Madge Reyes has always been curious about capturing dance on film. On the hour-long trips she would take to the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), where she spent her formative years training in classical ballet, she would put her iPod on shuffle, close her eyes, and imagine a dance sequence unfolding.
Madge was with the prestigious Ballet Philippines from 2009 to 2014, coinciding with her years as a Visual Communication student at the UP Diliman College of Fine Arts. When she wasn’t at school, she was training at the CCP. In between rehearsals, she found herself experimenting with dance and video, filming herself or her colleagues using an old iPhone. “I was the only dancer—at least as far as I can remember—who was really into that thing. Dance film, until now, is still pretty alien to most, even among dancers.”
Professional dancers are usually trained to perform on-stage, not on-screen; in the Philippines, that much-coveted platform is the CCP, the birthplace of the country’s flagship ballet and modern contemporary dance company.
Two years after graduating from college in 2015—where she won Best Thesis for her first dance film Improve—Madge staged Entablado, an outdoor installation merging dance and film through projection mapping. On a wall in BGC, she projected her second dance film Lucid, which was shot entirely underwater. Her pursuit of dance and film eventually led her to the US in late 2019, where a six-month research fellowship under the Asian Cultural Council in New York allowed her to further hone her craft.
Madge returned to the Philippines in early 2020, just before the country went on lockdown. Her latest venture, Fifth Wall Fest, is described as the country’s first international platform for dance on camera, bringing together artists, filmmakers, and audiences from around the world. First launched in October 2020, Fifth Wall Fest urges viewers to challenge one’s perception of dance.
Ahead of Fifth Wall Fest’s second installment, we caught up with Madge to talk about the process of shooting a dance film, the legacy of choreographer Pina Bausch, and the beauty of finding dance in the mundane.
In performance theater, the “fifth wall” is the imaginary barrier that separates the audience’s real life from a cultural experience, like dance. How exactly does Fifth Wall Fest aim to break that barrier?
MADGE REYES: What we try to advocate for in Fifth Wall Fest is movement outside or beyond the conventional performance space. It’s also a lot about [increasing the] exposure and accessibility [of dance], which we’re doing by using film as our medium through the internet. In terms of accessibility, I’m also proud to say that we’re offering our programs for free.
Why does this mean a lot for Filipinos? Growing up performing in the CCP, I’d always have friends, family, or even just random people complain to me about how far it is or how expensive the ticket is. On top of that, they’re [not as interested] to watch it in the first place, so why would they want to go when they have all these other factors [in their way]?
I think of the whole film as a big dance where all moving parts are part of the choreography, from the lighting and landscape down to the cinematography.
Through Fifth Wall, we want [our audience] to realize that in a way, everything is connected [to movement and dance]. If you come across our sidebar programs, we have a bunch of ongoing series like Movement in Focus where we invite and collaborate with artists from different disciplines to interpret movement. That in itself [is a way for us] to cast a bigger net, and not just box in our content or programs for dancers and filmmakers. This was always the goal, to try to reach out to people outside my world.
Photo by Sandra Zobel
I’m curious about the way you’re using dance films to do that. In an interview with Out of Print, you mentioned that the difference between dance films and simply recording a dance with a camera is the intent. What do you enjoy most about dancing, and how does using film as a medium enhance that?
MADGE: If you’re watching a live performance, especially in the nosebleed seats, there’s only one vantage point. But with film, that changes a lot of things in terms of perspective. If you’re a filmmaker, you have the capacity to show whatever you want, even what isn’t normally seen. You can show the person’s back, lower back, elbow—these little details that should be able to enhance the message you’re trying to convey.
Personally, I try to show everything beautiful about dance—and even the ugly sometimes. I guess it ties back to [the ideas of] exposure and accessibility. What are you trying to expose? What are you trying to make accessible?
I read somewhere that filmmaking for dancers comes quite naturally because dancers are so in tune with the body; they have their own skill with musicality, coordination, etc. So filmmaking could be a natural extension [of] dancing, and I think it’s pretty accurate.
Tell us about your process of making a dance film. After you’ve decided on a concept, how do you move forward with the rest of the elements, like the choreography and cinematography?
MADGE: As poetic as it sounds, I think of the whole film as a big dance where all moving parts are part of the choreography, from the lighting and landscape down to the cinematography. When working with a camera, you also have to move—you’re moving with the camera, you’re moving with the dance, so it’s really like a marriage between dance and film. It can’t be that one entity is moving differently from the other; they need to be harmonious, and this reflects even in the editing.
