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Best feet forward

Just Dancing Around? Channel 4, 7.30-8.30pm December 27-30

A quick eye, which captures a curve, an angle or a fleeting movement; an absolute belief in the value and importance of what they are doing; and a risk-taking nerve - these are qualities shared by three choreographers featured in the Channel 4 series Just Dancing Around?

The question mark is significant, for William Forsythe, Trisha Brown and Richard Alston each admits they might be accused of "just dancing around" as they pursue their choreographic experiments on how much more eloquence they can draw from the human skeleton, but they don't for a moment consider such an accusation seriously.

The three films follow much the same format: shots of the choreographer talking (not directly to camera but to the unseen filmmaker) or others who have worked with them. This is interspersed by the camera following them at work in the dance studio, where they are either directing from the side-lines or out on the floor, working through a sequence of movements with the dancers. Dancers rehearsing forms a backdrop to much of the talk.

The overall similarity of the format, though, merely serves to point up more sharply the differences, both in the work of the choreographers and of the three different directors who have filmed them. Each director has made his film reflect the tone and style of the work and artist featured and each programme has a distinct flavour of its own.

Mike Figgis sets up a silent dramatic narrative in which Forsythe is working towards the first performance of a new work. There's a countdown in text on screen: "three weeks before the first performance", "18 days to go" right up to "premiere", with nervous dancers and the shadowy figure of Forsythe waiting in the wings. Then come the curtain calls and the reaction from members of the first-night audience after the performance.

This way of filming echoes the restless drama of Forsythe's style, as he changes his mind on the music or the movements right up to the last moment, deliberately keeping everything open to change, to chance.

The film explores briefly the relationship between Forsythe (the only one of the three not working with his own company) and director of the Frankfurt Ballet, Dr Martin Steinhoff, who also shoulders some of the risk-taking. "A few days before performance it will look a mess, but I trust Bill's artistic instinct. It will come right," he says.

Mark James allows Trisha Brown to direct his cameraman to follow a particular sequence, or show how a movement "travels through space" to emerge again somewhere else. Intellectual in her approach, fascinated by geometric shapes and patterns, Brown's cerebral puzzling over how to interpret and complement (never simply to accompany) the phrases of Bach's Musical Offering, gives a glimpse into the rigour for the dancers of working to such abstract concepts.

In contrast, Mark Kidel's film swims easily along in the wake of Richard Alston's "go with the flow" approach. Alston is seen working with his dancers on Sometimes I Wonder, which interprets 11 different recordings of Hogie Carmichael's song "Stardust".

Often talking as he works, Alston describes the influence of Tai Chi, of Merce Cunningham, of music itself, on his work and the open, flowing effects he wants to achieve. For Alston dance is the human spirit uncaged.

These three films could be mined many times over for media studies students trying to capture the essence of their subject on film, for students of dance on the polishing and perfecting of a movement, or pattern of movements, for budding choreographers on using what they see around them and transmuting it into dance. For arts students of all disciplines there is rich discussion material here.

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