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Experimental dance film Breaking The Surface Premieres at the Fall 2023 New Jersey Film Festival on Friday, September 8!

By Al Nigrin

originally published: 09/01/2023

Experimental dance film Breaking The Surface Premieres at the Fall 2023 New Jersey Film Festival on Friday, September 8!

Breaking the Surface is an experimental dance film about climate change, specifically, about the rise of sea level and the issues that are caused by that rise, currently and projected into the future. The film focuses on communities in New Jersey and the region that are being, and will be, most affected by the changes. Here is my interview with the Breaking the Surface co-directors John Evans and Ani Javian:

Nigrin: Your amazing experimental dance film Breaking The Surface is about climate change. Tell us how and why you decided to make this film. 

Evans:  I had many ideas and swirlings about the coast and water images for the last couple of years.  During the pandemic I made a film with students at Rutgers titled Submerged. (At the time there were no live performances).  It was about struggles and support in a community of people and much of that was filmed by the water.  It was also about being submerged in the isolation of the pandemic and finding a way through that.  Dancers train individually.  It is about being in and understanding your body, and your body mind connection to facilitate building a competency as a mover and performer.  But it is communal in every other way.  The way we train together in space and time, the way dancers perform and interact as bodies in space and as people.  So, dancers training alone on zoom in their living rooms or kitchens or bedrooms with very little connection and energy from a group was massively challenging.  During that process I saw parallels to the climate crisis and the overwhelming hole and depression one can find themselves in if they let that issue into their lives.  I know, as it has happened to me.  There is very little, individually, we can do about the crisis and being an artist and training artists can seem insignificant in this issue's massiveness.  So, to get to the answer of your question when the opportunity came up to work across disciplines and form collaborations between artists and scientists I was all in and had a basic plan.  I wanted to create a film that would draw attention to the climate crisis and wanted to focus on New Jersey.  The science faculty involved helped facilitate collection and organization of research materials that became filmed projection during parts of the film, consisting of storm footage and climate information about the state.  They also facilitated the use of the Rutgers Marine Research facility where we did most of the filming.

Javian: The film was John's concept and I was fortunate to be brought on as a co-director and co-choreographer. I excitedly accepted the offer as I am new to making dance films and would get to learn from John and his expertise, as this presented an opportunity to meet and work with faculty and researchers at the University outside of Mason Gross, and as the work addresses a crucial issue of our existence: climate.   

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Nigrin: Your film focuses on communities in New Jersey and the region that are being, and will be, most affected by climate changes. Which communities do you focus on? How long did it take you to make this film?

Evans:  Since this is an experimental dance film and has no clear narrative there are no communities specifically referenced. But the majority of the film was shot in Tuckerton, Egg Harbor, at the Rutgers Marine Research Center.  So that south central part of the New Jersey coast is the focus.  When Ani Javian, my co-director and co-choreography and I visited the site we were shown changes in the surrounding landscape attributed to sea level rise.  The film took about 9 months to make but was done in chunks.  Since I'm a full-time professor I can only work on my research with full focus during the summer months.  So, most of the footage at the Marine research Center was filmed over 3 days last summer.  With rehearsal for Ani and I and then with the dancer happening prior to filming.  Later in the fall the tank footage was filmed.  After that I did not start editing footage until the winter break from Rutgers.  Most of the spring semester was spent editing and then working with our composer to score the film, which we finished toward the beginning of April.    

Nigrin: The camera movement suggests the camera is also a dancer moving in tandem with the actors in your film. Was this the plan? Tell us about the process.

Evans: First and foremost, I am a choreographer.  So, I see and want to see motion across the stage or screen.  The film frame can be like a stage, where you can direct energy and the focus of an audience.  A significant portion of the footage is shot from a drone.  When the drone was filming there was also a handheld camera filming at the same time.  The handheld was often very close to the dancers and had to move with them to catch the action as well as stay out of the way.  The film shots were choreographed so the handheld camera operator was not caught in the drone footage.  We sometimes had to do things a few times to get that right.  Margot Maxwell, a graduate of the Mason Gross film program worked as the primary handheld camera operator and did an awesome job.  When onstage you can't just switch and see dancers in close up.  I find it fascinating to play with shots close to the dancers, not always seeing their entire bodies.  The motion and action become more visceral to me.  So, it was always the plan to play with distance from the drone shots and close up from handheld work and let those merge in the editing.

