San Francisco Dance Film Festival’s Co-Laboratory Project

by Michael Mahany | 10/17/2017 4:34 PM


Photo Credit: Aleksey Bochkovsky


Picture this: two artists, each at the top of their respective games, paired together; one from the world of dance, the other from the world of filmmaking. They’re given a budget, the resources they’ll need, and a location. Their task: to create and shoot—(in one week!)— a new, original dance short film to be premiered on the final night of the San Francisco Dance Film Festival.


If that sounds like a little bit of insanity and a little bit of brilliance, you’re not wrong. As one might imagine, this undertaking, known as the Co-Laboratory Short Film Project, is one the most inspired and compelling aspects of the San Francisco Dance Film Festival. Executive Director of  SFDFF Judy Flannery is the original mastermind behind the Co-Lab Project which, as of 2017, is in its fifth year. With the inclusion of this year’s two new shorts, the festival has now been responsible for the production of twelve original dance short films: three films each in it’s first two years, and two films in each of the respective three seasons.


According to the film festival, “the Co-Laboratory is a unique collaboration between two teams of choreographers and filmmakers who will create two short dance films in a week, shortly before the annual fall festival. The intention is not to create the perfect film, but to bring professional artists into the atmosphere of a laboratory, one that challenges them to think collaboratively and explore possibilities for expression outside their fields, hopefully inspiring future creative relationships among local artists.”


This year’s two teams were each given just a few late summer days to shoot at The San Francisco Armory. Between the two creative groups, some of the top dance creators in the San Francisco Bay area were entrenched alongside two of the most creative filmmakers in the game today.


Marta Dymek and Robert Dekkers. Photo Credits: SFDFF


TEAM 1 was comprised of Polish-born award winning photographer and filmmaker Marta Dymek and San Francisco’s Post: Ballet founder and artistic director Robert Dekkers.


TEAM 2 combined co-choreographers and co-artistic directors of the San Francisco based contemporary company RAWdance Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith, and a previous ad-agency art director turned visual story-teller Shelley Lewis.


Shelley Lewis (above) and Ryan T. Smoth and Wendy Rein. Photo Credits: SFDFF


Dance Network was able to catch up with a the artists this passed week in a series of interviews to discuss their collaborative and creative processes. We discussed with both the directors and the choreographers the challenges and surprises they found, their dynamic film sets, and what it will mean to them as artists to see their work featured and distinguished at the festival.


Here’s our discussion with RAWdance co-choreographers and the dance creators of TEAM 2’s film Battle, Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith:


Wendy Rein on set. Photo Credit: Aleksey Bochkovsky


Dance Network: Hey guys, thanks for taking the time to talk with us, and congratulations on Battle. So, your dance company, RAWdance, seems to put a special focus on issues that speak directly and deeply to your audiences— since one of the other focal points of the company is collaboration, what was the process like working with Shelley Lewis and how did you guys ultimately decide what your film was going to be about?


Wendy&Ryan: The collaborative process is definitely integral to the way that we work, both as Co-Artistic Directors (who split all roles from artistic decision-making to all the back-end of running a company) as well as the way we with engage with our dancers and designers. Working with Shelley was an extension of our usual collaborative process, but it involved finding a new common language and really putting faith in her knowledge and experience in the medium. We had to embrace the things that we didn’t understand or couldn’t see. If we didn’t, we’d automatically be limiting our experiences with creating the film.


Shelley has been amazing to work with and deserves the lion’s share of the credit for conceptualizing and getting the ball rolling on the content of the film. There was a certain interest in our both being involved, not only behind-the-scenes but also as performers, so Shelley was curious about ways to highlight our long history and connection as dance partners. After meeting us for the first time, she developed the idea of this externalized internal battle between the two of us, and we all thought of ways to craft and play from there. We all agreed early on that we were interested in something that was not only elegant and editorial in its feel, but also played with some subtle tongue-in-cheek or quirkier moments. A lot of the dance films we've seen are really serious and rather dark, which tends to be true of our live performance work as well. We all agreed we wanted to create something that didn't always take itself so seriously, but that was still beautiful.


DN: The big reveal of the film will be on the final night of the festival, but, what can the audience expect to see in your film? There were rumors of multi-colored striped leotards?


