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“Grief” – A Dance Short Film

“Grief” is a barefoot Waltz (in American style ballroom, also known as Smooth Waltz), performed by the Youth Show Team at Pacific Ballroom Dance in Auburn, Washington. It is part of my not-for-profit Dance Short Films project.

Since around 2006 I had discussed ideas with my wife Jill for a very grounded, expressive barefoot Waltz based on this song, and we had been kicking around ideas for several years without being able to move forward into detailed choreography because something was missing.

Background

Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim. ― Vicki Harrison

During a particularly difficult time in late 2014, several family members and close friends had died within a very short period of time, and life had begun to feel incredibly bleak. When my friend Sam Oliver died unexpectedly over the holidays late in 2014, I came to the point where I just couldn’t speak. I couldn’t say anything, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t listen to music. The day I learned about his death I went walking through the woods with a heavy heart when I began to discover movements that helped me through the grieving process; the movement became therapy. That night, Jill and I began riffing off of those themes and we developed this piece very quickly, within a few hours of working on it, and began teaching it to our youth team at Pacific Ballroom Dance the next day.

We later learned that many of our dancers had experienced similarly challenging months including death in the family, illness, divorces, and sickness. Our team quickly internalized the movement and also used it as therapy to process the grief. Several of the dancers later told the rest of us that they had specific family members and loved ones in mind while we rehearsed this piece. We have collected the names of those who we grieved for during this period: they are placed near the end of the credits in the short film.

First day of new waltz choreography. These kids are like, “Is this supposed to be ballroom dance?”

A video posted by Garrett Gibbons (@garrettgibbons) on

 

Choreography

This piece is based around the fundamental idea of Waltz: rise and fall. Waltz is a dance (and musical style) based around a systematic 3-count pattern that rises and falls with every measure of music. Often, there is an additional level of rise and fall in the dynamics and phrasing, which is expressed over longer stretches of music. This rise and fall is generally expressed through foot rise, the bending and straightening of knees, body rise (elongating the torso from the center), and through arm and head contractions. Additionally, rise and fall is often seen through lateral expansion and contraction to coincide with the movement in the music. With “Grief” I wanted to take rise and fall and expand it beyond the normal realms of ballroom dance: I wanted dancers on the floor and high in the air, making the dynamics far greater. (One day I plan to work with dancers on wires and bring waltz into the air as well, but one step at a time!) The piece itself follows a certain type of rise and fall: the dancers begin on the ground, contracting and expanding, and gradually arrive on their feet. Towards the middle of the piece of music, three dancers are lifted high above the heads of the group, after which they all return to their feet. The piece ends with all dancers again on the ground. All of this was strongly informed by the dynamics and flow of the piece of music, “Earth” by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard, from the beautiful soundtrack of “Gladiator” (2000). The symbolism we hoped to evoke has to do with the challenges of life itself: we start low, crawling on the ground, yearning and reaching to develop and overcome our limitations. We grieve and mourn with others. Sometimes our pain is too great to bear, but our loved ones around us stand with us and comfort us. We find breakthroughs that help us reach high, but in the end we all return to the earth. We hope that audiences can see that narrative arc within this piece.

Staging for Screen

When we performed this piece in a theatrical setting, I designed the lighting cues to enhance the story that this is an entire life cycle of a group of people, complete with highs and lows. I did this through emulating the light that happens throughout the course of a day. All of the lighting cues, which normally have cross-fades between 3-5 seconds in an average piece, were set to durations between 20 and 40 seconds so the lighting transitions throughout the piece would be mostly imperceptible.

  A photo posted by Garrett Gibbons (@garrettgibbons) on

The intro choreography on the floor was danced almost as silhouettes in blue-tinted near-darkness. The solo couple stands and some amber front lights shown on them, mimicking the golden light of dawn. Gradually, the stage lights arise until they reach a peak at the lifts just after the middle. After that, the lights slowly faded through orange to a deep red, symbolic of sunset and the end of life, and the lights faded to black as the final lift ended and Logan cried over Kaylah’s fallen body.

