrating an idea of how you are being seen in varied ways and sometimes, stories are told better through dance,” Zeffiro explained.

“Issues that are heavy and tragic, like gun violence, are difficult to work through and a dance film can take us out of the journalistic reality and give us a new space to think about it. It takes something that has real implications and transforms it, and it can make people want to see. That’s magic.”

40 North Dance Film Festival 2018

Sept. 21: “Experimental Portraiture,” Museum of Photographic Arts, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park

Sept. 26: “Poetics and/of/in Archive,” Digital Gym Cinema, 2921 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego

Sept. 29: “Women Forging New Spaces” Art Produce Gallery, 3139 University Ave., San Diego

Sept. 30: “Dance Films After Dark and Dance Jam,” Whistle Stop Bar, 2236 Fern St., San Diego

Oct. 3: “Collaging Home,” Digital Gym Cinema, 2921 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego

Oct. 4: “The Body in Movement & Archive,” Art Produce Gallery, 3139 University Ave., San Diego

Oct. 6: “Festival Finale,” Art Produce Gallery, 3139 University Ave., San Diego

The Museum of Photographic Arts’ “Experimental Portraiture” on Sept. 21, Digital Gym Cinema shows on Sept. 26 and Oct. 3, and the “Festival Finale” on Oct. 6 are ticketed shows: $12 online or $15 at the door. The events on Sept. 29 and Oct. 4 are free panel discussions with industry leaders. Donations appreciated. Check for times and details.

Manna is a freelance writer.