Interview with Ania Catherine, Director and Choreographer of Bop

Copy Edited and Posted by Jessica Gibbons

What sparked your love of dance and film? Do you remember the moment when your relationship with intertwining dance and film started?

Ania Catherine, Director and Choreographer of Bop.

I had a long-established relationship with dance and movement before I realized that film was a way to engage with it in a really profound way. Having started training in dance when I was 6, performing and choreographing was something I always did, but I really only thought about a camera being there to document a performance. I never thought about a film being the point, or an active participant in the creation of a work. The moment I realized that the camera and the medium of film was more than just a way to “document” choreography was when I was in college and a friend of mine asked to film me moving. That night, I improvised in a hallway in one of our university buildings while she walked around me filming, sometimes far away and sometimes coming up really close to me and getting tighter shots of the movement I was doing. It didn’t feel distracting to have her doing that, I immediately felt very comfortable and natural even with the camera right up next to my face; the camera felt like a partner of some sort, and I loved playing with it and letting it feed into my movement. The moment I saw the footage, I realized the potential of a camera to capture nuance and details in a way that brought the viewer completely into the feeling of my body. That was when I knew movement and film—and the relationship thereof—were going to be equal parts of my creative practice.

How have your experiences as a dancer transformed your filmmaking style?

I think the most significant way is that being a dancer and choreographer has made me highly sensitive to the messages that bodies send. Not only the messages that choreography sends, but also the messages laden in the everyday body language of people (e.g. how someone sits on a public bench, how someone walks down the street). Paying such close attention to bodies from a young age sensitized me to all forms physical messaging, so even if I am making a film that is not movement-centered, I am very particular about the way bodies are presented (posture, clothing, colors, movement, framing, timing, where a body is holding tension) because all those tiny nuances impact the viewer’s perception of the person, situation, and story.

A still from Bop.

The choreography was amazing. How did you come up with the routine and are there any historical and/or cultural representations incorporated into it?

Thank you! The origin of this piece is different than any other piece I’ve made. It completely started with the music. I heard this song “Bop” by Brandt Brauer Frick, and I had a really clear vision. I saw quick robotic movements, broken computers, abstract shapes moving in and out of unison, delusions of grandeur, people mindlessly carrying along in the mundane tasks of life. I created the original piece for the stage, and it was first performed at Los Angeles Dance Festival in 2017. Then I decided to turn it into a film. The choreography is very much music visualization. In the choreography process, I listened to each part of the song, and as it built and developed and changed, I built and developed and changed the choreography to translate what I was hearing into what I saw in my head. In terms of visual references, I love the minimal/robotic aesthetics of Kraftwerk, and the song brought up images for me of formal business body language, which I find fascinating and funny. Finally, I always enjoy seeing social conventions broken down via movement that is out of control or spastic. The choreography plays with going back and forth between being very proper and held and being completely out of control; I find the switch back and forth from one mode to the other both humorous, and if I’m completely honest, autobiographical.

I love that Bop leaves room for diverse interpretations. Is there a particular story or message that you’re hoping viewers will think about after watching the film?

With this film, I wasn’t really going for a specific message or story. I was more focused on not breaking the boundaries I had set out to work within in terms of pace and staying as true to the original choreography as possible. Whatever narrative or message that emerges is completely by chance. The final product ended up being funny, which I’m happy about. I laugh every time I watch it and during both the live performances and screenings the audience always laughs. I didn’t really set out to make a funny film, but it’s a lovely surprise that I did make one.

Ania Catherine, Director and Choreographer of Bop working with the cast.

There are moments in Bop when each dancer seems to drift away into their own routine. Can you tell us about the role you want these moments to play in the larger narrative?

Interesting, I hadn’t thought about doing that intentionally. I guess it just happened because I enjoy creating a scene that represents a norm, a pattern, usually via unison movement, then showing that norm get disrupted.

Bop is an experimental dance film that incorporates elements of slow cinema. What is the inspiration behind it?

The film is a translation of a piece I created for the stage. When deciding how to make it a film, I had several questions to answer. From what angles will the choreography be shot? Will the camera be moving while it’s capturing the choreography, or will it always be on sticks? Should the camera always show everything going on in the choreography, or can it punch in and get close up? When would closeups distract the viewer, and when would it bring the viewer further into this world? Do I want to the edit to be fast and jumpy like the music or to be more grounded and working in contrast to the music and choreography?

I am a huge fan of slow cinema and feel at home with the pace and principles of the genre, so I decided to make Bop (the film) a movement film drawing on slow cinema principles. What’s interesting to me about slow cinema is that it doesn’t use huge expressions of drama; it is understated, there is limited emotional expression, but the timing creates an emotional temperature that the subject and audience both exist in together. I love the subtlety and the patience it fosters in the viewer, how it makes you realize the passing of time. However, in my research on slow cinema, I read over and over again that the aesthetic of non-emotionality is achieved by both shot length and also restricting movement, both of the camera and of the subject. This poses an interesting problem when you want to make a slow film that is movement-centered, aka based on choreography. The way I decided to make the film was to basically do everything I could too offset the intensity of the movement by choosing to keep the shots very long, minimizing cuts as much as possible, and shooting the entire film with the camera still to keep that bored, objective, bland outsider perspective of the piece.

A still from Bop.