W&R: While definitely a dance film, we really played with the music video vibe. You can also expect a wide array of weaponry. You will not get to see us in multi-colored striped leotards. We have the footage but it didn’t make the final cut. Someday, maybe we'll be able to make an outtake reel!


Wendy and Ryan. Photo Credit: Aleksey Bochkovsky


DN: Since it was such a quick process, how much choreography did you initially go in with and how much fluidity did you allow yourselves during the shoot?


W&R: We spent time brainstorming and playing in the studio well in advance of the shoot, but really developed the bulk of the choreography during the week prior to filming and onsite during our one rehearsal day at the Armory right before shooting. The treatment of the film included quite a few potential post-production special effects. Those moments had to be choreographed in advance, since we had to be able to exactly replicate our movements, and each others', every time. We definitely had to approach those moments with a different choreographic eye, imagining how the film treatment would interact with our real-time material.


For each choreographed moment, we created about four times what was used in the final film. There were also quite a few sections that we knew would be better to just improvise on the spot. It was definitely an interesting mix of material that had to be super precise for the special effects, and material that we adapted and created only when we were out there with the camera rolling. One thing we had talked about early on with Shelley is our strong belief in the practice of non-attachment when it comes to choreography. We knew that some of the phrases we loved the most might not translate to camera, so we went into the shoot ready for anything.


The schedule for the shoot was extremely tight, and we had quite a few unpredictable technical issues on our second day. In order to get everything that we needed, there were a few pivotal non-dance shots that we had to do in just one take and several movement phrases that we were only able to shoot twice. Thankfully, the whole production team was so on top of it and so committed to the success of the project that despite the hiccups, we were actually able to get what we needed with zero room for error.


Ryan on set. Photo Credit: Aleksey Bochkovsky


DN: You both have some experience working with dance on film— how was this process different, and what does it mean to you as creators and performers to have the opportunity to create and ultimately screen a piece at SFDFF?


W&R: So much of our experience with dance film has been on the small scale, either DIY or experiments with other filmmakers with a much more narrow focus. We've learned a lot from those experiences, but this was our first time working in such a meticulously planned out manner with the support of a full production team, both on set and in post [production]. The dance field is so inherently self-sufficient: so many of us sew our own costumes, design our own postcards, write our own grants, etc. It means we all learn a ton of different skill sets, but we're also bound by our own abilities and limitations. For this project, we were really able to work with so many true experts in film— it’s been such an amazing reminder of what can be creatively accomplished with that type of collaboration!


DN: Last question: did you had a chance to see the other team, Robert and Marta’s film?


W&R: No! We saw balloons being blown up every time we walked by their studio, but we weren't able to catch any of their shoot. We're so excited to see it at the premiere!


More: See the 2016 Behind the scenes documentary on the Co-Lab Project


In another interview, via email from 30,000 feet, Wendy and Ryan’s director, Shelley Lewis spoke with Dance Network mid-flight, from an airplane. (Isn’t technology amazing!?)


Shelley Lewis. Photo Credit: Aleksey Bochkovsky


Dance Network: Thanks for emailing us from your flight! So you initially made a name for yourself as art director for an ad agency until you made your way into the world of film— tell us a little about what the process was like for you as a filmmaker, and how it was different creating a film specifically about dance?


Shelley Lewis: My approach to any project is always the same. I focus on the idea. Once the idea is clear, I work on the script and make it as strong as it can be. Only at that point do I move into the execution. This project was no different. I had never done a dance film before, but I am a storyteller, and believe that if I can find the core idea and create a narrative around it, I can begin a project. Once the three of us locked down the script, I did a visual treatment to entice people aboard. This allowed RAWdance and I to lure some pretty talented folks onto our team, including Lou Canon, who graciously committed her song, and Devin Whetstone, our very talented cinematographer.


Overall, I approached this film the same as any film project or TV commercial. I have a process that is tried and true for me. I gather my team and we collaborate. Everyone is encouraged to speak up and share their ideas or thoughts in the creative process. I find this always shows up beautifully in the film.


