Responsive Choreography

A dance film in three parts, Bound explores physical relationships to books, and metaphors that inevitably emerge from stockpiling different narratives within the same space. Monica Thomas examines the symbolic interpretations and the metaphorical liberation of movement.

ASFF: Bound was directed and choreographed by you. How did you begin planning the short, and what changed within the creative process as you began to film?
MT: Bound began as an exploration of an object. I wanted to examine the multiple symbolic implications of books, experimenting with different physical relationships to the books to see how this might change the meanings read by the audience. From the beginning, I did my best not to prescribe any particular meaning to the books in order to leave it open to interpretation. Now that the film is complete, I have heard many different interpretations of the film. I welcome all interpretations, the most common one being a feminist interpretation given that the dancers are women.  I find it interesting and amusing when viewers try to interpret my specific intentions given that the process was an abstract one.

Similarly, the title itself points to a three fold meaning — one being the literal binding of the books, two being the movement concept of flow–with bound flow being on a continuum with free flow, and three being the most common reading of a metaphorical unbinding of the dancers from social constructs. I didn’t realize these layered interpretations until after the film was complete, and I find this most enjoyable about part about leaving the creative process open. You are able to surprise yourself with the outcome.

 As we made our way through the creative process, I had to scale back my initial vision. My dream was to build a large structure with thousands of books and show the dancers building, then climbing over and through, and ultimately toppling the structure. Logistically, this didn’t work out. In the middle section of the film, you see about 400 books. This was already a feat to collect and transport. Originally, I had conceived of the project as a three-channel installation. Each of the three sections would play independently in succession, and then all three would play simultaneously, edited to compliment each other.  When I approached composer Will Huff about the project, this was the original concept for the music. If you play each of the three musical pieces together, the create a fourth song. I still dream about creating this version of Bound: what we might be able to do with unlimited time and resources!

ASFF: How do you think that working with the dancers made the process one that was collaborative – do you think that filmmaking is inherently a network?
MT: My choreographic process is collaborative. I present a choreographic idea to the dancers, have them improvise material or create a phrase, and then provide my own movement ideas, and shape and structure the material. I think this definitely affects my approach to filmmaking. I love working in an environment where ideas are freely shared and welcomed, with no worry about stepping on toes or claiming credit. I enjoy collaborating with cinematographers, editors, composers in this same way. I have come to realize that this isn’t how everyone is used to working, especially folks on the technical side of filmmaking, but this is the environment I foster and I think the film is better for it.

ASFF: What do you think is the purpose of a dance film?
MT: In live performance, contemporary dance is ephemeral — once the performance is over, it’s gone, and audiences for dance performances are often small. As a choreographer I was drawn to dance film because of its obvious capabilities to expand audiences for dance. But I have come to realize how beautifully the art forms compliment each other. Exploration of space and time is inherent to both dance and filmmaking, and I seek to thoughtfully merge the two. I want to make dance films that are more than just a document of choreography, that do and say more than simply highlighting virtuosic performance. I seek to create choreography in response to the camera and choreograph the camera as a partner in the dance, thematically integrating my choices as a choreographer and as a filmmaker.

ASFF: Do you think that there is narrative to Bound? Does there need to be?
MT: There is not intentionally a narrative to Bound. Humans are meaning-making machines, though, so if an audience member was to read a narrative from the film, that is totally understandable, and this was the thought experiment I was engaging in through its creation. I wanted to experiment with this symbolically charged object and see the array of different interpretations that could arise. But at its heart, it is an experiment with no single reading, and that openness is what I love about this project.

ASFF: Having screened at a number of festivals, including ASFF, Chicago Feminist Film Festival and Boise Independent Film Festival, how do you think these events have helped to further your career or teach you new things about the practice of filmmaking?
MT: Bound has shown at many festivals and many types of programs. It has been interesting to see what types of festivals are open to abstract dance film, and which are not. I know it is a niche and it is not something that is programmable in every festival, so I’ve enjoyed seeing who is open to it. Of course, it always feels good to get acclaim for your work. I was excited to win Best of Festival at Third Coast Dance Film Festival this year. I love that my work has been seen by many audiences, and being able to attend these events and connect with different sorts of filmmakers and artists has been very instructive.

Ultimately, this has all led to a festival focusing on the types of independent artists I am most interested in. I am co-producing an event with MANA Contemporary and Chicago Dancemakers Forum called the MANA Body + Camera Festival which takes place in Chicago and will also be presented at their New Jersey campus in the Fall. We hope to make this an annual event.

ASFF: What other films do you have planned this year?
MT: I am currently working with composer Will Huff, who also was composer for Bound, to finish up my current project that we shot in August of last year. It is a meditative film focusing on gestural choreography, different natural environments and light, and the naked body. The trailer can be found here:

I’ll also be doing a residency performance at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in response to a Dale Chihuly exhibit. We hope to make a dance film version of this site-specific exploration, and will be given freedom to film in the museum. You can donate if you’d like to support this project!

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1. Monica Thomas, Bound. Courtesy of Vimeo.