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Cinematic “Pas de Deux”: The Dialogue between Maya Deren's Experimental Filmmaking and Talley Beatty's Black Ballet Dancer in A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945)


A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945) is a collaborative enterprise between avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren and African American ballet dancer Talley Beatty. Study is significant in experimental film history – it was one of three films by Deren that shaped the emergence of the postwar avant-garde cinema movement in the US. The film represents a pioneering cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary dialogue between Beatty's ballet dancing and Deren's experimental cinematic technique. The film explores complex emotional experiences through a cinematic re-creation of Deren's understanding of ritual (which she borrowed from Katherine Dunham's Haitian experiences after spending many years documenting vodou) while allowing a leading black male dancer to display his artistry on-screen. I show that cultures and artistic forms widely dismissed as incompatible are rendered equivocal. Study adopts a stylized and rhythmic technique borrowed from dance in its attempt to establish cinema as “art,” and I foreground Beatty's contribution to the film, arguing that his technically complex movements situate him as joint author of its artistic vision. The essay also explores tensions between the artistic intentions of Deren, who sought to deprivilege the individual performer in favour of the filmic “ritual,” and Beatty, who sought to display his individual skills as a technically accomplished dancer.

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1 Vodou is a common current spelling of the religion, but it can also be spelled vaudou, vaudoun, vaudun, vodun, vodoun or voodoo. For Dunham's account of her experiences in Haiti see Dunham, Katherine, Island Possessed (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994; first published 1969).

2 Deren, Maya, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film (Yonkers: Alicat Book Shop Press, 1946), 20; in Clark, VèVè A., Hodson, Millicent and Neiman, Catrina, eds., The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works (New York: Anthology Film Archives/Film Culture, 1988), Volume I, Part 2: Chambers (1942–47), 570.

3 Interview with Talley Beatty, 22 Feb. 1977, in The Legend of Maya Deren, Volume I, Part 2, 280.

4 See, for example, Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro in an African Setting (1934); Richmond Barthé, Lindy Hoppers (1939); Langston Hughes, “Danse Africaine” Crisis, 24 (Aug. 1922), 167; Hurston, Zora Neale, “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” in Cunard, Nancy and Ford, Hugh D., eds., Negro: An Anthology (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1970; first published 1934), 2431; Hemsley Winfield, Life and Death (1930); and Katherine Dunham, L'Ag'Ya (1938).

5 Wallace, Maurice O., Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men's Literature and Culture, 1775–1995 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 168.

6 Maya Deren, “From Fellowship Application to the J. S. Guggenheim, Jr. Memorial Foundation, Received November 11, 1944,” in The Legend of Maya Deren, Volume I, Part 2, 247, emphasis in original.

7 John Martin, quoted in Deren's publicity flyer, c.1946, in ibid., 286.

8 Deren, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film, 15, 565. One of the few films that Deren admired for its visual language was Jean Cocteau's Le Sang d'un poète (Blood of a Poet) (1930), which, like Study, also features a black male performer, the Senegalese dancer Feral Benga. However, Benga does not dance and Deren denied being influenced by the film's imagery. As VèVè A. Clark, Millicent Hodson and Catrina Neiman observe, similarities between Sang and Study are probably due to Cocteau and Deren's shared admiration for the French symbolists. See “A Question of Influence,” in The Legend of Maya Deren, Volume I, Part 2, 102.

9 Deren, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film, 16, 566.

10 Dunham, Katherine, “The Negro Dance,” in Brown, Sterling Allen, ed., The Negro Caravan: Writings by American Negroes (New York: Citadel Press, 1941), 9911000; Dunham, Katherine, “Thesis Turned Broadway,” California Arts and Architecture, Aug. 1941, in The Legend of Maya Deren, Volume I, Part 2, 214–16.

11 Maya Deren, “Cinema as an Independent Art Form,” Aug. 1945, in ibid., 346.

12 Deren, Maya, “Religious Possession in Dancing” (1941), in The Legend of Maya Deren, Volume I, Part 1: Signatures (1917–42), 480–97.

13 Hill, Constance Valis, “Katherine Dunham's ‘Southland’: Protest in the Face of Repression,” in Clark, VèVè A. and Johnson, Sara E., eds., Kaiso! Writings by and about Katherine Dunham (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 345–63, 359.