Javian:  When we did a site visit prior to beginning rehearsals, I was particularly drawn to the edges of the site - the receding land, the rising water, the tides, etc. There is so much movement and emotion in the site itself, it was directly translatable to our physicality and the movement of the camera. I was excited by the drone's capability - a bird's eye view that can show the vastness of the water, and how small, yet necessary and integral, each dance is to the ecosystem.

Nigrin: Also give us more info about the terrific ensemble of dancers in your film as well as the wonderful soundtrack.

Evans: I can't say enough about the dancers that worked with us on this project.  There were 8 alumni from the dance program, one current student, and three current adjunct faculty that teach in the program, two of which are also alumni.  We worked pretty quickly.  We had two 4-5 hour rehearsals before we started filming, where they learned set phrase material from both Ani and I.  We also created many structured improvisational movement frames that we could draw on and work with on location.  We also had the dancers create solo phrases and structures they could perform in different environments at the site.  It is much different working in a dance studio with a smooth sprung floor and a controlled environment than working on location in the mud and the sand and the water with a very uncontrolled environment.   So they really rose to the challenge of finding a way into the movement material when on location.  I can feel their commitment through the film.  The dancers in the film are: Marianna Allen, Heather Favretto, Kiana Rosa Fischer, Aaron Lewis, Camille Moten, Paul Ocampo, Aaron Ramos, Ales Silvis, Nova Teeling and Elena Yasin.

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The composer of the music for the film is Michael Wall.  I have known Michael for more than 25 years since he was a student at Rutgers in the music program.  He began accompanying dance classes in the program when he was a student and fell in love with music for dance.  He has since flourished in the field and is a much sought after collaborator.  He composes and performs in live stage performances of dance and composes scores for choreographers for live dance as well as creating film scores. You can find out more at his website:

Javian: As the process was rather fast, we cast dancers that were adept at being able to quickly translate the environment and sensation into movement. Each of them was so willing to contribute to the process with their own improvisations, choreography, and emotionality.  I also want to stress that John's editing of the film contributes to its musical success - his choices create rhythm, tone, and a musicality that Michael was then able to enliven and work with/against as he created the sound score. 

Nigrin: Are there any memorable stories while you made this film or any other info about your film you would like to relay to us?

Evans: There are two parts of this film.  The material filmed outside on the coast and the material filmed in the tank.  The original plan was to film the tank footage in the summer at another Rutgers facility close to the research center in Tuckerton.  There is a large shale parking area where the tank could have been set up with a nice, wooded background.  There was also the equipment at the facility (forklift) to move the tank from a truck.  Well, all good plans... One of the dancers got covid before filming and the time frame was lost.  So, the filming got pushed back to mid-October.  But by then the weather was way too cold to film in a tank filled with cold water.  So, I moved the location to my driveway at home where I could fill the tank with water pumped from a hot tub as well as water from a garden hose.  I did have to rent a forklift to set it up at my home, but it worked out well as the dancers were reasonably comfortable during filming.

Javian: Agreed! Another favorite memory: the look on the dancers' faces when we asked them to go deeper into the water and then lay/float in the water for an extended time! Once they were in, they were fine, but that initial entry was difficult! 

Breaking The Surface will be playing at the Fall 2023 New Jersey Film Festival on Friday, September 8, 2023– Online for 24 Hours and In-Person at 7PM as part of a triple bill with Emily Goodchild experimental film To Understand An Anemone and Manno Lanssens and Joy Bechtler’s short documentary Fandango, portrait of an opera workshopFor more info and to buy tickets go here.





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Albert Gabriel Nigrin is an award-winning experimental media artist whose work has been screened on all five continents. He is also a Cinema Studies Lecturer at Rutgers University, and the Executive Director/Curator of the Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center, Inc.



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