BWW Dance Interview: Angelo Silvio Vasta
Angelo Silvio Vasta is a New York-based filmmaker from Milan, Italy. His work explores the infinite ways choreography and performance can be expressed through moving images. In the past years he has produced a series of short dance films for dance companies and individual dancers both in New York City and abroad. His work includes music videos, short films, video-portraits, and promotional clips. In 2014 he was awarded for his excellence in Visual Design at the 35th Fine Cuts Film Show at The New School in NYC. Angelo received his BFA in International Politics from University of Milan, Italy and his Certificate in Film Production from The New School.
Broadwayworld Dance recently sat down to speak with Mr. Vasta:
Q. You were born in Milan. What were your earliest influences?
A. The first time I was exposed to dance was as a youngster in the 1990s watching VHS tapes of Michael Jackson videos, "Dirty Dancing" and "Grease," always fast forwarding to the choreography.
Watching those movies over and over without ever getting tired made me realize how much I was obsessed with movement and performance. My parents used to bring me to the opera house in Milan to watch classical ballet too, which was another opportunity to enjoy the beauty of dance.
But, if I look at it now, I think that certainly one of the main influences was "One Day Pina Asked..." by Chantal Akerman. Thanks to it, I understood for the very first time that dance is not only related to turns, splits and jumps. Akerman's documentary made me discover Pina Bausch's work and that was a total revelation to me.
Q. What was it about Pina Bausch that so interested you?
A. It changed my entire idea and perspective of dance; I started to become more curious about the whole process. In this sense, Pina was an important influence and great source of inspiration for me. Classical ballet and American pop culture dance were so entertaining, but I was never really able to relate to them. They never made me aware of the importance of the body and the profound sense of movement that makes dance accessible. On the other hand, Pina's dance spoke to me about this. She was able to physicalize concepts, feelings, images, and ideas in the most human way. Her intimate messages are so well transformed through her dancers' bodies that I feel like anyone can easily relate to them.
Q. You never studied dance.
A. Not professionally. I certainly wanted to study dance, but I was too insecure as a person to share this passion with the outside world.
I started taking dance classes only in my early 20's, right before moving to NYC. My teacher was Ariella Vidach, who was trained and worked in NYC for a long time with the most important choreographers of the post-modern dance scene. Thanks to Ariella, I had the opportunity to further explore the deep meaning of dance, discovering new things about this form of art and experiencing them through my own body. Ariella's method was somehow inspired by Trisha Brown's approach, which I thought was extremely revolutionary: gravity, balance, weight state. These were the main elements that I had to work with in the studio, and I still remember how hard and challenging it was for me to embody them.
Q. What did you pursue when in college?
A. In Italy I received a BA in international politics from the University of Milan. At that time, I was very interested in the social and political situation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country I fell in love with when I was a teenager and one that I visited many times.
Q. In Italy, were there many opportunities for people with backgrounds in photography and cinematography?
A. There are definitely less working opportunities than here in America. In Milan, the fashion and design industries are very big, and it's where filmmakers and videographers can express their artistic voices. I was never interested in working in such fields, and outside of that there were very little possibilities. This was particularly hard because I really wanted to work in a small niche such as dance and performance. The Italian dance scene is very different from the one here in NYC. Unlike Italy, In New York City films and videos are commonly used by dance companies and individual dancers as platforms to show their work to get some sort of exposure. This is not something that I could easily find in Italy.
Q. What prompted you to move to the United States?
A. Italy is an amazing country, but it definitely has its limitations, especially if you are young and intended to pursue a career in the arts. In Italy everything is art: you walk down the streets and you see art history at every corner, in every church, you go to theaters and you can see the most famous opera composers and amazing artists performing on stage. But everything is very much stuck in the 'history' of the country. We are so proud and worried we can lose all of this that eventually we miss all that is happening today.
Like many of the people who moved here, I started daydreaming about New York City and its never ending possibilities. Soon after, I found myself living in a small apartment in Fort Greene and talking with hundreds of dancers all at once, while finally studying film at the New School. It really felt like a dream!
Q. What did you do after graduating from the New School?
A. Right after graduation from the New School I was lucky enough to start working with FJK dance. I also worked on many other projects: For Brooklyn based singer Fiama Hummel I was the cinematographer for two films she conceived and directed, "Move Ahead" and "Love's so stupid"; for Paris based jazz musician Faiz Lamouri I created a series of promo videos for his debut album "Wonders"; for Movement Theater Studio I created a number of videos that were used to promote the theater's program. At the same time, I was working as an editor assistant and camera assistant/camera operator on different projects where I was not in charge of the production.
After a little while I realized, almost unconsciously, that many dancers and dance companies were reaching out to me, But wearing so many different hats played a crucial role in making me realize that what I really wanted to shoot was dance.
Q. Tell me more about working with FJK dance.
A. I had a wide circle of dance friends, so I found them myself by going to dance schools in Manhattan, attending open classes for hours until I would find someone who caught my attention. During one of these classes at Steps on Broadway I met Fadi Khoury, a very talented Iraqi-born dancer who was about to found his own dance company. I asked him if he would be interested in participating on my thesis at the New School, and he agreed. I was thrilled!
