DANCE / As seen on television: Judith Mackrell looks back on an unusual week of specially commissioned pieces for television

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The Independent Culture
Anyone switching idly on to BBC 2 this week might have wondered if the channel had gone commercial. For four nights in a row you could glimpse artfully dressed people, moving in surreal landscapes and filmed with lovingly idiosyncratic camera work - characters, it seemed, from high-class adverts.

These were all performers in a short season of new dance works which had been commissioned especially for televison. TV dance is still a fledgling genre, and Dance for the Camera provided choreographers and directors with an all-too-precious opportunity to explore its bounds. The newness of the experiment advertised itself in the sheer energy bouncing out of the works, but the downside was the occasional flashiness and precocity that emerged from people desperate to get all their ideas on to screen.

Significantly, the most coherent film had the least obvious dance content. Should Accidentally Fall by choreographer Yolande Smith and director Ross MacGibbon was a fantasy about the Wild West. Set in a saloon, its four dancers performed minimal but anarchic routines of vaulting across the bar, scrabbling through sawdust, throwing, and finally smashing a swathe of empty bottles. The movement patterns were scrupulously composed and made extra vivid by the camera. Suspended in space, it seemed to hold the lines and curves of the choreography for our contemplation, then diving along the bodies, it caught the movement's vertiginous edge, its heat and grunt and power.

William Tuckett's Rime of the Ancient Mariner suffered in contrast from an excess of material, with narration by John Gielgud, lavishly ingenious designs and full-bodied dancing from members of the Royal Ballet. It looked and sounded beautiful, but was flawed, not just by overcrowding but by the fact that Tuckett and his director, Milfid Ellis, failed to find a mutual sense of rhythm and organisation. The shooting of the dancing made it seem incidental to the film, and the poem's clean, hallucinatory logic got muddied.

In Shobana Jeyasingh and Terry Braun's Duets with Automobiles, there were also obtrusive tensions between dance and camera. Set in a high-tech office space, the film made clever connections between the lines of the dance and the architecture, and between the choreography's Asian and Western elements and the post-modern eclecticism of the building. Yet though the film's surface was stylish, the camera was so busy dodging about or cutting between shots that the dance rarely had time to breathe. The whole thing felt like a trailer for a longer piece.

Sandwiched in the middle of the season was a film of a theatre piece, DV8's Strange Fish. Director David Hinton had the job of cutting 90 minutes of rich and complex stage-time down to an hour. The film was thus more literal than the original, but was nevertheless a masterpiece of its kind. The camera work was often astonishing but always right, and it shaped the material with such a sure intensity that the experience was not, as with so much filmed dance, a second-hand experience. You were moved and stilled as powerfully as if you were sitting in the theatre.

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