As a young dancer fresh out of art school, Martha Curtis had followed Pauline Koner and her dance company to New York City, where she taught performance at Brooklyn College. But when Koner’s company foundered in 1982, Curtis had to look for other work.
That’s how, by the mid-1980s, Curtis landed on the opposite coast. She had taken a new teaching job at University of California Santa Cruz, just 90 minutes from San Francisco.
It was in California that she met filmmaker Bruce Berryhill, who took an interest in her performance work. Eager to show off her choreography, she dug out a VHS tape she made at Ohio State University and played it for him.
But Berryhill was disappointed. The way the video was shot, he couldn’t see a thing.
“In those times,” says Curtis, “with a locked down camera in the back of the house and theater lighting, it just looked like Pillsbury Doughboys bouncing around in the space. You really couldn’t see the dance.”
Curtis was initially afraid that Berryhill didn’t like her work. Instead, the filmmaker was determined to help her shoot her performances better. They began to collaborate, exploring the complementary elements of dance and filmmaking with superimposed imagery, intimate camerawork and cycloramic set designs. Their working partnership eventually led to marriage, and the two moved to Richmond in 1988.
Bruce Berryhill (left) and Martha Curtis (right), in a behind-the-scenes still from 1991’s Three Dances by Martha Curtis.
Their work continued at VCUarts, where the pair to established and taught a new course: the Video/Choreography Workshop. It became a staple of the Dance + Choreography curriculum when Curtis was the department chair from 1996 to 2006.
“Video/Choreography Workshop is not necessarily about learning how to film a dance and make it look good,” says Curtis. “Although that can be part of it, it’s really about what can happen when people collaborate and make something that is either for dance or for the camera.”
Since Curtis and Berryhill’s earliest works—such as Three Dances by Martha Curtis, which debuted on PBS in 1991—the interdisciplinary art of video dance has matured at VCUarts. Most recently, the 2018 Dance on Camera film screening was the first event of the 2018–19 season, featuring short films of dances paired with landscapes; a “docu-dance” on racial profiling; stop-motion animation; and a choreography written in computer code.
After Curtis retired in 2017, Kate Sicchio, a hybrid professor in the departments of dance and Kinetic Imaging, has taken on the mantle of video dance innovator. In addition to curating the Dance on Camera festival, Sicchio has continued to explore the intersection of choreography and new technology like wearables and live coding. Using a coding environment called tidal cycles, Sicchio is able to interpret computer-generated patterns as movement on a stage.
More than 30 years later, the concept of bringing technology and dance together continues to yield new and exciting answers.
“The marriage is a happy one,” says Curtis, “and it’s also a really challenging one.”
2018 marks 90 years of creative daring at VCU School of the Arts. To mark this occasion, VCUarts is spending this school year reflecting on our shared history and envisioning how we can continue to pave the way for creative practice in the 21st century and beyond. Visit the VCUarts 90th Anniversary website to learn more about the many stories that have shaped our school, and to share memories of your own.
Lead image: “Soft Cell,” by Kate Sicchio.