New festival focuses on dance film genre

Choreographer Nora Gibson created the Philadelphia Screendance Festival.

During an artist residency, choreographer Nora Gibson was inspired by the graffiti she saw in Poland. She returned home to Philadelphia after the residency with two takeaways—“don’t ask permission” and “disseminate your work.”

Gibson, the artistic director of Nora Gibson Contemporary Ballet, got her start making short films with footage of her own choreography. After posting them online, she wheatpasted the QR codes to her videos around town.

“I knew it was being watched and I didn’t have the software to track how many views it was getting, but I felt good about putting ballet in totally unexpected places,” Gibson said.

These videos were some of Gibson’s first forays into screendance, also known as dance film or “dance for camera,” a genre of film where narrative is communicated through movement and dance instead of dialogue.

A little while later, Gibson was contacted by filmmaker Joseph Carlin, who was looking to make a dance film.

“That was a major exposure to the genre in a way that I hadn’t expected to experience,” Gibson said.

From there, she began planning a festival for the genre, and titled the event the Philadelphia Screendance Festival. Gibson did not expect the festival to draw much attention, planning instead for it to be a small counterpoint to her ballet company’s annual season concert—but then something bigger happened.

“When I put out the call for submissions last September, I thought that people from Philadelphia and maybe from New York would submit films,” Gibson said. “But it blew up. There are movies from all over, and that is so exciting.”

The first Philadelphia Screendance Festival will run Feb. 16-21 at the Christ Church Neighborhood House Theater at 20 N. American St., and will feature short films from countries all over the world as well as cities across the United States.

Senior dance major Brian Cordova has developed an interest in the genre of dance film during his studies in the past year. For his senior performance, he plans to create a dance film instead of performing live.

“I think that for the sake of film there are things you can do and emote with dance that you can’t necessarily do with a written script,” Cordova said. “And for dance there’s a lot more space to play and introduce new ideas and concepts that you can’t necessarily do with live bodies on a stage.”

Three separate programs will run during the course of the festival, incorporating different ideas and concepts.

“I would say that there’s one that has a slightly more mellow vibe than the others, there’s one that I find has a little bit more glamourous zing to it, there’s one that’s just wonderfully eclectic,” Gibson said. “Each one definitely has its own flavor, but within each program there is still a wide mix of films.”

Through organizing the festival, she hopes to expose new audiences to the genre of dance film and express the kinship she feels exists between the mediums. Gibson wants different audiences to come together, she said.

Jillian Harris, an associate professor of dance at the Boyer School of Music and Dance, is excited to be involved in the growing attention Screendance is receiving. “Red Earth Calling,” a film Harris worked on as an assistant choreographer and producer and starred in as the female lead, is being shown at the Festival.

“I think the most important thing about film is that it allows a much larger audience to experience dance,” Harris said. “Just piquing people’s interest about the expressive powers of movement is valuable. So if you can broaden your audience, I support that.”

On the last three nights of the festival, the films will immediately follow the Nora Gibson Contemporary Ballet’s premier of “Ephemeral.”

“Because of the comparison or the context, it makes each person’s work more what it is than if you had seen it in isolation,” Gibson explained. “It becomes more itself, in a way.”

Morgan Slutzky can be reached at

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