“He was thinking of all these things when he desired a city.” Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Moving Cities is stunning. Blurring the line between art and everyday life, the collection of short films captures dancers performing outside in urban environments. The result is a surreal re-envisioning of quotidian spaces—subway tunnels, bus stops, street corners—as locations of beauty and inspiration. The World Dances spoke with Moving Cities director Jevan Chowdhury about the films and the processes involved in creating them.
How did the idea for the project come about?
I love the book Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, and was inspired by that when I thought of exploring cities in this dream-like, meditative way. There’s no talking in the films. The only communication is through movement, whether it be a bus, a car or, a dancer.
I had been given a few commissions to produce dance films in the commercial sense. I’ve always really enjoyed working with dancers and the idea of movement,
but less so in the music video sense, which is traditionally where you might find dance and screen coming together. I did a bit of ballet when I was a kid but I didn’t really enjoy it, to be honest. I was really young and my parents sort of pushed me into the classes. It seemed more about routine and structure and someone telling you what to do. But if you go to a club or are in your own home, just moving in response to some rhythm, that’s completely different and more what I’m interested in. Of course, a lot of the dancers in the films are professionals, but I’m more into that primal movement.
How do you create and capture that sense?
What I find really interesting is that the dancers are being instinctively responsive to whatever’s around them. You can’t actually repeat a lot of the stuff we’ve filmed because they’ve made it up in response to a specific moment. It’s different to dancing on a stage because when you dance in real life the ambiance of the place around you—the people and the cars and the trains or whatever else—becomes the sound track. A lot of dancers turn up and ask, “Do you want me to just be free and go with the ambiance of the city?” That works. Other dancers turn up and have choreography prepared that we’ll adjust. We might make it lighter, heavier, more aggressive, more emotional, whatever fits the purposes and inspirations of the location.
There’s one thing you can’t get away from, and that’s the adrenaline side to it. The locations are not stages, not safe places in terms of audiences. They’re very open and very public. The dancers might be quite far away from the cameras and very isolated in some ways. There will be safety stewards around, but the dancers are on their own. It creates an adrenaline rush and that contributes to the way they dance. I find that to be one of the things captured in each film—the dancer having to internally perform in such an external environment.
What do you look for in the dancers you cast?
I look for dancers who want to dance instinctively and improvise, dancers who want to express themselves. “Dance artists” might be the most correct term to express the kind of person with whom I’m looking to work. Certain dancers will get up and ask me to tell them what to do. I really don’t want to do that. I want a dancer to turn up who’s an expert at expressing him or herself in his or her particular genre of movement, and is willing to adapt and take directions for screen. I’m not looking to choreograph, but I do direct for the screen. I direct them like actors almost, which I find can be an interesting challenge for many dancers.
The public exposure of the dancers must lead to some interesting interactions between performers and passers by. Do any examples specifically come to mind?
People do generally stop, take photos, ask what’s going on. There’s a scene in the film in Yerevan, Armenia where there are something like 15 guys dancing on a wall. That’s actually a tourist site. It’s an ancient ruin. The wall is very high up, and about 20 feet down from the dancers there were loads of tourists. All the tourists stopped. No one was looking at the ruins. They were looking at these guys, obviously, because it’s a spectacle. But to me, that’s exactly what’s interesting about cities—it’s the people not the buildings. We mostly film in very normal, everyday places, like commuter destinations. All cities have those, but what makes them different or special anywhere is the people.
How are the soundtracks for the films created?
That’s a tricky one. There are a lot of different genres in there and it’s a challenge to tie it all together. The process of making the music is very much the same process that the dancers will go through when they dance. The sound designers go on gut instincts. They don’t do too much research. In the Armenian one they incorporate Armenian instruments, so there is that element. I suppose if we made—I don’t know, Moving Bombay—we would have some Indian instruments in it. But one of the aims is to not be too obvious or predictable. We want to do something different and point out the everyday-ness of stuff.
Do the dancers listen to the music as they’re dancing?
The music comes afterwards. It has its own narrative and direction. Sometimes we play a concept track for the dancers to listen to, but even that can steer what the dancers do, which we want to avoid. We end doing it differently in each location.
What’s it like to experience these places through the lens of this project?
It’s truly magical. You’re seeing the city through a completely different pair of eyes. You get to play with the cities in a way you don’t normally get to, plus you’re meeting some of their most talented dancers. I wish everyone could do it. It’s such a great way to visit a city.
Has any particular film been especially meaningful to you, or changed your idea of the place in which it was shot?
Armenia was a special place to go. I’m half Armenian and I’d never been to Yerevan. That country’s got a lot of history, and there was a lot of traditional dancing in that video as well. They’re all special in their own way, but I think that was the most memorable for me.
What’s next for the project?
At the moment, it’s just been in Europe. I’d love to make movies in the United States and on other continents. Ideally, I’d like to reach 15 cities and then exhibit them in some way as a collection. So, yeah, a lot’s happening!
To watch the films and stay updated on news related to the project, click here.
Byrony Harrison (Rambert), Photo by Jevan Chowdurhy
Salah El Brogy, Photo by Jevan Chowdhury