What was different for me this time, was that I have very little experience with dance. This didn’t phase me at all, as I was confident Wendy and Ryan would lead me in this area. They did, and I heavily deferred to them. It was fascinating learning about dance and movement, and discovering how to bring it to life in a way that is not  possible on the stage: We explored how to use the camera, the edit, and special effects to do things with the performance, and the dancers’s bodies, that are physically impossible to achieve in real life.


Our editor, Alison Gordon, used to be a ballet dancer. I knew, with her dance background she would be a perfect fit for this film. I was right. She cut the film with the choreography and dancers in mind. And our visual effects artist Patrick Coffey, is a swing dancer. I believe that their dance experience brought some inspiration to our film.


DN: You said that dance is new to you, tell us a little bit about how Wendy and Ryan led you dance-wise, and your overall collaboration with them?


SL: I knew Ryan and Wendy would lead me in terms of the dance and choreography, but I would not have guessed we’d be so in sync as collaborators. I thank Lindsay Gauthier at Co-lab for that. Although she interviewed us individually, she clearly had a vision for us together.


Wendy, Ryan and I found out early on that we were drawn to the similar things culturally, and we spoke the same visual language. I believe this elevated the final film. Not because we agreed on everything all the time, but because it gave us a level of trust. When there were disagreements, we all listened. It was that constant listening and challenging of each other that really pushed us. We all understood that the end goal was to make a great dance film.


We wrote draft after draft of the script. The overall theme was there from the beginning, but it really evolved from our first edit. It became more layered, and nuanced. Perhaps even a little quirkier.


Wendy and Ryan had done film projects in the past, but this one was at a much bigger scale. The interesting thing about it was, it didn’t phase them. It was just another production. It reminded me of my ad agency days, working with my old writing partners, we always had each other covered.


DN: How much pre-production work did you guys get to do, and how dynamic was the film set?


SL: We did a lot of pre-production. And I mean a lot. Lindsay and Judy Flannery brought us onto the project in late April. The three of us started writing in May, revised through July, and then began pre-production in late August. Our budget was small, and when you don’t have a lot of money, you need to have a lot of time. And time was the one thing we had working for us. Luckily, we also had the support of a local production company "Where The Buffalo Roam". They went above and beyond, even so far as throwing axes and shooting arrows on set. It was an ambitious film we had in mind. There was a lot to shoot in only two days with a smaller crew than we probably needed. But that’s what happens when you are making art. Our line producer Chris Whitney, hand picked the stellar crew. Everyone pitched in.


DN: Any highlights from the shoot?


SL: We set up and shot an underwater scene in 15 minutes. To do it, we formed a human chain with buckets of water to fill the fish tank as quickly as we could. It was exhilarating. Wendy was laying on her stomach on a bench above the aquarium. Ryan stood beside to spot her as she thrust her head into the water, over and over again, listening underwater for my muffled commands. He stood by to make she came up every time I yelled cut, as one can only hold their breath for so long.


The lipstick shot in the mirror was my favorite scene. We filmed Wendy putting on it on first. It looked thick and messy, just the way we wanted it. Ryan watched the scene play back over and over again until he felt he could duplicate it on himself. We called action and he nailed it in one take, which is good, because that was all we had time for. It was inspiring to work with them.

They hit their marks every time  We spent two weeks rehearsing and exploring the choreography prior to the shoot, and when they got in front of the camera they were on.


Photo Credit: From Team 2's film Battle


Devin, our cinematographer, never missed his mark either. In the moving camera shots, whenever the dancers moved, Devin moved with them. He followed the dance. When we got to the edit, it was all there. It flowed together seamlessly.


When it came to coloring the film, there was one person in particular we wanted for this, Ayumi Ashley. I hadn’t worked with her before, but I knew her work and was excited when she said yes to the project. I really wanted to see what she would do with it. She definitely gave it a look. There is a mood that she captured that I thought helped tell the story.


Photo Credit: From Team 2's film Battle


DN: What does it mean to you as a film maker to have the opportunity to get to collaborate and create an original dance piece for a festival like SFDFF?


SL: It’s not very often that you get to just go out and make art. It seems to be a luxury these days. You’d be amazed how excited people were to collaborate on this Co-Lab project.

One of the objectives that Co-Lab set up for this project was for us to push ourselves and explore boundaries. The idea was to try things we hadn’t done before. I took advantage of that and focused on using film to manipulate dance.


