UNCSA premieres two dance films choreographed for drone

Faculty member Ashley Lindsey and student Yu Yao Sutherland created “Volant Matter” and “Zephyr,” first-ever works to be filmed by drone at UNCSA.

The School of Dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) has premiered two short dance films online, choreographed by faculty member and alumnus Ashley Lindsey and senior ballet student Yu Yao Sutherland, shot outdoors using a drone. “Volant Matter,” by Lindsey, is a contemporary work featuring 11 senior contemporary dance students; “Zephyr,” by Sutherland, is a classical ballet work featuring two high school and two undergraduate ballet students.

The works were conceived specifically to be filmed by drone with 360-degree footage of the dancers, and they are the first dance films to be shot by drone at UNCSA.

Volant Matter” is set around the iconic sculpture known as the “Elephants” on the UNCSA campus. Designed by former UNCSA visual arts instructor Robert Costelloe and dedicated in 1971, the sculpture was in fact inspired by hippopotamuses he had witnessed in Africa. It has since become a beloved gathering place for students. The film was featured as Dance magazine’s “Friday Film Break” on April 1.

Zephyr” was filmed on the tennis courts near UNCSA at Salem Academy and College, a school for women founded by Moravian settlers, which celebrates its 250th anniversary in 2021-22.

Lindsey explained the title of his work saying, “'Volant' means flying or capable of flying, which encompassed the flight-like cinematography and overall aerial feel of the film. And ‘Matter’ represents the dancers as the Earth and their collective energy and power.”

Entire sections of the work, which explore different ways to move with and against the sculpture, are based on improvisation tasks, Lindsey said.

​On creating choreography for drone, Lindsey said, “The challenge is knowing that the camera is also a dancer in a sense. And unlike creating for the stage, the camera captures the movement in a 360-degree view. The camera also allows the viewer to see a much closer view, so beyond the dancing, it's about the focus and intention of the dancers because the camera picked up on the small details.”

He continued, “These are views that are often missed in the theater. Facial expressions and emotions were as important as the choreography.”

During my process I was always thinking about what it would look like from the perspective of the drone. I was really interested in patterns and how different shapes could be formed and viewed from a distance.

Yu Yao Sutherland

“Zephyr” means “a calm and gentle wind.” Sutherland chose it to reference the beautiful weather on the day of the filming, despite dire forecasts. She choreographed the work keeping the filming method in mind, explaining: “During my process I was always thinking about what it would look like from the perspective of the drone. I was really interested in patterns and how different shapes could be formed and viewed from a distance.” As for the tennis courts, Sutherland added, “I thought the contrast between the dancers forming shapes though the choreography as they danced on something that had a visual pattern would add a nice layer to the piece.”

She continued, “One of the aspects that I love about ballet and dance in general is the distinct patterns. Whether that be the movements in choreography, or the spacing the dancers form on the stage, those patterns hold true no matter what angle you’re viewing the piece from. I loved that I was able to show the patterns and formation of the choreography from different angles that you wouldn’t normally see from simply viewing the piece from head on.”

Director/cinematographer Adam Witmer explained how the drone allowed for enhanced storytelling. “Shooting these works by drone allowed us to draw out themes and ideas in distinct ways. By switching between a bird's eye vantage and one that is low to the ground we were able to help illustrate the motif of duality in “Volant Matter,” where dancers appear capable of flight while also remaining bound to the earth. That theme and the conflict between the two is what drives the story arc of the film.”

He continued, “In Zephyr, the uniformity of the tennis courts allowed for the dancers’ shadows to become additional stars of the film. I found the forms and dimension they articulated mesmerizing. We were focused on creating a mood that emphasized that dream-like quality.”

These dance films join others created during and since the pandemic at UNCSA, such as “Waiting in the Wings,” choreographed by Larry Keigwin; “Pretender,” choreographed by faculty member Kira Blazek-Ziaii; "Alone Together" and "Red Room," collaborations with the School of Filmmaking; as well as the unforgettable “Swan Lake Cancelled,” created by alumnus Garen Scribner (B.F.A. Dance '03) and Danielle Rowe.

Credits for “Volant Matter”

Ashley Lindsey (B.F.A. Dance ’07), choreographer; Adam Witmer (B.F.A. Filmmaking ’16), director/cinematographer; Joe Linford (B.F.A. Filmmaking ’20), editor. Dancers are senior contemporary students Kendall Ramirez, Kerry Sheehan, Faith Fidgeon, Sive Egan-Djurovic, Elizabeth Iwasko, Josie Moore, Shelby Coon, Taylor Pinney, Julia Shoffner, Sydney Truitt and Ethan Digby-New.

Credits for “Zephyr”

Yu Yao Sutherland (B.F.A. ’22), choreographer; Abigail Herron (B.F.A. ’22), rehearsal assistant; Adam Witmer, director/cinematographer; Joe Linford, editor. Dancers are Rebekah Fedele (B.F.A. ’22), Natalie Taylor (H.S. ’23), Eleanor Faub (H.S. ’23) and Tess Cogley (B.F.A. ’25).

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April 01, 2022