Maya Deren: Dance World Dance

“I am not greedy. I do not seek to possess the major portion of your days. I am content if, on those rare occasions whose truth can be stated only by poetry, you will, perhaps, recall an image, even only the aura of my films.”~MAYA DEREN

I was always totally assured by that quote from Maya Deren that I didn’t have to feel like I had absolutely no arts sense watching any of her work, or not be able to get any of it right away. But I did, in fact, recall several images from Meshes of The Afternoon many years after I’d seen it on PBS late one night back in the ’70’s.
I remembered the key in her mouth more than anything else. To me, it seemed to express that there’s always an answer, or there’s always a way out of, or into something.

Meshes of The Afternoon (1943; also featuring Alexander Hammid; music by Teiji Ito added in 1952)

I also remembered the bizarre music in this film. Even though the original print of the short was silent (As it appears in the Martina Kudlacek documentary In The Mirror of Maya Deren), I was always familiar with the version with this really shrill, minimalist score consisting of acoustic guitar, flute, koto, cello, sho, percussion and humming. Teiji Ito (Musician/composer of scores for stage productions and films, longtime companion and then-current husband of Maya’s) had created more of a nightmarish atmosphere than the one that existed from the film itself. That’s not to discredit Maya’s work at all, but the insertion of the music makes quite a difference. What also made a memorable impression on me was that this was a film from 1943, and it wasn’t a Hollywood film or even a typical B-movie from that period, but a handmade artistic short with a lady that had a less-stylized “big” hair like you would see in that year, a tall grim-reaper with a mirror for a face (I always thought she/he looked like a tall nun), and the weird camera angles, slow-motion, pinball glasses, and the Ito music (BTW, I promise there’ll be a Teiji Ito entry in the future).

Maya Deren as a person and a public figure was quite fascinating as well. Apart from being a pioneering female avant-garde filmmaker (As well as her side-projects as a choreographer and a photographer), she’d been an activist during her teens in the Trotskyist Young People’s Socialist League; Later on, after receiving a grant from The Guggenheim for her film making, she went to Haiti and had become so immersed in the spiritual culture that she was dubbed a Haitian priestess (The story of Maya’s Haitian-related activities practically calls for its own blog as there is so much more lore than a single posting can get into, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least make some mention of the disappearance-on-the-boat, or the hurling-of-the-refrigerator stories; Please rent or buy the Kudlacek film as it is required-viewing and I highly recommend it).

Maya even had a musical side that can be heard in spurts on the documentary; With Teiji, she recorded a few songs like “Stones” (An interesting, if not amazing, acoustic blues ditty) and a really exciting take on the Haitian “Ghede Song” that they performed at a recital.

Not being a full-time film buff (Music is more my thing) I’ve never really had a film hero, but Maya Deren comes pretty damn close for me. She was introduced to the art of filmmaking by Sasha Hammid (Her sometimes-collaborator and second husband), and she made films that explored dream thoughts and images, she used inventive techniques in editing, slow-motion, negative reversal imaging, and, perhaps most noticeably, incorporated her love of dance into the films. It must have been so otherworldly for people to embrace at the time of her career, but Maya was blazing an incredible trail, and her work has simultaneously given me a stronger appreciation of films as well as choreography and dance.

A Study In Choregography For Camera (1945; featuring Talley Beatty)

“My reason for creating [films] is almost as if I would dance, except this is a much more marvelous dance. It’s because in film, I can make the world dance!”~MAYA DEREN