A few months after that shoot, Fadi contacted me-he was looking for someone who could shoot some promos for the launch of his newborn company, and since we liked working together, he was wondering if I would be interested. At that time I didn't really have real professional experience in filming dancers. it was limited to my school projects and various collaborations with some friends of mine. I was thrilled to hear what Fadi had in mind, and so I met him and his co-director Sevin Ceviker for a coffee the same week. We talked a lot and discussed various ways we could approach the production of the videos. I had to know about his dance aesthetic and his artistic direction. Fadi brings together Middle Eastern traditions with classical ballet and ballroom techniques, and so I was already aware that the music and choreography were going to be an essential part of the final cuts. I went to see some open rehearsals to meet the dancers of the company, a great group of young talents coming from all over the world. I loved spending time by watching them dancing and moving. I was asked to shoot the whole promo during their rehearsal time, without pretentious props and dresses. I went there a few more times with my equipment. I was filming, but at the same time I was dancing with the company.
Looking at the promos now makes me smile a little. That was a long time ago, and I didn't really know what shooting dance really entailed. But I still regularly work with Fadi's company, and I'm deeply grateful for all of the things that this first experience taught me and how much it helped me to get where I am today.
Q. Describe a dance cinematography session.
A. Depending on the assignment there are different ways and approaches to film dance. When I'm asked to film rehearsals, especially those with a documentary approach, it is my priority to become an invisible presence in the studio. I have to stay out of the dancer's way, as they need space and concentration. At the same time I try to put myself in the dancers' shoes by carefully paying attention to what the choreographer says and then doing my best to understand and learn the steps myself. I think that just through this process I can really show the essential elements of the dance in a video. Observation is also extremely important. At the beginning of rehearsals I can't do much more than just look at the dancers and study from an outside point of view. Towards the end of the process, when the piece is almost ready and the studio's environment is relaxed, is when I can ask the choreographer to do some takes specifically for the camera. It's also the time I can dance with the dancers, play with the camera in the studio space and ask the performers to pose for the camera.
Staging a dance piece for the camera is a different story. In this case the choreographer and I are the figures behind the camera. The choreography is made specifically for the camera, so it is my priority to adapt it as much as possible to the video's needs. I've learned that what looks good on stage does not look good on camera. With the camera and the editing you can play with reality and change the perspective, allowing the spectator to see things he couldn't see live, like slow motion or a jump taken from a very low angle. The choreographer sends me a full run of the piece, I watch it multiple times, and I storyboard it. The day of the shooting I work with the dancers on the space first and mark those invisible lines that divide them from the video equipment. In this case both the camera and the dancer need their own space to operate. When I push the record button, I need to connect with the dancer, I need to follow him and anticipate some of his intentions: if he's about to jump I have to understand it just a second earlier and be ready to capture the moment when he's flying, rather than his landing.
So there are infinite ways and approaches to put dance on camera.
Q. Tell me about the other companies you've worked with.
A. In the past years I've been working with individual dancers from different companies: New York City Ballet, Parsons Dance, Limon Dance Company, Anna Sokolow. I've been doing staged/artistic videos, backstage/behind the scenes videos, promotional videos and short documentaries.
Each company I've worked with has a different poetic, mission, technique and approach, and I love them equally because of their diversity: FJK is a fusion dance company that combines classical ballet with ballroom techniques; Madboots is a queer company; Ballet Hispanico celebrates Latino cultures through dance, Gallim Dance invites the spectator to explore universal struggles through physical movement; Vangeline Theater is a female only Butoh dance company; Caterina Rago Dance is a very elegant modern dance company with only female dancers and very much influenced by the Graham method.
But I have to say that FJK is home. I started my dance film making career there, and I've been collaborating with them since their very beginning. I've seen its genesis and transformation. It's been quite an experience for me to witness their journey. The company is now about to leave on a 31 city tour in China.
Q. What are the best qualities that you bring to each shoot?
A. My passion perfectionism, first and foremost. Every time I work on a dance film project, I fall in love with my subject. This is very important for me, as I believe that nothing bad can come out of a project if it's made with love. I often end up identifying myself with the dancer in front of my lens. I always care very much of what I'm filming and try to be a perfectionist as much as I can. I'm very passionate about the dance companies I work with-I want them to be very satisfied with the way I portray them.
Q. Where do you see dance photography and cinematography going?
A. This week I went to see dance films at the Dance on Camera Film Festival at Lincoln Center. The fact that a prestigious dance film festival exists made me think about how legitimate this filmmaking niche is. I truly believe in the powerful impact that the union of dance and motion picture can have on a broad audience. We see dancers being the protagonist of music videos, and we see them in movies like Ma, Mr.Gaga, Lala Land, to mention just the most recent ones. In this era of social media, more and more dance companies need the camera's help for visibility and exposure. A few years ago you would check upcoming shows by reading the program. Nowadays you want to see a video that can give you a sneak preview.
Q. What can we expect from you in the future?
Documentaries: "Pina," by Wim Wenders; "Mr.Gaga; and "In the Steps of Trisha Brown." They have a lot in common, talking about the work of revolutionary choreographer/artistic directors. They are a great source of inspiration for me. For now I just want to keep working with the best dance companies in town and expand my horizons abroad, maybe in Europe. I would love to work for NDT in Netherlands and Dimitris Papaioannou in Greece.
We will see.
For links to Angelo's photography:
Photo--Angelo Silvio Vasta