A poetics of dance film: An inquiry into meaning-making in the excesses of written and spoken language

Published 29.5.2023


What is behind the words? What is before the words? What is it, that one can only know by feeling it, or experiencing it? What is it which can not be explained with words? What is the vocabulary for a language with no words?

These are a few of the questions I often return in my work as a dance film maker. For me the potential, the excitement and the challenge in dance film is to find the ideas, the techniques, and the combinations which deal with these questions in practice. The key approach for me in this practice is a poetics.

Dance film in its physical, visual and aural languages has a poetic approach, and through that it offers radical, self-reflective, fluid and innovative strategies to address questions in meaning making, communication and storytelling.



The provocation above is an excerpt of my remarks on the future of screendance, presented at a round table panel discussion as part of a symposium ’This Is Where We Dance Now: Covid-19 and the New and Next in Dance Onscreen’, in March 2021. Continuing from this provocation; drawing from my dissertation (submitted for the degree Master of Arts in Screendance in London Contemporary Dance School, 2019); and reflecting my own practice as a dance film maker I have mapped out this essay thinking on meaning-making through a poetics of dance film.

My practice based dissertation research ”Reading with Cixous: A poetics and politics of a feminist dance film practice” was an inquiry into what a feminist dance film practice might look like through a reconfiguring or a re-thinking of dance film from a feminist perspective. In the dissertation I placed Hélène Cixous’ poetic and feminist writing in the centre, drawing connections between poetic dance film and feminist film theory. The research opened up an investigation about meaning-making in the excesses of written and spoken language, where the constructed meanings, codes and norms within both choreography and film language were explored and questioned.

In this essay I continue the investigation on meaning-making in poetic dance film practice, and map out the next steps in this inquiry. My approach in this essay is creative, poetic and speculative, while asking: Can dance film – in its non-verbal, poetic, moving and visual languages – be used as a way to question meanings in our written and spoken language?

Drawing connections between Lyn Hejinian’s theory on poetics, Hélène Cixous’ feminist philosophy, Maya Deren’s poetry of film, and my own artistic work I will discuss and analyze the different strategies of poetic dance film in addressing and questioning meaning-making.

‘‘Her language does not contain, it carries; it does not hold back, it makes possible” 

-Hélène Cixous

Photo Vilma Tihilä

The written and spoken language in our every-day life is primarily and the most often used for communication with other people. In this every-day use of a language we rarely stop to think about a meaning of a specific word, or meaning-making strategies through our use of the words, the sentences, or the structures of a language. In order to start an inquiry into meaning-making within the non-verbal languages of dance film, let us first briefly pause on this consideration in the written and spoken language.

Thinking, writing and speaking is language; language is words; words have meanings; and these meanings are socially and culturally constructed and agreed. Also, the words always refer to something – this something being at distance – attaching itself into ’an image’ of things seen, experienced, learned, agreed, or imagined, for example. If we wish to re-think, question or deconstruct meanings within a written or spoken language, the challenge, though, lies immediately within the language itself: Questioning the meanings requires the use of the very language it aims to criticize.

For me, this is where poetry steps in. Lyn Hejinian writes: ’Language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts’ (2000, p.1), continuing: ’Poetry comes to know things as they are. But this is not knowledge in the strictest sense; it is, rather, acknowledgement – and that constitutes a sort of unknowing. To know that things are is not to know what they are, and to know that without what is to know otherness (ie. the unknown and perhaps unknowable). . .This acknowledging is a process, not a definitive act; it is an inquiry, a thinking on’ (2000, p. 2).

Hejinian’s idea on poetics as a language of inquiry, as a thinking on, and as a process of unknowing has played an important role in my recent years’ artistic work. Also, looking at and analyzing films themselves as language, as a certain sign system creating meanings, has been central for me and so it is for this text and its ideas. Moving images and their visual language, body language, and choreography as language – all combined in dance film making – have brought me into thinking how to use these languages and the means of their meaning-making.

Looking behind, before and beyond the words and ’writing’ with images has provided me a poetic practice where to also give way for the problematics of questioning meaning-making in the written language.


Beyond codes 

”My writing watches. Eyes closed.” (Cixous, 1991, p.3).

The ideas of writing with images and looking behind the words ally with Hélène Cixous and her creative and radical tools to use the written language. Cixous (b. 1937) is a French philosopher, poet and feminist writer whose writings work with non-linear, poetic and reflective techniques in deconstructing traditional meanings, names and social codes and their use within written, spoken and academic languages. Cixous’ writings lay out and make visible the social constructions of our written and spoken language, and provide a wide range of thoughts and ideas on questioning these constructions as well as the language used to support them, for example:

I write ”mother”. What is the connection between mother and woman, daughter? I write ”woman.” What is the difference? This is what my body teaches me: first of all, be wary of names; they are nothing but social tools, rigid concepts, little cages of meaning assigned, as you know, to keep us from getting mixed up with each other. . . . But my friend, take the time to unname yourself for a moment. Haven’t you been the father of your sister? Haven’t you, as a wife, been the husband of your spouse, and perhaps the brother of your brother, or hasn’t your brother been your big sister? . . . . As soon as you let yourself be led beyond codes, your body filled with fear and with joy, the words diverge, you are no longer enclosed in the maps of social constructions, you no longer walk between walls, meanings flow. (1991, pp. 49-50)

Meanings flow, and where the words construct and capture our reality, so the images do. The way Cixous unfolds and ’paints’ images with her language – for us to see the assigned and unquestioned names, roles, and meanings – the way I’d like to ’write’ with my dance films. Reading Cixous and learning from her techniques to expand language on its excesses has greatly impacted my thinking, and I see that dance film has an access to a wide range of these techniques, too. 

