Last spring, a couple of artist friends hopped on a call to brainstorm ways to “make something.” Fast forward almost one year later and that simple conversation has grown into an international series of 15 films and a team of 12 producers, three presenting centers, one magazine and 150 artists whose roles span cinematography, wardrobe, dance, direction, musical composition and choreography. Did I mention these artists are spread across 25 different countries?
The Harris Theater for Music and Dance partners with Jacob Jonas the Company to bring Films.Dance to Chicago audiences. Starting Jan 25, one film will be released each week on the Harris’ new online platform, HT Virtual Stage, and the Films.Dance website. While Chicago has long been a city of collaboration—and many more have leaned into community and interdisciplinary work since performance became virtual last year—the word “collaboration” defines everything about the Films.Dance process: from conception, the process behind how each film was made and ultimately the final product that audiences will see each week. Even the three-person Zoom interview I had with members of the team felt shared, with Jacob Jonas and associate producer Mike Tyus tuning in from Los Angeles and associate producer Peter Walker calling in from New York.
The production team behind the entire series includes Jonas, Tyus and Walker, and a collective of other artists with ties to Jacob Jonas the Company and presenting partner Somewhere Magazine, including two musicians and composers. Each of these producers contributed to the team of artists curated for each film, with Jonas estimating that 25 percent of the artists started as strangers to the group.
The series kicks off with “Kaduna,” which highlights self-taught brothers Victory and Marvel Ebinum dancing across landscapes of Kaduna, Nigeria. Filmed by Nigerian cinematographer Raymond Yusuff, notorious for using his Android phone for filming sci-fi stories (with fellow members of the Critics Company), “Kaduna” is revving up to be a true international effort with choreography by New York City-based Vinson Fraley, music score by L.A.-based composer Anibal Sandoval and vocals by members of the Gbagyi Tribe (native to central Nigeria, including part of Kaduna State). Critics Company member Ridwan Adeniyi collaborated with Jonas to direct the film, not to mention the wardrobe devised by Khadijah Yunusa of X clothing brand.
If you can make it through the long list of credits, you’ll see that what makes this virtual dance film festival so engaging is that none of these creations were one person’s vision. No storyline relied on one person’s video-editing skills, or access to fancy camera equipment or ability to coach movement virtually. Jonas and the other 11 producers working on Films.Dance took what they were good at—curation, an impulse to make art, some experience working with media, etc.—and then brought together a community of people with varying talents and expertise to produce something that promises to captivate you regardless of the size of your screen.
“With film you work with so many people: producers, writers, filmmakers and a director or a DP [director of photography or cinematographer], and often a few other camera people in one project,” Jonas said. “I think the scope of the collaboration and having more voices can help illustrate what you are trying to say more than just what movement itself can typically convey, which enables audiences to relate to a film more than an abstract work by one choreographer on a proscenium stage.”
In bringing together such a varied group of artists, including filmmakers and musicians who have never worked with dance before, Jonas hopes to engage audiences outside our immediate bubbles and close friends list on social media. With a film like “Plume” (co-directed by Beren D’Amico and Francisco Cruz and animated by D’Amico), where the agile circus work performed by 21 acrobats from across the world is sure to catch the viewer’s eye, Jonas believes the musical collaboration behind the film is the most intriguing component. Jonas reached out to violinist and disability advocate Gaelyn Lea for this project, three years after he first saw her perform. They decided to transcribe one of her improvisations from an Instagram video, and composer and musician Steve Hackman and violinist Hilary Hahn arranged the piece, with Hahn ultimately performing what is heard in the video.
“Seeing Hilary and Gaelyn on a Zoom together, connecting for the first time was really special. With all of these projects, the work would never exist if it weren’t for all of us involved. To see relationships being formed and new work being made is really special,” said Jonas. “This project was built on a lot of artistic mediums responding to one another and we really wanted to enrich that to help broaden the audience for dance.”
Films like “Match” relied on quintessential pandemic filmmaking to introduce as many artists as possible to each other and to audiences. An original score by Jay Wadley was given to five choreographers to then teach via Zoom to 46 dancers from 20 different countries, who were then instructed to film themselves performing the movement.
Walker pointed to “Another Serious Dance Film” in which he said that the untraditional makeup of the team created “the perfect storm of the unexpected.” Choreographed by Andrea Miller of Gallim Dance and performed by New City Ballet’s Sarah Mearns, the result of the film was vastly different than what the producers thought Miller and Mearns were going to create, an exciting result that Walker credits to the film team made up of cinematographer Paul Daley and directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost (of Netflix’s “Project Power”). The final image of the film was further influenced by wardrobe from Prada and a music score from film composer Antonio Sanchez.
“Films.Dance shows us that you can step outside your comfort zone and that dance can be an intersection where all of these people and all of these ideas meet,” said Tyus.
The films will remain on the Harris’ virtual platform beyond the duration of the series, along with additional free content from Chicago artists. Through its partnership with the Harris Theater and the vast team of contributing artists, Films.Dance provides almost a library of performance and media where visitors can experience compelling virtual dance and can expand their knowledge of creatives and locations across the globe—without leaving home.
Films.Dance premieres one film each Monday through May 3, starting Jan, 25 at 11:00 a.m. The films are available to view for free on the Harris Theater’s HT Virtual Stage throughout the duration of the series. More information about each film is available below.