Former Cucalorus resident artist Jen Ray, dancer and filmmaker, reflects on her time living in Wilmington at the whimsical “Pink House” during summer 2015. A newcomer to the festival with her film Grey Matter in 2014, Ray returned to premiere her new film, Willa & the Willis, at Cucalorus 21. Check out more info on the Cucalorus residency program here.
Tell us about your path to Cucalorus. What specific opportunities did you see in the artist residency program?
I made Grey Matter in January 2014 and later that year my Assistant Lauren – who is a former dance student of mine and current Dancinema team member – suggested I submit. I really owe the fact I found Cucalorus when I did to her!
At the 2014 festival I fell in love with the energy of the community and was so incredibly psyched at the importance of dance in the festival. Dance-a-lorus represented the kind of performances I wanted to create, combining live performance and projection. There were also great workshops and two Dance Shorts programs that were really strong and I was proud to be part of.
I was really drawn to this new place and the idea of having an extended stay for the purposes of creating something new was a dream come true.
Your production company, Dancinema Productions Ltd., is described as a “true fusion of dance and film”. How has this concept realized itself in the work you do?
In Film School at UBC Vancouver, my mind was blown. The more I learned about film technique, history, production, the more I understood its symbiosis with dance. Being able to focus on film in school and teaching dance the rest of the time I was immersed and really invested in both. It’s impossible for me to experience one form without the other and it’s really a passion that I fuel every day.
Dancinema Productions Ltd. has grown to have a few different channels now, On the production side, there are the films and this year there will be more live performances developed. I love Willa & the Willis and am excited to see what other festivals might include it in their programming. It’s my second festival film and I am going to enjoy it and take time to develop the other aspects of Dancinema Productions this year.
I started an educational division, Discover Dancinema, which is a combination of teaching film and dance through video, discussion, movement, and using cameras. I did some sessions in the summer as well as monthly workshops at essence of dance inc. in South Surrey (where I grew up). I’ll return to Vancouver to do a workshop with the CASCADIA Festival and a possible Spring Session but now I’m developing a partnership with Footlights in Maryland to offer these workshops on a consistent basis to students in the DMV area.
I’m also really excited to be hosting the CASCADIA Dance & Cinema Festival in 2016 (Regular submission deadline is January 15, final deadline is February 15!) which will feature international & local dance films, local live performances and workshops. There is nothing like this in Vancouver and even the many prestigious film festivals are dry on dance, while there is a clear interest in the dance community for dancefilms and performances that incorporate video/projections.
Your first Dancinema work, “Grey Matter”, was screened as part of the dance shorts at Cucalorus 20. You’ve since made multiple other short films that combine dance and film. How has your style as a filmmaker and choreographer evolved?
I made Grey Matter as an experiment in form and a way of just trying to make what I envisioned a dancefilm should be. Through learning about film I had a certain criteria about techniques that overlapped between the two forms and a pretty clear idea of how to go about making the video. What I didn’t know is how it was going to turn out…I had seen Brock Newman’s skateboard and snowboarding videos and loved his cinematography and style. I really trusted him and he is a huge part of why Grey Matter is as smooth, clean, and hypnotic as it is. I chose dancers I had grown up with and whose style, personality and passions for dance I respected. Hayley, Courtney, & Sam were all so great to collaborate with, being creative and taking the project really seriously. They braved the January cold in those fishnets and trusted my direction. After that project I was hooked and wanted to explore the possibilities further.
One of your recently finished shorts, Siren Song, is about mermaid mythology. What was your inspiration for the film, and what themes does it explore?
Part of what I want to do with Dancinema is revisit and recreate classic dance characters in their natural environments and reclaim their meaning in a contemporary context. This is what inspired my choice to follow Siren Song with Willa & the Willis.
Siren Song is inspired by Ondine and The Little Mermaid. Ondine is a classical ballet that is revisited far less than others – it wasn’t very successful when it was released and the Colin Farrell movie maybe cursed the name forever. Actually looking at the story, there are gorgeous metaphors about self-discovery, and a lot of themes that resonated with my experiences learning about identity, loyalty, and purpose. In Han Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid, the mermaid wants to transform because she is told that humans have souls and eternal life: “Human beings, on the contrary, have a soul which lives forever, lives after the body has been turned to dust. It rises up through the clear, pure air beyond the glittering stars…” When dance is recorded and exists as video-matter, it will outlive my physical body and any dance I may live in my time. The choice to develop a work for Dancinema Productions Ltd. around the mythology of mermaids was largely to highlight these beliefs of mine about dance, video, afterlife, and possible immortality.
With the next project I wanted to branch off of films that people found sexy and more mature themes – I want people to feel a variety of emotions and to think about dance by watching it in this new way. I wanted a more universal story and address the centrality of time in film and dance. I also wanted not to be the central female character and do something unexpected with that choice. I met Alabama Crawford-Goolsby through her mother Rachael last year at Cucalorus and, after spending one afternoon with them, knew she would be perfect. Alabama’s movement is gracefully clumsy and naturally stylish. She has a beautiful spirit and the story, though fantasy, has very authentic emotion and is documentary in its own way. A celebration of the magic of dancefilms, Willa & the Willis is an allegory about the bittersweet ephemeral nature of human-dance / youth and the ghost-like projections of Dancinema / eternality.
Tell us about the other current projects you’re working on. What’s in store for you after Wilmington?
- I’m back to teaching dance and offering “Discover Dancinema” workshops. I’ve done some sessions over the summer and am really excited to share with more students. I’m jealous they will get to experience some of this stuff for the first time but am happy to be the one to teach them.
- Launching the 1st Annual CASCADIA Dance & Cinema Festival in Summer 2016. This will feature live performances from some locally well-known-and-loved groups and international dancefilm submissions.
- I’m collaborating with The JaM Youth Project, a pre-professional tap dance company based in Washington, DC providing young dancers performance/multi-media based opportunities.
Do you have any highlights or favorite anecdotes you’d like to share about your experience in the Cucalorus residency program?
- Great support and flexibility provided the conditions I needed to produce my best work and maximize the enjoyment of the experience.
- The Dance Maker’s retreat
- Causing a ruckus with the Cucalorusaurus
- Of course, shooting the film I wanted with a dream team. From inception to completion this project has been so smooth- I’m working out my methods and that process if really fun and rewarding!