We sat down with Danish filmmaker and producer Signe Roderik to discuss her career, as well as two of her dance films that The Joyce is showing as a part of JoyceStream, a series of online dance programming we are currently offering. These award-winning 30 minute films—which have also been screened at festivals and art venues in Krakow, St. Petersburg, Copenhagen, Paris, and San Francisco— center on the tradition-filled world of the Royal Danish Ballet, and highlight the subtlety and beauty of artists at opposite ends of their careers.
In The Art of Silence, playing May 29-June 1, Roderik focuses on mature dancers who are experts in a technique for which Danish dancers are particularly celebrated: mime. When I Dance, playing June 1-4, is an intimate and moving portrait of two young students, Sylvester and Ella, who are on the precipice of careers as professional dancers.
You were a photographer before you began making films. What drew you to photography initially, and what made you want to focus on dance, in particular?
Growing up, I didn't live with my father and when we occasionally had time together, we would go on long summer trips to Sweden. I guess it wasn't always easy for us with so much time on our hands, in each other’s company, and taking pictures allowed us to be together without the need for words. You could say that taking pictures and later also watching films became a way to gain access to each other—a way of feeling connected.
My interest in the arts, and in classical ballet in particular, I think, had to do with a fascination of a dancer's dedication more than dance itself. Today, where a lot of people can do a bit of everything, that specific, specialized focus, stamina, and determination a dancer works with left me in awe. If only I could commit myself to something so strongly.
Also, I was intrigued by the poetry of telling stories with no words—an art form that allows us to experience something intuitive instead of being in our heads is something precious in an age of information overload.
What led you to expand from photography to filmmaking?
In January 2015, I documented a group of dancers from The Royal Danish Ballet performing Bournonville at The Joyce. Experiencing the enthusiasm and love of Bournonville that New Yorkers have reminded me what a rare treasure he is.
After the New York experience, I felt limited by still photography. I realized I wanted to tell stories through moving images. But I didn't know how. I told a friend in London this, I guess I had talked about it for a while before we actually met up for a few days. On the third day we met up in the yard of the V&A Museum like we’d done many times before, but then something radical happened.
I was waiting for him, when he walked straight up to me and in a rather loud and angry voice said: “So, is it going to be talk, talk, talk, or are you actually going to take this leap of faith? Are you ready to dive in at the deep end or will you play it safe for the rest of your life?” He told me not to get in touch if I didn't want to move forward, that he had no time for talk, only for doing. Then he left.
I’d never had such an unexpected shake-up before in my life. I walked the streets until midnight. The following week I began working on my first film. Sometimes true friendship is tough love, rather than just holding one’s hand.
Both films we are showing focus on the Royal Danish Ballet, which is known for carrying on the tradition of August Bournonville. What do you appreciate most about this tradition?
That it is human, and that it is for everyone. I’m especially taken by Bournonville's focus on community; that we are all connected, at least that's how I see it. Other ballet traditions often focus on the principal dancers and on the spectacular, but not Bournonville.
One important aspect about his work is how the performers dance for each other and with each other. In Bournonville's worlds, what is crucial is not making only one person shine but how they make each other shine—and of course telling stories. This is something that resonates with Danish—and maybe even Nordic—ideals about community.
I mainly grew up with films such as My Life as A Dog, What is Eating Gilbert Grape, Zappa, and Autumn Sonata, and what always moved me deeply was how these films communicated everyday life: unfolding how people interact, and how we leave traces with each other as people—both the ones we are aware of, and those we are blind too. To me, Bournonville does something similar: it is not about Kings and Queens, big dramas or quests, or a single man's achievement. It is the opposite; it is about the day-to-day relatable situations that life gives us and challenges us with—how we stumble and fall, and how we get up and go on.
Do you think there is anything in particular within this tradition, and the arts in general, that we can apply to life right now, during the Coronavirus epidemic? I'm thinking in particular about the pacing, which is quite slow and rich.
I can only speak for myself when I say that distance, reflection, time, and missing out have made me focus on the essentials in life.
Personally, I have been hibernating for the past 9 months. I needed a complete lock-down, to just be. This has been an occasion to tune in. Peel away everything that is not important. And once you have stripped yourself to the essence, what is important in life and how to act accordingly becomes clear. To give endless love to children, without expecting anything in return, and to tell honest stories that other people hopefully can feel mirrored in.
Cultural legacy is hyper relevant in these times, because it can connect past, present and future, in a time where fewer and fewer traditions can give us that.
However, I often find it difficult to identify with many of the classical ballets, which in a way is strange because they communicate themes such as doubt, desire, choices, disillusions, love, and loss. I sometimes find it hard to feel the immediate connectedness.