14 See Franko, Mark, “Aesthetic Agencies in Flux: Talley Beatty, Maya Deren, and the Modern Dance Tradition in Study in Choreography for Camera,” in Nichols, Bill, ed, Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 131–50; Jeong, Ok Hee, “Reflections on Maya Deren's Forgotten Film, The Very Eye of Night,” Dance Chronicle, 32 (2009), 412–41; and Brannigan, Erin, Dancefilm: Choreography and the Moving Image (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), chapter 4.

15 Wallace, Constructing the Black Masculine, 168 and 169.

16 Franko, “Aesthetic Agencies in Flux,” 138.

17 Ibid., 140.

18 Interview with Miriam Arsham, 17 July 1976, in The Legend of Maya Deren, Volume I, Part 2, 264.

19 Maya Deren, letter to the Guggenheim Foundation, 15 Aug. 1947, in ibid., 524.

20 Wallace, 168.

21 Deren, Maya, “Original Plan for A Study in Choreography for Camera, with Talley Beatty,” in The Legend of Maya Deren, Volume I, Part 2, 267.

22 Long, Richard A., The Black Tradition in American Dance (New York: Rizzoli: 1989), 132.

23 Perpener, John O., African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 184.

24 Ibid., 182–83.

25 Ibid., 183.

26 John Martin, “The Dance: A Negro Art,” New York Times, 5 Feb. 1940, 114.

27 Ibid., 114.

28 Long, 19.

29 Clark, Hodson and Neiman make this point. See Clark, , Hodson, and Neiman, , “A Study in Choreography for Camera (April–May 1945),” in The Legend of Maya Deren, Volume I, Part 2, 264, and Interview with Talley Beatty, 22 Feb. 1977, in ibid., 280.

30 See, for example, Anna Kisselgoff, “Ailey Company's Homage to Talley Beatty,” New York Times, 21 Dec. 1989, C12; and Jennifer Dunning, “Talley Beatty, 78, a Leader in Lyrical Jazz Choreography,” New York Times, 1 May 1995, B11.

31 Clive Barnes, “Dance: The Wizardry of Talley Beatty,” New York Times, 5 Sept. 1967, 47.

32 Perpener, 183.

33 Deren, Maya, “Ritual in Transfigured Time,” in McPherson, Bruce R., ed., Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film (Kingston: Documentext, 2005), 225. Cited in Butler, Alison, “‘Motor-Driven Metaphysics’: Movement, Time and Action in the Films of Maya Deren,” Screen, 48, 1 (Spring 2007), 11.

34 Deren, “Religious Possession in Dancing,” 482.

35 The absence of sound is probably due to the fact that Deren self-funded Study and could not afford to hire Cage. Many years later, Cage would have no recollection of having been asked to score the film. The Legend of Maya Deren, Volume I, Part 2, 650 n 50.

36 Cage downplayed Fort's influence, which remains barely acknowledged by scholars. For a detailed recovery of Fort's work with Cage see Levitz, Tamara, “Syvilla Fort's Africanist Modernism and John Cage's Gestic Music: The Story of Bacchanale,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 104, 1 (2005), 123–49.

37 See Deren, “From Fellowship Application to the J. S. Guggenheim, Jr. Memorial Foundation,” 248.

38 Deren, Maya, “Untitled Notes,” in The Legend of Maya Deren, Volume I, Part 2, 268, emphasis added.

39 Mulvey, Laura, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, 16, 3 (Autumn 1975), 618, 11.

40 Maya Deren, letter to Talley Beatty, 20 June 1945, in The Legend of Maya Deren, Volume I, Part 2, 281.

41 “Shirley Clarke Interviewed by Gretchen Berg,” Dance Perspectives (1967), in Porter, Jenelle, ed., Dance with Camera (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 2009), 108–12, 108.

42 Deren, Maya, “Creating Movies with a New Dimension: Time,” Popular Photography (Dec. 1946), in The Legend of Maya Deren, Volume I, Part 2, 612.

43 Deren, “Religious Possession in Dancing,” 481.

44 Deren, Maya, “Choreography for the Camera,” Dance Magazine (Oct. 1945), in The Legend of Maya Deren, Volume I, Part 2, 267.

45 Deren, “Original Plan for A Study in Choreography for Camera,” 268.

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