Beguiling, entrancing and mysterious, the cuts and movements in Corina Andrian’s startling Dancen — a perfect marriage between Tanztheater Wuppertal and The Administration of the National Cultural Fund Romania — seem to follow their own inner logic. Set within the leafy green, yet modernist-looking west German city of Wuppertal, the Romanian-born, London-based director makes the most out of her surroundings, staging a dance film that starts as a romance and ends up as a parade, each sequence outdoing the next in terms of sheer invention and audio-visual satisfaction. With cuts and pauses that other dance directors might try to avoid due to the way they disrupt the flow of the piece, its stop-and-start momentum makes it an unpredictable, yet joyous watch. We had the pleasure to talk to Andrian about combining German with Romanian culture, the joys of riding and filming in Wuppertal’s iconic Schwebebahn and picking a wide range of tracks for the film’s layered musical tapestry.
This film is a co-production between Romania and Germany, with help from Tanztheater Wuppertal. How did it all come together?
It all started a couple years ago when the project manager, Anastasia Grigore, was doing her Masters in Choreographic Art at UNATC University in Bucharest and applied for an internship through Erasmus+. She got accepted as an assistant at Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch Company. A trustworthy relationship was forged between the two and Anastasia wanted to deepen and honour this connection in a very intimate way by returning with the proposition to welcome the input of Romanian dance and culture into Wuppertal. Her idea was warmly received, and with the help of Delazero Association, she received the financial support of The Administration of the National Cultural Fund Romania, the Ministry of Culture and Goethe-Institut Bukarest to bring a team of five professional dancers, a live band named RVQ and a film team to record this entire wild experience. This is where I come in with DOP Cătălin Rugină.
Dancen is part of a much bigger documentary project called RAWDANCE: Moving Talks where I recorded interviews with the artists in rehearsals at the future Pina Bausch Zentrum for a series of real-time street performances in Wuppertal. We also talked with a few of the members of Tanztheater Wuppertal about where the Pina Bausch company is headed and what dance and art mean to them.
The film works through a process of ‘accumulation’ where the group gradually becomes bigger and bigger.
What was the animating impulse behind the film, the through-line you kept in mind in order to bring coherence to this piece?
The main idea for Dancen was to somehow capture the substance of the city but also of the cultural exchange itself. Being very familiar with the dance film scene, I wanted to stay away from any clichés about filming dancers in a city, so I went deeper into the experience by proposing to focus on the dancers’ inner lives. The main thought was that in a city there are chance encounters that happen which can completely change the course of your day. This is why the film works through a process of ‘accumulation’ where the group gradually becomes bigger and bigger. Similarly, our lives are the result of accumulated, layered experiences and events. The city has that effect where sometimes you get overwhelmed by the noisy environment or you can project your emotions onto what surrounds you and exchange a meaningful look with a stranger that you will remember for years to come.
How did you work on the choreography, and what was the challenge in combining so many different emotions and dance moves within the same work?
The choreography was my favourite part because most of what you see in every scene is directly inspired by the daily life of the dancers. I find it very easy to observe and communicate the subtleties of body language thanks to my dance background. Before I transitioned into the visual realm, I trained professionally in various dance styles from classical ballet to contemporary dance, butoh, gaga and contortion. Besides surreal fiction, I naturally specialise in screen dance. The two disciplines of time and movement blend into an organic, synaesthetic visual unity and I constantly research and work towards an ideal tangible cinema, where the digital becomes physical through haptic visuality. To me, watching does not only involve seeing but a whole embodied intelligence.
In Wuppertal, we were all just bathing in the same soup, sharing the same accommodation space. Every day I was writing down details of how the dancers were interacting between rehearsals, on breaks, before sleep, before a performance, including the sounds they’d make. During the location scout with Cătălin, I linked the interactions with the locations that seemed to convey similar emotions chromatically or from the way the light was falling.
To me, watching does not only involve seeing but a whole embodied intelligence.
How much collaboration was there between yourself and the artists? To what extent was the movement workshopped over time and how much was created specifically for this piece?
After a few days of living together and filming them for the documentary, I told them about my plan for the artistic dance short and how I was recording their interactions and they got extremely excited and started telling me about other inside jokes and games they did amongst themselves. Most of us have known each other for years so it was easy to communicate my vision especially because I wanted the choreography to be completely genuine and not embellished with unnecessary technical moves. I wanted pure emotion and each move has its story, either personal or universal such as fear of abandonment, rejection, loneliness, love. There is one pre-choreographed part from their street performances that I added into the short which is the moment on the bridge where they are all moving in sync.
The sequence where they sing Lume, lume by Maria Tănase in a low voice and hold each other’s shoulders is something I dreamt about the night before shooting. It’s about supporting and carrying one another through life until we are met with death, the continuation of life. The part where the two dancers are waiting at the red light which never turns green was inspired by a personal time in my life when I was anxiously waiting for what seemed like an eternity to hear back about a medical problem. In long gruelling painful periods, life seems like a never-ending wait until the next event.
I’d love to hear more about the location of the film in Wuppertal. I felt the use of the Schwebebahn was particularly inspired, as it immerses us into this futuristic, strange space. Did you always intend to film in this city?
The city was dictated by the documentary project. Before I would never have imagined I would travel to Wuppertal, the city where Pina Bausch used to create in. It was an unspoken dream come true. Once you are in spaces where notable visionary artists lived, you perfectly understand why an artist’s work looked or felt a certain way. Coincidentally, around the time I got asked to direct this film project, I was taking tanztheater classes in London as I wanted to understand her method better because of my deep admiration for her honest work.