The camera was always static, the shots were long, and I was very conscious of shot distance. If there was a part with intense movement and physical energy being exerted, I shot that part really wide to try to visually dilute the movement with negative space, making it look more subtle than it actually was. I never cut when I was worried the viewer would be bored. I always lingered longer on those moments to achieve the slow cinema feeling even though there was intense physical movement being shown. At the time I was working on this film, I was reading a book by Agnė Narušytė about the aesthetics and politics of boredom (to which I feel very connected), so I wanted parts of the film to drag on and for people to expect a cut and not get it, requiring them to either be distracted and notice it or sink into the scene in a hypnotic way. Because the choreography was tied to the song, I couldn’t drag the scenes on as long as I would have liked to, but a feature film I’m working on now called a page intentionally left blank will have a custom score so the scenes dive deep into a slow, meditative pace.

As someone who has no coordination, I can only imagine the work that goes into directing and putting together a seamless production. If I were to look behind the scenes, what would a day in rehearsal look like?

It was helpful that on the day of the shoot we knew exactly what we were shooting because we had this 7 minute piece of choreography, and I just needed to decide the distance and angle from which each part would be shot. It was a bare bones crew with a DP, a gaffer, the performers, and me. We ran the piece start to finish from a few wide perspectives, then we set up shots that were closer up and just filmed a small segment of the choreography over and over to get that particular part from a specific angle. As for creating the actual choreography, I don’t choreograph ahead of time (I can’t make anything without bodies right in front of me). I listened to the song several times, then arrived to the studio with the dancers and started working from the beginning of the song and built until the end. I did choreograph the piece in order from beginning to end, which I don’t usually do, and finished the 7 minute piece in four 2.5-hour rehearsals. I didn’t have much time, but we made it work.

Director and Choreographer Ania Catherine working with the cast of Bop.

What does the editing process look like when you have to consider both the choreography itself and the completed film? Did you find yourself having to crop the dance routine to get the perfect story? And how do you make decisions as to what gets cut from the final production?

Editing is the most difficult part for me because it is loaded with too many options. It’s easy for me to come up with a visual world, then I’m making decisions based on what matches the image in my head, which is an easy process; the mental image is my guide. There is usually much less of a guide for me in the edit, so I just have to feel my way through, trying out a million things until it feels right.

Maya Deren famously blended dance and film in experimental filmmaking. Is she a role model for you? Are there others who influence your work?

Yes! I absolutely love Maya Deren’s work. I love how profound it is, especially in its very simple moments. I love how she uses the placement of the body in space and somehow makes a surreal scene out of practical objects via framing, editing, and sound. She is definitely an influence, also definitely Chantal Akerman (my favorite), Agnès Varda, Shirin Neshat, Andrei Tarkovsky, Federico Fellini, and Roy Andersson.

How do you see movement and dance as a response to current social and/or political issues?

For me it’s impossible to think of the body and not think of politics, as there are so many ways in which society and politics shape our thinking about our bodies via classifications, hierarchies, programming us to believe that certain traits are beautiful, what is “natural,” what is wrong, the list goes on. Our entire upbringing and even before we exit our mothers, there are ideas that exist about who we are based on our bodies (think gender reveal parties and painting a baby’s room pink or blue before they’re born based on a fetus showing a penis or not); sex is a classification that is not only provided, but enforced—sometimes violently. These norms and values are enforced daily via images, films, and beyond; so for me, working with the body holds a lot of weight, responsibility, and potential for change. The dance world (especially the commercial dance world) is highly gendered, young girls starting from the age of 4 are sexualized, taught to move their bodies in ways that seduce men, dancing to degrading music, and taught to value their looks and a very specific version of femininity that in most cases is determined by a heterosexual predatory gaze. It’s sad for me to see an art form I love being used to carry on and worsen the effects of patriarchy, but unfortunately dance and choreography often have a role in reinforcing toxic norms and social structures.

A still from Bop.

In my case, I want to show the body in ways that we are not accustomed to seeing it, seeing women as humans, as owners of their bodies—not sweet accessories to men, but full human beings whose expression is not limited by what patriarchy demands of their bodies (be small, don’t take up space, be demure, submit, be quiet, be graceful, etc.). I never show women’s bodies in an objectified way, performers always wear unisex clothing, I don’t portray heterosexuality. I’m not against heterosexuality, I just believe we have enough depictions in the world, and as a lesbian who didn’t see many queer representations growing up, I know how important it can be. I include people who fall across the gender/race spectrum in my work. I work with the body to create visual worlds that represent what I wish the world looked like in hopes that those images might lead to the building of that in the “real” world.

Your artistic eye and dedication to producing experimental films have enabled you to grow as a woman filmmaker and dancer. How would you encourage other women filmmakers and dancers to grow in their craft?

I would say don’t try to make work that looks like others’ work that you admire; don’t look around too much. Of course you can have favorites and influences, but it’s much more important to invest time and energy figuring out who you are, what your perspective is, and what you want to do instead of trying to master or imitate what has already been done well. Be honest with yourself, make what oozes out of you because that is going to be your best work. Listen to your voice, pay attention to the lines, scenes, and visions that pop into your head at random moments and write them all down.

Be sure to connect with Ania on social media. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. You can also learn more about Ania by visiting her website. Visit Shewonda’s profile to learn more about her as well.