Maya Deren and the Trance Film: States of Devotion

Maya Deren

Maya Deren explored a new cinematic form to create a cinema-ritual. This programme brings together the most relevant works in her obsessive, intellectual and passionate research that remained partly unfinished, a promise of a possible cinema that runs through her entire career: cinema as a form of meditation and poetics of metamorphosis, in order to “seek the truth that is stranger than fiction”.

From her apprenticeship in the forties with the anthropologist and choreographer Katherine Dunham (of whom we show a snippet of film) to the study of the film shot in Bali by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson (also included in the session), and throughout her travels in Haiti, Maya Deren immersed herself in possession rituals, trance and voodoo: “Art is actually based on the notion that if you would really celebrate an idea or a principle, you must think, you must plan, you must put yourself completely in the state of devotion…”

With A Study in Choreography for Camera—of which we show the three-minute edited version and the outtakes that show her compositional technique—Deren got behind the camera to film/dance with Talley Beatty, a dancer in Dunham’s company, and represent his body’s liberation from the real world, the physical and spiritual passage from one state to another, and the filmic choreography of body, objects and nature. Ritual in Transfigured Time shows the enigmatic meeting of Rita Christiani and Maya Deren, immersed in the ritual of winding wool on a loom. Meditation on Violence, in which she filmed Chao-Li Chi and for the first time uses musical materials from Haitian culture, explores the Wu Tang ritual and the transformation of violence into beauty. Stan Brakhage, who considered it Deren’s most personal film, noted: “She doesn’t appear in the film, but she is the camera, she’s moving, she’s breathing in relation to this dancer.”

Between 1947 and 1955, Deren made four trips, lasting 21 months, to Haiti, using a Bolex camera to film abundant material about dance and possession in voodoo culture, in a project that remained unfinished and that also gave rise to a book. After Deren’s death, a version of Divine Horsemen. The Living Gods of Haiti was edited by Teiji Ito, her last partner. Maya Deren: “I ended up filming humbly and as precisely as I could. The logic of that reality forced me to recognize its integrity and give up my manipulations.”

A Study in Choreography for Camera, Maya Deren, 1945, 16 mm, silent, 3’; A Study in Choreography for Camera – Outtakes, Maya Deren, 1945, 16 mm to digital, silent, 16’; Ritual in Transfigured Time, Maya Deren, 1946, 16 mm, silent, 14’; Meditation On Violence, Maya Deren, 1948, 16 mm, 12’; Katherine Dunham Performing Ballet Creole, British Pathé, 1952, 16 mm in digital, 2’; Trance and Dance in Bali, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, 1968, 16 mm in digital, 20’; Divine Horsemen: the Living Gods of Haiti, Maya Deren, 1947-51, 16 mm, 55’.

Projection in 16 mm and in digital.

16-mm copies from Light Cone. Copy of A Study in Choreography for Camera – Outtakes from LUX. Copy of Katherine Dunham Performing Ballet Creole from British Pathé.

11 February 2024



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