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Dance Cinema Flourishes in Seattle with Dayna Hanson’s Latest Vision

Written by Kristen Legg

Jessie Smith in Improvement Club
With her work as co-curator for New Dance Cinema from 1999 to 2003, her inclusion on Dance for Camera (First Run Features 2003), and over a half-dozen short dance films, Dayna Hanson is no newcomer to the silver screen.

Hanson became interested in dance cinema in 1989. After making a number of Super 8 films with her interdisciplinary group, Run/Remain, she saw a short dance film within a live piece called Oidan Skroeba by Dutch choreographer Angelika Oei. “It stopped me in my tracks.” From there her passion for dance film grew. “In 2000…I met Carlo Scandiuzzi through On the Boards; we cooked up the idea of making a dance film by 33 Fainting Spells, my company with Gaelen Hanson. We shot Measure in one day in a dilapidated boarding school on BainbridgeIsland in the summer of 2000.”

Since then, she has directed, performed in, and produced innovative work for the camera. She now sits perched, ready to become one of Seattle’s biggest names in dance film with her feature film, Improvement Club, which is currently in post-production.

When Hanson was given the opportunity to produce her full-length stage work, Gloria’s Cause, at On the Boards in December 2010, she decided to sequence Improvement Club after the live work, drawing material (conceptual as well as filmed footage) from the stage performance. Gloria’s Cause was a non-linear deconstruction of the American Revolution mixing dance, theatre, and live music with absurd, yet intensely passionate, characters who grappled with the dissonance felt from conflicting ideas on what it is to be American. In all, this collaborative work took over 400 hours of rehearsals and workshopping to get right. By the time Gloria’s Causepremiered, a whole story had played out, which became the outline for Improvement Club.

After the run of Gloria’s Cause closed at On the Boards, Hanson promptly began developing the script for her new film. She interviewed the actors to gather their experiences. “It was fascinating for all of us to come out of an intense process of creating a live work only to dig into that work in a different medium.” Hanson took slight liberties in character development, finding that the making of Gloria’s Cause was an interesting case study in human relationships. Aided by her co-writer/performer Dave Proscia and long-time collaborator Peggy Piacenza, Hanson created scenes filled with experiences from rehearsals for Gloria’s Cause—some that were exaggerated, some that went exactly as depicted in the film, and some that are pure fiction.

 Wade Madsen in Improvement Club

As the cast and crew moved into production, the work kept a fluid structure. While the crew set up for a scene, the performers would rehearse and decide on spacing. Even the dialogue developed alongside production. “I was doing re-writes between locations: Once I got left behind at dinner and just stood by the truck with all the props and costumes and re-wrote the next scene before we changed location. It was awesome. Even in rehearsal we would often change the script to make it more natural or naturalistic.” In this ‘putting on a show’ parody with a documentary-like texture, Improvement Club allows the viewer to take interest in the artists as individuals, not just as characters. “By the end of the film, the audience will feel they know what it’s like to make Gloria’s Cause.”

Putting speech and dance together is an art form in itself. While the script is vital to Improvement Club, Hanson has made sure to give moving images primacy at times. “Dance gets a range of treatments in Improvement Club. In one scene a dance rehearsal featuring Jessie Smith and Jim Kent is intercut with a phone call I’m making just outside the studio. The dance could stand alone, but I want to show the two in relation. Other times people break into dance in the style of musical theater, which interests me a lot. Sometimes dance propels the narrative, other times it provides a pause from it.” But Hanson believes the entire film is danced. “To me dance and pedestrian movement are barely separable. So the cast running in a bedraggled way down the highway is kinetic and narrative at once.”

This film could not be created without a number of irreplaceable collaborators. Sean Donavan, a local film editor, brings a great deal to the project, including rhythm. “Sean is a drummer, and I swear it makes a huge difference. I’ve heard camera operators observe that shooting dance film feels looser or freer than shooting narrative work. Not so with editing. Sean learns the choreography; he understands the counts. Also, and this applies to his work with narrative as well, he recognizes beauty, truth, and poetry. If those qualities are lacking in dance film, there isn’t much there.” Hanson explains that the cast is also vital to Improvement Club. “When I was casting Gloria’s Cause I was looking for fearless performers who could dance, speak, and play music. Those same people are the multiple protagonists of Improvement Club.”

Jim Kent and Jessie Smith in Improvement Club
But what is it about dance for film that satisfies where stage cannot? On stage, a presenter only has so much impact or control over what an audience sees. Hanson recalled a performance by 33 Fainting Spells at the Moore Theatre. After the show, audience members who knew the company’s work commented on the lack of subtlety this particular performance contained. Hanson realized her choreography relies on nuance and expression. At such a large venue, while new spatial patterns emerged, the subtlety was lost. “Small and subtle is the currency of the art form,” Hanson says of film. With film, one can amplify the details and get to the human being who is performing. “Taking what’s small—by rendering in a close up—is saying, ‘this is what’s important.’” Conversely, film can take a further distance from movement, like an aerial view, and see what the work holds from afar. It seems there are a million ways to tell one story.

The film is scheduled to be completed in Spring 2012. Hanson is currently raising funds for finalization of Improvement Club through USA Projects.She has issued a challenge to the Seattledance community: she asks that 100 dancers donate $10 each by 11:59 pm on January 12, 2012 to match cast-member Wade Madsen’s $1,000 pledge. “The more I see of the edit, I’m really thinking this film deserves a wide audience, so making that happen is my primary goal. I want it to actually be as radically good and strange as I think it is, and I want many, many people to see it.”

The trailer for Improvement Club is available to view on Vimeo at