Director of Moving Cities: my job was to get to dancers to absorb surroundings and just “be”


Last year British film director Jevan Chowdhury launched an exciting new project, entitled Moving Cities, capturing the spirit of modern cities through dance. Prague was the fifth location filmed, after capitals such as London and Paris.

Prague, photo: official web site of the Moving Cities projectPrague, photo: official web site of the Moving Cities project I spoke to the director this week on a line to London, asking first about the main inspiration.

“I really wanted to bring to life a creative idea I had had for a while, to capture cities on film not the way cities are experienced by tourists but as they are to locals who live there. I decide to incorporate dance because I felt it was the most emotional language that I could find, as opposed to just filming talking heads. I wanted a different language and that was dance.”

How do the city and dancers complement each other?

“The starting point is movement in the city, which is often random or appears arbitrary: people on foot, vehicles, a bird flying. You are confronted with movement everywhere so there is this fascinating thing about cities and random movement. That is what you are working with: a person – the dancer – moving on their own versus the movement of the larger entity, the city.”

The effect is one of liberation or exhilaration almost, a feeling you might not necessarily get from a performance on stage…

“There are many different ideas about Moving Cities: one is that it takes dance off stage and into regular surroundings for the 99 percent of us who don’t go to the ballet. Another part is that, it isn’t street dance and it is not ballet or contemporary dance. Way before dance ever ended up stage where you buy tickets to attend; thousands of years ago it was more of a spiritual thing, more of a language, more of a communicative format. That’s what I am trying to get at. We all watch dance, choreographed or not, in clubs or other venues, even peoples’ houses. You don’t have to be a professional, although most in the series are.”

Speaking of choreographed, are there movements in Moving Cities which are or were rehearsed?

London, photo: official web site of the Moving Cities projectLondon, photo: official web site of the Moving Cities project “We worked with a brilliant collective called 420 People and they had ideas how they could be choreographed in unison and they probably have certain moves or phrases they use from their own performances. I am not a choreographer, though, I try and un-choreograph things so to speak.

“My aim was to explain they shouldn’t look at me or the camera or the audience. What we were trying to perform, not even perform, as if no one is watching but just BE. The lovely thing about dancers is that they can do that, this is their business, they can tell you something without saying. If it is on location it can be very hectic, very frenetic. If they are in an aggressive environment they can communicate this. So it is not choreographed but there is some guidance. It was liberating for them, on location, to be told they could just do what ‘they wanted’.”

Prague is the fifth film in the series: how did you choose the locations? There are some more typical locations, others more industrial…

“We worked closely with our Prague team to choose appropriate locations but one of the requirements was for them to be ordinary, everyday spots, ordinary for the city. I had been to Prague before and inevitably you end up in the same areas where tourists go, whether you actively search them out or not. What I wanted to do was to show regular people; so for us it was streets, stairwells, the underground, tunnels, all part of normal cities in Europe. It can be tricky but the point is that the people are what are important, not the infrastructure.”

Athens, photo: official web site of the Moving Cities projectAthens, photo: official web site of the Moving Cities project Speaking of ordinary people… they are there in many shots, going to and fro, going from home to work and so on; but of course many are also observers. They stop and look. Were many surprised by what they saw?

“Certainly. We met these four ballet dancers at the opera house and were given the opportunity to shoot on top of the venue, which is very hard to get to obviously. But I didn’t like the idea. There you would just get the skirting of the rails and the sky. So we took them down to a tram stop in the middle of everything and began filming. The instruction was for them to begin as a group, a whole, and then slowly break apart to four. And it was amazing. I almost fell off the perch behind the camera it was so exciting. And our Prague producer said this was something none of the observers on the streets had experienced and were unlikely to see anything like again, short of seeing the series.”

When you film a city there is inherent drama through the vehicles and for Prague that means predominantly trams and busses, cars. In many shots the vehicles kind of loom in the very near distance: were they shot with long lenses?

“That’s right. Some of them were very long lenses and of course that makes the vehicles appear far closer to dancers on the tram tracks than they actually are. So there is a combination of stunts and illusion. We don’t want to control bystanders but we had, as much as possible, to control traffic, so we had stewards. so to speak, helping with that. As you can imagine, some of these shots were quite tricky or hard to get but most people in transport were very understanding and were content to wait a little and watch what was going on.”

What’s next for the project, when will the circle be complete?

London, photo: official web site of the Moving Cities projectLondon, photo: official web site of the Moving Cities project “We have just completed filming in Athens and there everything is very much affected by the recent elections and turbulence there. There are different locations we would like to go next: global cities like Berlin and Rome. But also other places of major interest: Kiev, Jerusalem, as well as places outside of Europe as well. Of course it will depend on getting funding or sponsorship. But that is the plan. Certainly, on the social media the responses are all about ‘where are you going to go next?’. And the idea is to get better and better and better.”