May 3rd, 2014

Why dance films and videos don’t really work all that well

Whenever I write about dance, I’m handicapped by the fact that all I can offer is a video and some words, and perhaps a few still photos.

That’s better than nothing. But it doesn’t even begin to compare with seeing a dance performance in person. On a flat screen you cannot properly appreciate depth and height, closeness and distance, and the living breathing force of the person moving in space right before your very eyes.

Dance is partly illusion—of floating, soaring, and flying; of indefatigability and ease while performing almost impossible feats (sometimes consisting of a variation after which the dancer pukes in the wings), of effortless beauty and eternal love (sometimes between two dancers who are at loggerheads).

Here’s a particularly good example of what I’m talking about. I’ve seen the following dance in person at least three or four times, and each time it has been extraordinary. The first time I ever saw “Caught” (when it was new, in the early 80s) I decided the illusion was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, I’ve ever seen in the theater—arresting, startling, and magical.

But the video gives you almost no sense of what I might be talking about (the real action only gets started around minute 2:15; I strongly suggest you watch it in full screen mode). To appreciate the illusion, the viewer must be aware of three dimensions, including and especially the location of the stage floor vis a vis the leaping strobe-lit dancer, and depth and height perception and scale. In the real thing, live, the dancer looks for all the world as though he is either flying or walking on the air:

Alas, David Parsons no longer performs the piece. But his company does, and I highly recommend going to see them if you get the chance, in no small part because it’s one of the few modern dance companies that feature humor as well. I wish I could find a video of Parson’s “Sleep Study,” one of my favorite examples of that genre. But I can’t, so here’s a still—which gives you only the very roughest idea of what I might be talking about:


[ADDENDUM: I've just learned that "Caught" was Parsons' very first work (an old video of part of it can be found here). Here's Parsons talking about having choreographed "Caught" at the very outset of his career:

And here's a nice clip of excerpts from the Parsons Dance Company's repertoire, for those who want to see more. It doesn't give you much idea of Parson's formidable comedic talents, but it does give you a notion of his choreographic dynamism, and it ends with a couple more seconds of "Caught" that give the best example on video I've yet seen of the experience of seeing it in person:

And a short one of another dancer doing "Caught":

That should whet your appetite.]

17 Responses to “Why dance films and videos don’t really work all that well”

  1. Minta Marie Morze Says:


    Thanks, Neo! I wish I could see that in person. If they truly darken the theater, it must be pure magic.

    And it must be a nightmare to practice and to co-ordinate with the lighting people. Rehearsals filled with laughter, anger, moments of grim determination and finally exhilaration and joy.

    I am truly grateful to all the people who have to come together and produce excellence to create something wonderful like that.

    And thanks again, Neo. For finding it and posting it and explaining enough so that I can watch it with a more knowledgable eye than had I just stumbled on it. What a delight!

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    Minta Marie Morze:

    You’re welcome!

    It is indeed wonderful in person. The Parsons Dance Company still performs it quite often, and if they come to your area be sure to see it. I can’t find anything online about their tour schedule right now, so I don’t think they’re touring at the moment, but they tour quite regularly and “Caught” is almost certain to be on the menu.

    As to how it’s done, co-ordinating the lighting and all, there’s a slight trick of sorts. But I’ll never tell :-) .

  3. Beverly Says:

    What a magnificent-looking man.

  4. neo-neocon Says:


    That, too :-) .

    David Parsons, who is now somewhere in his 50s (I think; he started dancing professionally in 1978) and retired, still looks pretty nifty. He’s one of those relatively tall dancers, too (most dancers are shorter than they look on stage).

    Here’s some old footage of him doing “Caught,” and although the quality of the film is quite primitive, because of the angle and framing I think in some ways it gives a somewhat better idea of the stage effect of the dance. It also has some of the audience reaction, which the clip I put up doesn’t show.

    Neither even approaches the experience of seeing it in person, but one tape complements the other somewhat.

