SXSW ’13 Interview: Dayna Hanson on Dancing Towards Her First Feature “Improvement Club”

The Seattle-based choreographer-turned-filmmaker tells us what's fact and fiction in the comedy based loosely on the experience of a dance troupe in search of an audience....Read More
Dayna Hanson's film Improvement Club

With film as a medium that accommodates many others, it was only a matter of time before Dayna Hanson would make her first feature. “Improvement Club,” which features an eclectic group of musicians and dancers using the full frame of the camera as a playground for their talents, takes full advantage of it.

“I wanted a certain ratio of these elements interplaying [with each other] and, at times, have the music advance the plot or have the dance be an interlude,” says Hanson.” Whether it’s on film or it’s onstage where I can have a little reflective time, some parentheses for my mind to reflect or process what I’m experiencing. To have these little interludes is a lovely thing that we don’t always get in film.”

As a whole, “Improvement Club” feels a bit like an interlude within the spectrum of movies overall, a multidisciplinary jaunt detailing how messy the artistic process can be while basking in all the escapist pleasures that can be derived from it. Lensed by frequent Lynn Shelton and Guy Maddin cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke, “Improvement Club” wears its own medium so loosely the other ones can shine through and it’s based around the choreographer-turned-filmmaker’s real-life production of “Gloria’s Cause,” an only slightly tongue-in-cheek take on American history that sought out the truth behind the mythmaking surrounding the Revolutionary War through dance. Hanging on the barest of threads for its narrative, Hanson plays a version of herself as the group’s not-so-fearless leader who worries about a backlash once she tells her Seattle-based troupe they won’t be staging a production in New York as had been planned.

Shortly after the film’s premiere at SXSW, Hanson spoke about the blurring the line between fact and fiction, bending the one between dance onstage and in film and working out of the creative melting pot of Seattle.

Naturally, one of the big questions about this film will be how much fact versus fiction is there in it?

There’s a huge amount of fiction and distortion. We had an experience kind of like this, but I conflated it with another experience in order to create a three-act story. Then there’s a whole third act of the movie that’s pure fiction, like I know these people — what if these characters ended up in this situation, what would they do? And what would be a poetic, poignant, very human conclusion to this whole journey that they’ve been on? So that’s where the [fiction] came most into play is in that third act when the whole troupe ends up in search of an audience.

“Gloria’s Cause” is an actual dance program you created out of serious intent, but yet in the film you’re able to poke fun at the ensemble troupe performing it in a “Waiting for Guffman”-esque way. Was it difficult to be respectful of what you created while making sport of it to a certain degree?

That’s a really interesting point and the parallel to “Waiting for Guffman” is a really apt one.  There’s a certain ferocity in the actual work that we did and even though we only allude to the performance, you never get to see what that piece was. But I think the kind of seriousness of that content and the reality of what we went through, I did want to honor that and also trust my cast. I think they have the trust in me too to allow for a certain amount of exploitation, or let’s mock ourselves just a little bit in order to make a point about what humor and pathos exists in this struggle to make art. Everyone in that room knows that struggle really, really intimately. You work really hard, it’s heartbreaking, it’s joyful, it’s humiliating and then at the end of the day, you walk away from it and you go toward whatever your next project is as an artist. [This film] is an ode to the anonymous working artist in America today in a sense.

There’s a great line in the film where the person who plays your boyfriend in the film says, “You’re in Seattle, you’ve got to work a little bit harder.” Is there a ring of truth in that for you?

There’s a sense in Seattle and I think in the West Coast in general, depending on the context you’re in, but certainly for contemporary dance and performance, we feel very far away. We feel like we’re the Pacific Northwest outpost. There’s a lot of interesting work that comes through, people are exposed to a lot and there actually is a fair amount of work that gets out of Seattle that gets on the road and touring, but it’s such a struggle because it’s a very New York-centric industry. So if you don’t do certain things to make your presence felt or attempt to make your presence felt, then you’re just not going to get noticed. The film definitely addresses that — the balance that any artist needs to strike between I just want to go in the studio and make my work or I want people to notice and have some sort of profile or viability outside of this little community. It’s not important for everybody, but most people kind of desire that broader impact.

Speaking of that community, how did you first get in touch with your cinematographer Ben Kasulke?

Ben and I met in 2000 when I was in post-production on my first dance film, a seven-minute short called “Measured” that’s on a compilation that First Run Features put out called “Dance for Camera, Volume One.” We just met in the doorway of this editing house and became friends and began to collaborate on short dance films. We began to talk about doing a feature together years ago, but the first film that we collaborated on was in 2002 and then there were all kinds of ideas [for a feature], so it took until 2011 for things to line up. In the mean time, he became incredibly busy and sought after and deservedly well-recognized for his talent, so it’s a dream fulfilled to be able to work with him. And you know what? It’s also nice that he knows my work so well – he knows my aesthetic, he knows my sense of humor. We’re close friends and that really allowed me to lean on him, like I want you to make your choices about the shots, based on how well you know me and that was lovely.

And I would guess he not only knew your work, but coming from other features, was able to bring experience you could draw upon as a first-time feature director?

That’s very true. He has a presence on set that is very kind of protective and he has some qualities that helped for me take on this beast of a feature film. We had a crew totaling six people, including myself, so everyone was multitasking kind of to the Nth degree.

With dance in particular, it’s different to know what works well live and what works on film. Was that an interesting leap to make and possibly part of why you became a filmmaker?

Yeah, there’s an entire genre. Dance film is really getting to be a highly developed art form and it’s been going on for many decades. There was Maya Deren, way, way back as an American artist, but in the late ’70s and all throughout the ’80s and ’90s, there were incredible things happening in Europe for this genre – France, Belgium, Holland, and some really, really interesting work in the UK – Deviate, Clara van Gool, Ana Teresa de Keersmaeker and Thierry de Mey, which at a certain point in my dance career I discovered through my collaborator at the time. I was so inspired by that we began to present a dance film festival in Seattle that she and I [staged] within the umbrella of our dance company, which was called 33 Fainting Spells.

We introduced that region to this form, essentially, and now of course, the technology being far more accessible than it was 15 years ago, it’s thriving. So this love affair began back in the mid- to late ’90s for me personally. Then when we made our first dance film, I felt like I’ve got to do more – because you can. When you’re choreographing for the stage, you can’t do very much in terms of directing the eye. There’s only so much you can do that equates to an editing choice. There’s all of this freedom that opens up when you start thinking about choreographing for the camera. It’s much more intimate. It can be much more emotional. You can tap into [ideas that] maybe your choreography is in the face or in a hand gesture or something like that. Then you get into these interesting junctions between narrative and emotion and character and a whole kinesthetic realm of the body. It’s just really exciting.

“Improvement Club” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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