As much as I wanted to do the exact same thing with the film version, we didn’t have the time or resources needed to bring it to fruition. Any limitation can become an opportunity for creative inspiration, however, so Jill and I scouted locations and racked our brains for the perfect setting and style to tell this story on film. Though exceedingly difficult to get permission, I somehow got access to the raw side of the river below Snoqualmie Falls, thanks to Snoqualmie Falls Forest Theater. We only had a few hours with everyone available, and no money for a crew, so we all volunteered our time and resources to make this happen.  

Production

Most of us woke up around 4am that morning to prepare and travel to Preston, Washington, near Snoqualmie pass, 22 miles East of Seattle along I-90. We filmed the intro footage on the rocks in the river around 8:30 in the morning, after hiking through the woods for a bit over a mile, carrying costumes, food, water and camera equipment. A large number of curious onlookers watched on from the Salish Lodge on the opposite side of the river as we filmed throughout the morning. The very first scene filmed was the very ending of the piece, because the light on top of that high rock was perfect in that moment.  

Filming dance with @pacificballroom youth at Snoqualmie Falls yesterday. A photo posted by Garrett Gibbons (@garrettgibbons) on

Those rocks that the dancers begin the piece on were slippery and difficult to access. We taped up each dancer’s feet with athletic tape (I bought all of the athletic tape at Rite-Aid – all of it) to help protect them, and they found ways to protect their pants and skirts while jumping over logs and climbing over rocks, jumping over stretches of water to get into position. I literally stood in the river to get the camera angle I wanted. Jill stayed close to them and relayed any direction I had (through a series of relayed shouts), since the sound of the falls is so overwhelmingly loud. We hid a loud music player behind them on the rocks and former team member Teneal Thomas operated an iPad to start and stop the music playback as we filmed.

The shore of the river had very few places where one person could stand comfortably, let alone for 20 dancers to move freely, so we only filmed one other section near the river (which begins around the 1:40 mark). The rest was filmed in a clearing in the woods above the river. By the time they had changed back into hiking clothes, hauled everything back up the trail, set up again, had some food, and gotten back into costume (while I set up the camera and crane), the dancers were running out of steam. Their attention was fading and their feet were throbbing, and many had time crunches that were making them nervous. There were some jokes from the dancers about how the only way I was able to get them in character was to make them physically suffer for the day. We filmed several takes back to back and the kids were really struggling with heat and fatigue so we only got a few more good takes before we decide to call it a wrap.

Editing

I recorded some audio at the river while were down there – I recorded at a few places, ranging from little bubbling side areas to the roaring falls themselves. The ambient sound at the beginning of the film is a multitrack audio composition made of keyframing volume and audio properties to make it sound more like the rise and fall of ocean waves, and still on tempo with the music.

Audio composition to make natural river sounds sound like a Waltz rise and fall pattern.

Audio composition to make natural river sounds sound like a Waltz rise and fall pattern.

A few shots needed invisible visual effects done: I removed the Salish lodge from the top of the hill just to the left of the waterfall, and I moved once dancer’s eyes to the side for a few seconds when he looked right into the camera during the middle of a take. Otherwise, the film is very much just a 23.976 timeline of 4K UHD footage. The compression of YouTube destroys the natural detail significantly, but it still is better to watch at 4K on YouTube than it is to watch at 720p or 1080p, so if you have the opportunity to watch on a high-resolution monitor, please do set the playback resolution to 2160p!

That’s all I can think of to say about this piece for now. It’s been a journey, and I’m grateful for my wife for being there with me through this process, as well as our dancers and their parents for putting up with me as I woke them up before dawn, dragged them through the woods with heavy equipment, and made them dance barefoot outside until their feet were bleeding.

This isn’t the most solid film I’ve made in terms of film technique and artistry. It doesn’t feature the most skilled or accomplished dancers. It is definitely one of the most personal to me, however, and I’m a little hesitant to share it with the world because of the vulnerability Jill and I exposed through this creative process. I hope that it touches someone, somewhere, at some point in time.

Enjoy the film!
Grief waltz dance short film

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