How-To: Lights, Camera, Action

As a choreographer, you are uniquely adept at discussing your work, but when it comes to applying for fellowships, festivals or showcases, your choreography does the talking. Unless you have limitless resources, you won’t have the opportunity to present your pieces live to an adjudication committee. Instead, a well-crafted videotape or DVD must convince a jury that you deserve a spot in their lineup or additional funds for development. Professional videographers helped us come up with these seven steps for creating a recording that will present your work at its very best.

Step 1: Choose the setting.
A live performance onstage will provide the most space and professional lighting, and the adrenaline will help your dancers perform well, insists Dennis Diamond of Video D, a company dedicated to translating the arts onto film. Some organizations may explicitly request live performances. A dress or technical rehearsal might be another good opportunity to get the footage you need.

Step 2: Check your equipment.
Consumer electronics have become so advanced that you don’t need to rent a high-tech camera. Any camcorder bought in the last three years will provide a high-quality image. You will need a tripod to make sure your shot is steady, and a fresh digital tape is a must in order to get a clean capture. Although you can tape over your cousin’s wedding, you risk picture and sound distortion.

Step 3: X marks the spot.
You’ll want to set up your camera about five to 10 degrees above the stage. If you’re in a sloped theater, find the row that is level with the stage and then go up a few rows. In a level theater, you’ll need to raise your tripod with a platform.

Step 4: Frame your shot.
Have the dancers mark the piece to establish the boundaries of the camera frame. How close to the edges of the stage do the dancers travel? Once you mark these boundaries for your shot, zoom out a little farther to make sure that your performers aren’t crammed into the corners.

Step 5: Find your focus.
Here’s a trick that the pros use: Switch the camera into manual focus mode, never auto. Have someone stand wherever the center of the action is. Zoom all the way in as far as you can go and focus so that person is sharp, and then zoom back to normal. You will now have perfect focus. Since you won’t be able to do this once the audience arrives, get to the theater early, open the curtains and set up your shot.

Step 6: Shoot!
You have two options to get a variety of angles. If you have two cameras available, use one to capture the wide shot as described above and focus the second one to get close-ups of solos. Again, this will require charting out where the solos take place onstage. The other option is to shoot two performances to get a wide shot on the first night, and tight shots the next. This alternative is best used when your company is performing at the same venue for multiple performances, otherwise the lighting will differ. Resist the urge to zoom in and out. It looks amateur.

While a wide-angle shot alone may seem adequate in a smaller space, close-up shots add a dynamic quality to your video. A fixed camera misses facial expressions, says David Sheingold, senior producer at Dance Theater Workshop. “What tends to pop out is action and what’s going on on people’s faces,” Sheingold says. “[These] images are connected, kinetic and emotional.”

Step 7: Add the audio.
At a live show, the audience and other factors can interfere with the sound. Ivan Sygoda, director of Pentacle, a New York City–based organization that offers grant writing, booking and public relations to the performing arts community, recommends using a live sound feed into the camera. This means you use a cable to connect the sound system output to your camera’s audio input. Alternatively, you can add the sound when you edit the audio on your computer using iMovie for Mac or Windows Movie Maker for PCs. Both programs come standard on their respective operating systems.

You spend hours in the studio perfecting your choreography. Why not take the same care in recording your dances? Expending a little effort will ensure that your work looks its best.

Faking It
Tips for shooting in a studio
Let there be light.

Onstage, lighting comes with the package, but it gets trickier in the studio. Avoid fluorescent lights or a light source behind the dancers. “Sunlight from a studio window located behind the dancers will turn them into black silhouettes on your videotape,” says Ben Munisteri, director of Ben Munisteri Dance Projects. Instead, use spotlights from the front and side to create the most appealing effect.

Set the right mood.
You can make the best of taping in a studio by creating a performance-like atmosphere. Most importantly, use an audience. Even if it’s only five to 10 people sitting at the front of the room, “dancers are instinctively up in their energy and focus,” Ivan Sygoda says. “It’s hard to dance in an empty room.”

Dress the part.
To give your tape a professional feel, dancers should be in full costume and makeup. If costumes aren’t available, performers should wear matching clothes that highlight the quality of the movement.

Choose your backdrop.
To make sure that your dancers stand out and viewers aren’t distracted by elements in the background, shoot against a plain wall. Don’t shoot against a mirror, because you’ll be able to see the camera in the shot. Also, be sure to consider the color of the wall that will serve as your backdrop. You’ll want to dress your dancers in colors that can be seen clearly, not those that blend in. Rich jewel tones, such as burgundy or turquoise, are easy to see against a white backdrop.

The Right Stuff
How to tailor your video to your needs

You may find that you need to create more than one video to serve different needs. To figure out what kind of video to shoot, the first step is to determine your goals. To this end, Ben Munisteri says he creates multiple videos of the same piece for documentation, marketing and grant proposals.

Documentation videos preserve choreography for future dancers so it’s important to record individual steps accurately, as well as get a sense of the piece as a whole. Create a compilation of several recordings, including wide-angle footage that “shows the stage space in its entirety,” Munisteri says. For complex footwork sequences or other details that require close attention, get several tight shots to capture intricate movements that may be hard to discern in a wide shot.

Marketing videos, on the other hand, are used to get bookings and need to catch the eye of adjudicators, who may spend hours screening submissions. Munisteri uses shifting camera angles to make his work stand out. “We don’t want a potential presenter to become disinterested in our work,” he says, “so the video will shift camera angles in an effort to compensate for the…flat look a live-performance video can sometimes convey.”

Munisteri sees funding videos as a separate genre. Most funders—both private and public—will ask for an unabridged, live performance, but some ask for a work-in-progress or 10 minutes of a full-length piece. Because a choreographer is biased toward personally meaningful sections of a piece, selecting an excerpt can be difficult. “The funding panelists usually won’t have any background about the piece before they view your favorite section,” Munisteri says. “In such a case, it may be simpler to submit the first 10 minutes.”

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."

In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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