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Dance immortalized: Flatlands Dance Film Festival

Now in its third year, the Flatlands Dance Film Festival combines elements of outreach, education, and competition into three highly entertaining evenings. Presented by the University of Illinois’ Dance department, this festival provides an opportunity for young dancers to benefit from viewing professionally-filmed performances, and non-professionals the opportunity to experience rarely-seen footage of true “dance on film.” Last year, Rebecca Ferrell defined that as “the fusion of using the body to express and the camera as a means to fine-tune it, enhance it, and allow it to live on immortally.” This definition is especially meaningful considering the last portion of the festival is an adjudicated selection of short films made by dancers and filmmakers from around the world. 

For the first year in three, however, the festival has changed up both its schedule and location. Previously held at the Art Theatre on three sequential Tuesdays, this year’s offerings will be presented over one weekend, Friday and Saturday, at the Spurlock Museum. Flatlands received feedback from attendees and interested parties who suggested a more condensed one-weekend schedule. Of course, renting out the Art Theatre during prime moviegoing hours is no small feat. In search of a venue, Farrell coincidentally attended a lecture at the Knight Auditorium and was able to book the amazing space within budget that’s also fairly easily accessed by all C-U citizens. 

Still from “Continuum”, a short film by director Natalianne Boucher to be shown Friday.

Both evening programs on Friday and Saturday will present short dance films, giving the audience the chance to survey multiple formats and and styles of both dance and film with the purchase of just one ticket. Friday evening features professionally-made short films from around the world: Europe, South America, the Middle East, and of course from USA. Saturday evening is the night of the Film Competition Screening, submissions by amateur filmmakers from all around the world. New this year will be an “Audience Favorite” prize, awarded that night. 

Still from “Sink or Swim”, a competition film submitted by director Michiel Vaanhold of the Netherlands, to be shown Saturday evening. 

Also on Saturday will be a matinee presentation of A Ballerina’s Tale, documenting the journey of Misty Copeland, the first African-American principal dancer in the historically white company, American Ballet Theatre. Following the film will be a panel discussion moderated by Sam Smith of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts between former Dance Theatre of Harlem members Endalyn Taylor (principal dancer) and Ashley Murphy. Ms. Taylor is currently an assistant professor for Dance at Illinios, and Ms. Murphy is currently a ballerina at the Washington Ballet. 

In preparation for this dance-packed weekend, I was able to have a few questions answered by one of the festival organizers, Rebecca Ferrell. 

SP: A portion of the film festival is actually a dance film competition with judged winners. I wasn’t very successful in finding an announcement about the winner from last year, however. Do you have a link to the winning films? Are there prizes for winning, or is it more about the recognition?  

Ferrell: Last year, we kept the announcement of the winner (Bedrooms, by Alex Thompson) just between the other filmmakers and artists involved in the festival, but we’re changing that this time around. This year, not only do we plan to make a more public announcement of who the juried winner for Best in Show is, we’re also adding an Audience’s Choice Award which will be announced during the competition films screening.  Both awards also come with a monetary prize! 

We will also announce the winners on the Dance at Illinois webpage. 

SP: What type of short films are submitted? Do they tend to be biographical, documentary, artistic expression, narrative? What can someone expect if they come to the program of short films or the competition screening?  

Ferrell: This is always a tough question to answer in the arts, especially when you blend two genres like dance and film. The lines between biographical/narrative/etc. are fuzzy at best. Some of them will be very clearly about a defined subject (like environment, or social struggles, or something as simple as using high tech effects), but there will definitely be a huge variety – and there will absolutely be something for everyone! That’s what’s especially exciting about the short films category — we’re able to really showcase a broad range of the diversity and complexity of dance and filmmaking (and of the artists who make them). 

SP: What would you say to someone who doesn’t know much about dance to encourage them to come to any portion of the film festival?  

Ferrell: The first thing I’d say is: This is definitely not meant to be an academic symposium for artists and scholars – it’s really accessible to a broad audience. Yes, there will be some amount of academic discussion regarding choreography and production, but the nature of the festival is usually very accessible without any background in dance or film. 

The second thing I’d say is: this is a great opportunity to experience some new things, and a great environment for asking questions. The films will definitely spark a lot of conversations between the audience members – and a lot of people will be present who DO have a background in dance and film, so it’s a perfect space to ask about things that maybe they don’t fully understand or want to know more about!

SP: Last year’s Shake the Dust showed the universality and multiculturalism of b-boying, and this year’s selection of a documentary about Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre’s first African-American principal ballet dancer, follows suit. The fact that it was 75 years after the company was formed is mind-boggling to me, but also speaks to the perception that inclusion is not the rule in many types of dance. Tell me why Flatlands is making a conscious effort to show films that represent people of all races?  

Ferrell: Dance at Illinois has always made an effort to be at the forefront of strides in diversity and inclusion, and our Flatlands Dance Film Festival is a great resource for us to achieve that. The arts, in general, have always been a great platform for social progress – and representation is a huge part of that. Many social minorities (including race, gender, sexuality, etc.) are faced with systemic challenges in all avenues of life, and it stems (primarily) from a lack of opportunity, and a lack of representation. 

Specific to the intersection of race and ballet (a dance form that is notorious for only recruiting white dancers), many African-American dancers have been breaking down that wall and paving the way for dancers like Misty Copeland to reach such notoriety. Endalyn Taylor, currently an Assistant Professor here at Illinois, was a principal dancer for Dance Theatre of Harlem starting in 1993. She is one of those people who carved a path for dancers like Misty.

SP: Many dance students are required to attend the film festival for part of their grade. Do you feel that the value of these films is mostly educational? What do you hope an art lover or a film lover would get out of attending? 

Ferrell: The festival is, first and foremost, a showcase of the brilliant work of brilliant artists. The festival is also a fantastic educational opportunity for our students (whether they’re Dance Majors expanding their artistic repertoire, or someone from another unit trying to fill their arts credits).

I think it’s just like visiting an art gallery or a seeing piece of musical theatre or any of art’s genres: there’s always something to be learned, and that is what makes the arts so amazing!

The Flatlands Dance Film Festival will be held this Friday and Saturday with tickets available for individual screenings ($5-$15) or festival passes at a discounted rate ($20-$25), both available online. The weekend’s schedule is as follows: 

Friday, August 26th, 7:00 p.m. 

Short Films Program, presented in partnership with Sans Souci Festival of Dance Cinema. 13 short films from around the world, curated by Rebecca Ferrell. 

Saturday, August 27th, 1:00 p.m.

A Ballerina’s Tale, followed by a panel discussion among Sam Smith, Endalyn Taylor and Ashley Murphy. 

Saturday, August 27th, 7:00 p.m. 

Competition Screening, ten short films submitted from around the world, judged by Charli Brissey, Dirk Mol, and Thomas Nicol. 

Images provided by Flatlands Dance Film Festival. 

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