I also loved delving into dance. Judy, Lindsay and the rest of the Co-Lab team took a risk with me having no dance experience. They didn’t know what the end result would be. Nor did Wendy and Ryan. I guess that’s all part of making art, you have to take risks. I’m glad they did.


The film premieres on October 22. In the meantime, listen to Lou Canon’s WHO I AM:


More: See the 2016 Co-Lab film 'In The Space Between'; by Director Hervé Cohen and Choreographer Deborah Slater


From TEAM 1, we chatted with award winning filmmaker and director, Marta Dymek.


Dance Network: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Now, you’re known for your direction and writing, and you’ve worked with musicians and singers previously in your work— but, tell us, did you approach making your and Robert’s film Coming Home differently because it was a dance film?


Marta Dymek: I actually didn't approach it too differently from any of my past projects. At the end of the day, no matter what you're showing on screen, you're trying to tell a story and throughout this process that was my focus: What story are we telling here? Dance allows for the characters on screen to show their internal struggles and feelings in a not so literal way, which was an interesting angle to explore for me. I'd definitely like to play with that process more in the future. What I liked about the Co-Laboratory Project specifically was that it allowed for a lot of creative freedom while still giving us some limitations which inspire creativity.


Robert Dekkers, Allie Papazian, Keon Saghari, and Marta Dymek. Photo Credit: Aleksey Bochkovsky


DN: What was the creative process like working with Robert? Did you guys get a chance to do some pre-production work at all?


MD: Robert was an absolute pleasure to work with, I think I really lucked out in how well the Co-Laboratory paired us together. Co-owning a project can be very challenging if personalities don't match, but we were definitely on a consistent wavelength throughout the process. Ideas flowed from the moment we met back in the spring and agreeing on a concept was extremely easy. During the summer, we rehearsed with the two dancers and as the choreography shaped up, so did the story around it. The dancer's movement inspired some key points in the story and vice versa. After a few rehearsals during the summer and mood-boarding during that time, the majority of the pre-production happened in the week leading up to the shoot.


Marta on set. Photo Credit: Aleksey Bochkovsky 

DN: Tell us about the shoot itself?


MD: We had a first time Production Designer Alex Irwin jump in at the last minute and he killed it with the set design. Similarly, Christian Squires designed the costumes during the week leading up to the shoot as well and I honestly still can't believe he pulled all of that off in a matter of three days. Our DP Tyler Lee Cushing knocked it out of the park with cinematography and was very receptive to both my notes and movement direction from Robert. We had a very solid shot list and a strict plan for both days, but thankfully there was still a little room for improvisation in the acting, for which I'm grateful. Considering that both Keon Saghari and Allie Papazian (the lead dancers) didn't have much on-screen acting experience, they really did a great job and had amazing chemistry throughout the two days. Finally, our editor Stef Sequeira brought it all home and made the story and movement shine. It was a fantastic collaboration all-around. I'd like to give a special shoutout to Lindsay Gauthier and Kat Cole who produced the Co-Laboratory and made it an extremely smooth experience for us despite all the typical hurdles that come up during production.


DN: What does it mean to you as a film maker to have the opportunity to get to collaborate and create an original piece for a festival like SFDFF?


MD: I’ve been fascinated with dance my entire life (but I have two left feet and can't dance for the life of me) so making a film that revolves around dance entirely, collaborating with an amazing choreographer, and having resources provided to do so was actually a dream come true. It's definitely an experience that I'm proud of and I am grateful to SFDFF for the opportunity. It was so much fun, I'd recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat.


More: See the 2016 Co-Lab film ‘The Wind Telephone’; by Director Joe Stillwater Choreographer Nicole Klaymoon


Finally, we were able to catch up with the artistic director of San Francisco Post:Ballet and choreographer from TEAM 1, Robert Dekkers.


From Coming Home. Photo Credit: Aleksey Bochkovsky


Dance Network: Hi Robert, thank you for speaking with us. We know your company Post:Ballet strives to create deeply passionate work with artists in disciplines both in dance and other art forms, so this challenge seemed right up your alley as a choreographer and creator— tell us a little about the process for you: what was it like to collaborate with Marta, and where did you both find your inspiration for Coming Home?


