Documenting Dance: Scott Silberstein interviews with CAR Researcher Rachel Thorne Germond
The work with Chicago dance started back in 1988 with the Lynda Martha Dance Company, which was a modern company based at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston. After a couple of dub jobs and small shoots to archive rehearsals, we asked if she’d give us the chance to shoot her fall ’89 concert (we’d give her the shoot and edit for free).
We cut a demo from that shoot, and within a year had started working with Hubbard Street, Joseph Holmes, Mordine, Giordano and many others.
What is your philosophy / approach / technique towards shooting dance / movement?
I’m the first to admit that video flattens out dance – there’s no arguing it – there’s nothing you can do about the loss of the dimension of depth. So with that dimension removed, we like to replace it with another dimension - that being time. In other words, while the best way to experience a performance is live in the theater, television can still do things that only television can do, like take you to multiple places, and meet multiple people, through many spaces and over many time periods, that you couldn’t do in real life. The idea is to not expect TV audiences to respond to a full performance on TV the way they would live – I’m a dance, theater and music lover, as are most of us – and don’t we all get bored by a lot of performances filmed in their entirety and just shown in their entirety on TV? I really don’t want to put anyone through that; I want to really engage them in a unique experience. And adding in the dimension of time, by showing things that happen in all these different places and at all these different times, is one way to accomplish that.
In the end you need to have a good team of television artists that develop an intimate understanding of, and feel for, dance as an art form and each piece that’s being shot, so that they can come together to create a cohesive artistic vision for the medium of television. We strive for our camera operators, technicians, producers, editors and directors to fill artistic and performance roles that complement those being done on stage. I want our camera operators to be dancers, our director to be a choreographer, our producer to be an artistic director, etc. That kind of perspective aligns us with the artists on stage and behind the scenes; it gets us speaking the same language, and reduces the chance of us thinking or acting oppositionally. And we try to do that for a broadcast special, or a b-roll shoot for Broadway, or anything else we do.
The truth is that it’s not hard to get a bunch of TV people together to point cameras at a piece, call shots and edit it together; anyone can do that. But it’s very challenging - and far more satisfying and worthwhile, in terms of both process and result - to put together a “company” of television artists who can “dance” together, in terms of TV. HMS is much more an artistic collective than it is a group of tech-heads, and we function far more like a dance company or theater ensemble than a television production company.
What advice can you give to choreographers and dancers about documenting and archiving their work?
Well, one thing’s for sure, tape is dying. We’re probably only shooting a third of our projects on tape anymore, although we’re still outputting masters to tape formats, usually DigiBeta or HD. Most broadcast outlets still strongly prefer a tape format, usually BetaSP, BetaSX or DigiBeta, although for b-roll clips some will accept DVD (although that remains an iffy format for broadcast).
For keeping archives I’d transfer anything on tape to disc or hard drive sooner than later. Tape falls apart faster, and succumbs more easily to the ravages of time. That said, I bought a couple of VHS players just to have, in case old VHS originals show up from a client, or a friend, or in the bottom of a box when I’m moving, just so I have something to play them back (and transfer them). But we hardly ever make dubs to VHS – and why would you want them, that’s about as bad as video gets. Since DVCam is a genuine, professional format, whenever you have a chance to make your own footage compatible, grab it.
Many PR agencies are encouraging the use of DVD’s when sending clips to stations for promotional purposes. Out of a sense of duty to our clients, I talked directly with producers and editors at all our local stations, and they all expressed a mild to extremely strong preference for BetaSP, for a number of technical and logistical reasons. I hope that changes because it’s cheaper and easier and better for the environment to make DVD’s than big bulky tapes. It doesn’t matter to me from a business standpoint; we make the same money if we make Betas or DVD’s. I just want what’s best for the arts companies, and even though DVD’s are cheaper to make and send out, it could jeopardize if or how or when the footage gets used. It doesn’t mean that it will, but it could. But that’s one of the things we try to keep on top of to keep our clients and collaborators informed, and put them in the best position to succeed with the media.
Scott Silberstein is a co-founder with Matt Hoffman of HMS Media, a television and music production company primarily dedicated to the arts and social service organizations. He has won 5 Emmy Awards and numerous other honors and nominations for producing PBS specials and series including The Chicago Dance Project, Steppenwolf Theatre Company: 25 Years on the Edge and other programs featuring River North Chicago Dance Company, Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, The Second City and The Joffrey Ballet. He has produced and directed dozens of broadcast and media projects for Broadway shows, national tours and regional arts companies, including Wicked, The Color Purple, Company, Mamma Mia, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Hairspray and Rent. Upcoming projects include new television specials with Lookingglass Theatre Company, The Ruth Page Foundation’s “Billy Sunday,” River North Chicago Dance Company and several new music projects.