I believe there is an urgent need for an update of the themes. If we don’t mirror the world we live in today, classical ballet is in danger of being stuck in the past. We need to make classical ballet relatable, if we want to make it relevant. We need to portray the world we live in today.
The Art of Silence focuses on character dancers in the Royal Danish Ballet. What is it about these dancers that captivated you? And also tell me more about the title, The Art of Silence, and why you selected it.
The Art of Silence ... When everything is silent, things are often the most exposed. So, what is it we see, if we dare to truly look at life, with no disturbance?
To me the greatest experiences are when something is stripped down, so nothing remains but the core of the story being told. This is an approach that is in line with what I see as the greatest strength of Bournonville the tiniest movements, reactions, and hesitations come to the fore. Everything is in the detail. I am personally moved the most, not by the big bravura feats, but in those fleeting moments. This is something I think we should appreciate even more: the details, the honest, relatable moments.
The film is also an appreciation of age, and a celebration of life lived and artistry refined over decades. People who have lived a long life often tell the best stories, but their emotional life is often underrepresented in the arts.
I know you have been particularly interested in focusing on children's voices right now. In When I Dance, we see the world through the eyes of two children. I love how there is no adult voice in the film. Only the kids speak and never to the camera, only in voice over. Why did you choose to organize the film in this way?
Children can teach us much more that we often give them credit for. Their outlook, their curiosity, their playfulness, their imagination and their love. The children are our future, so why don't we listen more carefully?
When I Dance is about children's experiences with art and culture, and it was clear how much poetry—how many thoughts, how much perspective—these children have.
I didn't want adults “explaining” the children, because then some of the purity would have been muddled. It was crucial for me that the film was made purely with children's own voices, drawings, movements, etc.
In a way, the children in the film communicate something larger than ballet and what is going on in their own lives. They talk about connectedness, about creating and experiencing together—I think they show us why the arts are a necessity in our world—why we need the arts in order to understand and heal each other.
Is there anything that you learned from the two children while making this film?
Yes, as I do from my own two daughters and their friends every day—they are a boundless source of love and inspiration. Their curiosity, their immediacy, their generous humanity, not forgetting their huge creativity. Their ability to tell stories in word and movement. And they just do it. They don't overthink it or analyse it, they just go for it when they have something to tell.
In fact, one of my girls' daily creations, during the home-schooling period, has been the basis of an important scene in one of my upcoming films. We also sometimes create moving images together. They don't overcomplicate things; they have such a fresh and inspiring energy in everything they do.
I think we should embrace our children—let their curiosity, their laughter and their purity be our greatest source of inspiration. Children can teach us the most important things in life.
You mentioned that you recently launched into several new creative projects. Can you share a bit about these new films?
I'm working on an elaborate series on solitude that includes films and live performances. You could say that they are fragments of a life—about everything we do not outgrow, and everything we must grow with, and how solitude and shame can live on from one generation to the next.
I remember Maggie Gyllenhaal, in an interview once, talked about being open, and feeling and honest and about the strength in vulnerability. This resonated deeply within me, but it took a while to actually dare to practice that myself.
A female inspiration, she and so many other brave women have given me the courage to tell stories rooted in personal experiences rather than documenting others. My upcoming works are all made with honesty and love.
I know that art saved me, and I truly believe we have the potential to do the most amazing things in the world through art. It can offer a much-needed counterbalance to social media—the fast pace and disconnections. Art is one of the most, if not the most, important connectors we have left in this world. My biggest hope is to contribute—to reach out. And if only one person sits out there and feels seen, less alone, less wrong, that would mean the world.
Everyone can recall at least one childhood experience that is connected to the feeling of being lonely. A feeling that will stay with us forever. For some, it may just be a single unique experience, for others, it is how they remember their whole childhood. Children grow up, but do not necessarily outgrow what has marked them as children.
By sharing honest stories from children or memories of our own childhoods, my hope is that we can learn to understand each other and ourselves in more nuanced and loving ways. If we can understand first, perhaps we can forgive. I strongly believe that deep down, we all just want to feel loved. Astrid Lindgren said: “Give the children love, more love and still more love – and the common sense will come by itself.”
Streaming: Friday, May 29 at 5pm Eastern Time through Monday, June 1 at 10am Eastern Time
This 27 minute film by Signe Roderik looks at character dance as a key element in classical story ballets, with leading exponent Morten Eggert as guide. In Danish with English subtitles.
Streaming: Monday, June 1 at 5pm Eastern Time through Thursday, June 4 at 10am Eastern Time
Through the eyes of pre-teens Ella and Sylvester, two of the Royal Danish Ballet School's rising stars, we get an inside look at the world of ballet from a child's perspective in Signe Roderik’s 35 minute film When I Dance. In Danish with English subtitles.