Choreography can also happen in the editing itself. For Lucid, I remember… the choreography for that was mostly done during post-prod, since it [was shot underwater]. Coming into it, I already knew that it’ll be more difficult compared to [shooting] under a normal, on-the-ground setting. So we did multiple takes; I would direct my dancer’s movements in and out of the water, then I stitched it all together post-prod.
It’s about dance at the end of the day—how to keep it relevant, how to give back to it.
I’m not much of a dancer, but I find that watching dance films, in a way, entices me as a viewer to move my body. Would you say there is room for non-dancers to be able to appreciate the art of dance?
MADGE: I can see how the term dance can be intimidating to non-dancers, which is why I made sure to use the word movement [in Fifth Wall Fest] instead; it’s more encompassing of what we’re trying to do. We try to invite outsiders—by that I mean those who aren’t usually adept at dance—to see movement, or dance in the mundane. There’s movement in everything; no matter how poetic it sounds, it’s true.
Another one of our taglines is “Celebrate dance from all angles,” [and we do that] through the films we curate, and the sidebar programs we mount all throughout the year. We have a blog on our website [where] we have contributing writers pen their thoughts, all revolving around dance and film. Then we also have collaborations with people from other creative disciplines, so we’re trying to make a community out of it.
Do you remember the first dance film you ever watched?
MADGE: I can’t remember if it was the first but I’m pretty sure it was either the first or second. It’s called Pina; it’s this documentary made by Wim Wenders about the late Pina Bausch, a well-known German dancer and choreographer. That film is still one of my favorites to this day—you have to see it.
What did you love about it?
MADGE: It was mostly because of Pina’s work, [but] by seeing that film, I realized how much of dance I was missing out on. It’s a half-documentary so the material they used [included] Pina’s choreography for the stage—she was known for dance theater, which is completely different from classical ballet. To be able to see [her work] on screen, or to have access to these kinds of dances through film, is amazing. It makes a difference because you see her style, and you see how pedestrian she can get.
What do you mean by that?
MADGE: I realized that dance could be seen in the mundane. If you familiarize yourself with [Pina’s] works, you’ll see that: In one performance, I distinctly remember how she made women walk across the stage in heels as if it were a pageant. That was just one part of the choreography, but I mean, you can’t get more pedestrian with that. And I like how her legacy [opened] more opportunities for dancers who are more mature or aren’t the stereotypical “dancer”; when I say that, I mean having long, lean, muscular bodies.
I guess the world is also changing—in dance, we’re starting to see this whole aesthetic leniency, where we see more body shapes, more kinds of bodies. Though for classical ballet it’s a bit more complex because [you’re dealing with] years and years ideas and concepts that date back to the 1900s, so it’s not easily changed. It’s such an aesthetic thing, and [it requires] discipline.
What has been the most rewarding thing about mounting a dance film festival in a virtual space?
MADGE: There are a lot of small wins, but what comes to mind right now is being able to reach beyond geographical borders, and being able to share this craft to people who usually won’t even get to see it in the first place. When we had live performances, tickets were expensive, and I mean imagine being able to bring dance to the provinces… it’s hard [logistically] and it takes a lot of money.
The landscape of dance these days, everything is virtual here in the Philippines. Compared to the rest of the world, we’re stuck. There are a lot of dancers or performing artists who’ve had to pivot and rethink their careers because there’s [still] no live performance.
We want our audience to realize that in a way, everything is connected to movement and dance.
Over the year, I’ve seen efforts in creating more dance films because people are starting to realize that there is a value to it. Working with dance film or appreciating it [now] also comes out of necessity especially for Filipino [performers]. When the pandemic hit last year, I really saw a surge of videos circulating online—and from people who wouldn’t normally post. That progressed to Zoom performances with multiple tiles, and then slowly, dance films. So there is an audience and a market for it; it’s slow, but it’s growing.
Dance film is definitely one of the things I want to get deeper into. It’s about dance at the end of the day—how to keep it relevant, how to give back to it. There’s a lot in the pipeline [for Fifth Wall Fest] and it just doesn’t involve filmmaking. So it’s an exciting future, I hope.
If someone wanted to understand what dance in the Philippines looks like, what dance films would you recommend?
MADGE: The one’s you’ll see at Fifth Wall Fest! We have a good selection of films from the Philippines, and I have to say that the competition entries from this year really surpassed my expectations. I’ve seen a lot of good, even better films from Filipinos this year, and Asians as well, so it’s very exciting.