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    I’ve added a couple of extra videos at the “ADDENDUM.”

  6. Lee Says:

    I worked for years as a theatrical lighting designer. Good dancers really know lighting. A lot of dance programs at universities have their dancers study lighting. The good ones are truly fun to light and a joy to work with on developing the design.

  7. Ymarsakar Says:

    Strobe lights, really painful.

  8. J.J. Says:

    It is amazing to see that combination of balance, flexibility, grace, strength, and creativity that goes into such a performance.

    I used to watch a dance instructor who was giving classes on how to move like a dancer at the gym where I worked out. His classes were held in the same space as the stationary bicycles. I would ride a bike and enjoy his expertise. It was there that I realized how much there is to doing the movements so that they looked smooth and effortless. (I tried to emulate a few in my spare time and found myself hopeless.) To achieve such skill requires both a natural affinity for movement, great physical structure, and the desire to practice, practice, practice. Unless one has danced, when we see a performance, we seldom pause to think about all the many, many hours of work that have gone into it. I salute David Parsons and all his dancers for bringing that to us.

  9. Kustie The Klown Says:

    I’ve never seen Caught before but immediately recognize the music. It’s from The Heavenly Music Corporation, by Fripp and Eno.

  10. Cornflour Says:

    Many years ago, a girlfriend dragged me to a Parsons performance, and I was shocked by the artistry and athleticism of “Caught.”

    I remember, at about that same time, talking to a geologist who said that he had no interest in caves, because the first cave he’d ever seen was Carlsbad Caverns. After that, caves were a disappointment.

    So David Parsons became my Carlsbad Caverns. Sorry Neo, I just can’t get too fired up about Dance anymore.

  11. Roux Says:

    Please go back and watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

  12. William Jefferson Says:

    It is why live performances in theatre, dance and music will never go away.
    You had to be there. Not just for inside jokes.

  13. Norman Spaulding Says:

    Does nothing for me, sorry. Now Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers in Top Hat… Those are the only dance routines that work for me. They’re, I dunno, intelligent? This stuff doesn’t go anywhere. It’s pointless.

  14. Alex P Says:

    Been a dance teacher for 20 years and I love dance videos. I go to a lot of competitions. Depending on where my seating is, I see only one angle. Watching the video of the dance later I can watch it many times and from different angle(s) and pick out things I missed. So I have a different perspective.

    If there is more than one couple dancing, neither being there nor the video can pick up everything unless there are solo cameras of each couple.

    As far as teaching videos, their main drawback even if they are well done is the inability to ask a question vs. being in a studio and immediately asking the instructor a question.

  15. GA Dean Says:

    Oh… this brings back memories of the first time I saw “Caught” some years ago. The whole audience seemed stunned, in a “thrilled” sort of way. Lots of shouting and spontaneous cheering, like a crowd at a sporting event. I’ve tried many times to describe this dance to people who haven’t seen it, and it cannot be done.

    You are entirely correct. The videos can never really capture it. I think the same is true of video of opera, or of great performances in sport. There is a thrill from seeing or hearing something astounding direct to your senses.

  16. bud Says:

    Which reminds me of an old joke:

    Never sit in the first few rows at a ballet performance. The grunting distracts from the music.

    I can think of a few ways the lighting can be sync’d to the dancers movements – with today’s tech it would be trivial- but I don’t know how they did it. Hitting his marks in the dark is a lot more impressive.

    I’ve never seen the piece, but now it’s on my list.

  17. neo-neocon Says:


    I’ve sat in those first rows on occasion at the ballet and it’s a fascinating experience, albeit in a very different way. The illusion is gone, replaced not only by a grunt or two, but sweat and the obvious effort of doing the nearly-impossible. Smiles are not always relaxed things but sometimes resemble grimaces.

    And yet from farther away: gorgeous! It reminds me a bit of an impressionist painting. If you press your face close to the painting it looks like a mish-mash, but far enough away and it’s a glorious evocation of boats and sparkling water on a sunny summer day.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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