Robert Dekkers: Working together with Marta was such a treat— I feel like we really found a great rhythm together that allowed us to both excel in our respective areas of expertise while also incorporating one another's input throughout our respective processes to make sure that the choreography supported the film, and the film enhanced the choreography. We conceived the core concept of the work after having the opportunity to just hang out over coffee a few times, chatting about what was on our minds as individuals and as artists. I'd wanted to do a "homecoming" film for a while, although from this initial idea there was some serious concept development that got us to our final vision for the piece! We worked together and independently, developing the concept until I had a good sense of the choreography (Marta joined us for several rehearsals and was able to influence the movement with her thematic ideas) and she had a good sense of the script (I had the opportunity to spend a few evenings with her to flesh out the story board and find the best ways to amplify her vision with dance). We workshopped the material together with our lead dancers, Allie Papazian and Keon Saghari, then worked closely with director of photography Tyler Lee Cushing (who has worked with Marta several times before) and costume designer Christian Squires (who's worked with me on many projects) as the work began taking shape. Post:Ballet's music director Andy Meyerson lead me to the work of Bay Area artist AhMerAhSu, whose track "Space" became a driving force in the work's development as well. Art director Alexander Zane took our concept to the next level with his amazing scenic design, and editor Estefania Sequeira worked closely with Marta and I to get the final work just right!! The collaborative process was truly magical from start to finish, and I feel that everyone's voices were well represented and compliment one another's beautifully in the final work!


Robert Dekkers on set. Photo Credit: Aleksey Bochkovsky


DN: We know the premiere is on Sunday, but can you give us a little sneak peak insight to your film?


RD: Set in a high school homecoming dance circa 2003, Coming Home is about love, finding the courage to let go of your inhibitions, and taking a leap of faith.


DN: Sounds awesome! So, we know how quickly you had to shoot everything, how much choreo work did you set in pre-pro, and how much developed on set?


RD: I worked closely with Keon Saghari and Allie Papazian to develop choreography for this piece in the weeks leading up to the shoot. They both contributed tremendously throughout the creative process, so we had a lot of choreography ready before the shoot. However, both dancers are such fantastically intuitive artists that we definitely utilized their natural instincts and improvisational abilities to supplement the choreography as needed throughout the shoot.


DN: We asked the other team this question too, but, have you had the opportunity to see Wendy, Ryan, and Shelley’s film?


RD: No! But I can't wait to see it on the big screen this Sunday evening! All of the photos from their shoot look amazing, I'm really looking forward to seeing their vision come to life! They're all such talented artists, it was a true honor to receive this commission alongside such esteemed colleagues.


DN: Since you're a San Francisco Bay Area based performer, choreographer, and artistic director, what does it mean to you to have this opportunity to create new work— and to be able to turn it into a film— in your company’s hometown?


RD: It’s truly special to receive commissions for new works that will premiere in San Francisco. I've received some awesome opportunities to create new works that never reach a Bay Area stage (or screen), so getting to work with other Bay Area artists and shoot in such an iconic San Francisco building was really a gift. I'm so excited to have the chance to share my work with Bay Area audiences who may not be familiar with my work, and feel that this Co-Laboratory commission really speaks to my vision for dance as a collaborative tool that can amplify other art forms, and in turn be amplified by such symbiotic partnerships. I can't wait to share Coming Home with everyone on Sunday night!


Photo Credit: Aleksey Bochkovsky


More: A listing of all the Co-Lab Films since its creation in 2013


The San Francisco Dance Film Festival runs through Sunday, October 22. The Co-Laboratory Project films will play Sunday, October 22 at 6:30 pm at the Brava Theater Center. The Brava Theatre Center is located at 2781 24th Street, San Francisco


To find out more about the Festival itself, the films playing, or to get tickets, visit their site here. Dance Network is a proud presenting partner of the 2017 San Francisco Dance Film Festival.

Funding for the 2017 Co-Laboratory program is made possible in part by the Kenneth Rainin Foundation with additional support by the Fleishhacker Foundation and the Zellerbach Family Foundation. 

For more information about SF Dance Film Festival's schedule and tickets visit their site: 



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