In long gruelling painful periods, life seems like a never-ending wait until the next event.
After Pina Bausch, the Schwebebahn is the second thing you hear about in relation to Wuppertal and it looks indeed very futuristic and very playful. It felt natural to include it in the short since it is such a beloved and iconic aspect of the city; everywhere you look there is a Schwebebahn passing by in the sky. The last scene was filmed in the future Pina Bausch Zentrum which is Wuppertal’s former municipal theatre. It felt full of history and positive energy. I saw the green location as a sort of neutral space, a purgatory where all souls meet and say goodbye in a series of symbolic dances and gestures. To me spinning has this cyclical quality of life and death.
Transportation, passing by in the background, and at one point, even causing the dancers to stop, is a constant motif here. I’d love for you to explain more about how you wanted to incorporate it in the feeling of the city?
Transportation makes me think of the passing of time and so the film focuses on this dichotomy of life and death, intertwining. Transportation is also repetitive and within my work there is always an element I love to include which is characterised by a loop; reminiscent of an art installation. The character becomes possessed by his repetitive actions and ultimately loses himself. I am intrigued by how repetition can affect a person and where it can lead if provoked or exhausted until it deforms into something completely new. I call this process losing form in order to gain form.
I think there is great potential in repetition to allow the mind, body and soul to experience a temporary death to recalibrate and become primal again, something which we can’t do every day in public. In Dancen you will notice many moments where characters get stuck in a loop, recalibrate and move on. I like to observe how characters can escape these situations like throwing coffee in their face to make that dark thought go away. Syncing with the traffic was the hardest part. Every train you see is not a coincidence. For some scenes we did around 10 takes because we waited for the perfect synchronisation with the Schwebebahn, the traffic to stop, the random passerby to disappear and the sun to shine.
I loved the different music in the film, moving between folk tunes to trip-hop. What was it like finding the right music for the film and knowing which music suited each moment?
I always love to incorporate elements of Romanian culture, be it an instrument, a motif, a movement. Argatu’ is an exceptionally talented musician who brilliantly combines old Romanian folk songs and traditional instruments with modern electronic, dub and trip-hop. It made a lot of sense for the film’s music to convey the experience I’ve always had throughout my life moving from Romania and living in different countries, like a hybrid, an experimental alien who belongs everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. I felt very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Argatu’ who manages to encompass these feelings in his music: feeling nostalgic for a time you haven’t lived in but which lives within you generationally. I listened to all his albums dozens of times before deciding on the perfect songs to accompany the moving images, which he enthusiastically shared with me.
Syncing with the traffic was the hardest part. Every train you see is not a coincidence.
I love the warm colours the film deploys, while still giving off a distanced, cool vibe. Walk me through the technical set up you chose to create the film.
Wuppertal itself has a very interesting colour palette and the main thing the DOP and I were looking for was the way in which the light shone in different places. We worked really hard to capture some of the scenes where multiple things were happening. The scene where the dancer sneezes and is dropped on the floor was particularly complicated as the sun kept hiding behind the clouds and we tried for about an hour to synchronise the movement with the sun and the Schwebebahn passing right above them, but it was all worth it in the end. I think we took around four full rounds of the entire Schwebebahn journey before we captured what we needed, but the locals were particularly helpful as they didn’t seem to mind us filming there. One elderly lady said “Ah ja, kein Problem, ich bin Wuppertaler!”, which was a lovely sign that there are a lot of strange arts and culture happenings in the city which the locals are used to. As for the equipment we had a mostly handheld Fujifilm X-T4 occasionally stabilised with a DJI Ronin-S gimbal and a very versatile 18-55mm f/2.8-4 lens.
The cuts are quite startling and interesting, especially at around the five minute mark moving from the dancers to the woman with the coffee cup. What was the editing process like?
Thank you! I always edit the film before I know what the music is and once I have the music I just move some shots left or right to sync to the main beat. It is one of the most satisfying things to edit dance films because you can get so creative with it, especially if you shoot a lot of footage. Having trained most of my life in dance, movement is my second nature and I have a good sense of what looks good in terms of camera dynamics and matching those with dancers’ moves and song beats. This is why the dancers always feel at ease whenever I review and choose the footage as I can tell what moves they nailed and would be happy to keep in the final film.
I like to play around by editing directly on the beat but also offbeat and sometimes I like to be surprised completely by just randomly layering options which always turn out interesting. Someone once compared my editing style to that of pop music videos which I think really encompasses both the predictable and satisfying energy of the cuts but also the playfulness and sometimes jarring juxtapositions. I love it when I get to attend a festival I’m screening in and I see the audience dancing to the rhythm of the film.
What will we see from you next?
I am currently in post-production with a dance short I shot this summer which is a story inspired by the Free the Nipple movement where a nipple manages to escape a woman’s breast to break free from the constant unfair censoring it’s been subjected to all its life. The woman chases it through the city to find out it was headed for a dance audition where it delivers a beautiful vogue dance performance and feels free to express itself for the first time ever.
I am also in production for a short film called Pepperoni from the Sky about an emerging actress who auditions for a surreal commercial where she is given a hundred improv cues about pepperoni falling from the sky but she never gets it right. We also see her daily struggles of working several jobs and her battle with mental health. Last but never least, I am in pre-production for my debut surreal feature film called The Chair which you can expect in your local cinemas somewhere in the next two years.