Cixous’ effects resonate in my work at all levels, from the selected subject matters to working methods to technical choices of executing a film. At the level of the creative work, I see meeting points with my film practice and Cixous’ ideas in presenting and exploring a subject poetically: pieces detached, separated and rearranged – in parts – as a non-linear whole. Poetics as a strategy in creating a film script or a choreography of the film, for example, opens up possibilities to navigate a selected subject in a multi-directional, multi-layered, and contradictory ways.

Also, as dance film has a knowledge of a body in its vocabulary, it is possible to ’look’ at things not-visible; behind, before, or beyond the words – to have an access into an embodiment of an experience, or an emotion, inside. Aligning with Cixous: ’I am writing to you with my eyes closed. But I know how to read with my eyes closed. To you, who have eyes with which not to read, I have nothing to reveal’ (1991, p. 35).

Photo Vilma Tihilä
Poetry of film

Cixous’s practice of writing and her use of language in creating new meanings share also similar ideas and poetic techniques with Maya Deren.

Deren (1917-1961) was a poet, filmmaker, choreographer and theorist who developed her own film practice that she called ‘a poetry of film’. In her film theory and film practice Deren criticized Hollywood cinema as a poor adaptor of prose fiction and stage drama. She wanted to re-conceive film as an art form, to remove conventional dramatic narrative from film, and to start film over from the beginning (McPherson, 2005, p. 10). Because Deren wanted to release film form from a linear, horizontal and text based narration, she approached filmmaking from other perspectives, saying for example that ‘the best study for the embryonic filmmaker is one of the time arts – i.e., the dance or music – since, after all, motion pictures are concerned with time and with movement’ (Deren, 2005, p. 131). With her exploration of movement in cinema and movement as a tool to create filmic images, Deren was one of the pioneers in dance film. Here we can see also interesting strategies in deconstructing and reconstructing structures in film language. 

Firstly, Deren points out a problem in our tendency to think in verbal terms also when we are thinking in cinematic terms. Deren draws the attention to the movement of the image and its visual conditions as the basic material of filmmaking, instead of verbal ideas. She writes: ’I came to understand the difference between contriving an image to illustrate a verbal idea and starting with an image which contains within itself such a complex of ideas that hundreds of words would be required to describe it.’ (2005, pp. 204-205). Continuing: ’A motion picture. . .is a poetic form which attempts to create and use the elements of the film medium themselves to create a new experience. Film deals with visibles. In pointing out differences between verbalization and visualization. . . [is] briefly this: the fact that you can never show ”never”. Never is a verbal idea. It is a true idea, but cannot be shown’ (2005, p. 213).

In the poetry of film, an exploration of the quality of moments, images, ideas and movements ‘focuses on the how rather than the what, drawing attention away from the narrative logic and toward the images for and of themselves. . .to the feeling, emotion, or metaphysical content of the movement’ writes Erin Brannigan in her essay ‘Maya Deren: Strategies for dancefilm’ (2011, p. 105). According to Deren herself, the filmic images contain realities which act to fulfill different functions, thus the creative action lies in structuring images by their various functions and their sequential relationships, using for example manipulation of time and space (2005, pp. 123-124).

Filmic images and their capacity to record reality, together with the creative action towards this reality – aiming to create new realities which can only exist on film – is a direct investigation into meaning-making and the use of a film language. Distinctive notion on the difference between verbalization and visualization also pins out the specific means in this visual language and activates an inquiry, a thinking on, in the creation under visual conditions, not verbal ideas, and thus the creative use of the filmic images. Through well-intentioned efforts of the use of the medium creatively it is possible to accomplish the destruction the photographic image as reality, Deren states (2005, p. 122).

Photo Vilma Tihilä
In practice

The key strategies in poetic film form and in Deren’s cinematic language are verticality, depersonalization and stylization of gestures. 

Verticality works as an alternative structure for a film, opposed to a ‘horizontal’, linear narration, and can mean for example expanding moments and emotions or extending the logics of an action through camera angles, camera movement, chance of locations, and editing in the film, allowing for example the manipulation of time and space (Brannigan, 2011, p. 108).

Depersonalization refers to the way Deren sets the performer’s body free from traditional narration, roles and expectations, releasing figures from the demands of storytelling and allowing them ‘to resonate in moments that are freed in space and time’ (Brannigan, 2011, p. 113). Depersonalized performer in a poetic film transforms closer to an image than a character.

Stylization of gesture is a way of ‘manipulating movement through performance and through filming and editing to create a larger, coherent, choreographic whole’ (Brannigan, 2011, p. 120). In practice this means for example fragmenting a body by framing the image and concentrating on the movement in one body part at a the time, or creating a movement sequence from pedestrian, untrained movements in the edit.

I have used these specific poetic strategies of filmmaking in my own films Unisono (2019) created together with Sami Hokkanen and A Portrait (2022) created together with Kauri Sorvari.

Unisono deals with two simultaneous and contrasting identities within one person, creating a physical comedy on accepting oneself. The logic of the film follows not causal or linear ideas but a logic of emotion of the character, and creates a continuity of his identity through movement. A choreographed parallel action duetto for these two characters, played by one actor but in different locations, enabled us to create a ’reality’ which can only exist in the film, and to be experienced through its sequential unfolding. 

Following the idea of stylization of gesture, the choreography of the film does not exist without the camera, the camera angles, the specific shots, and editing these filmic images together. Where a movement starts in one shot, it continues in the second, and the action of the first image affects on the action seen in the second image. The two parts of the duetto filmed and danced separately, then edited together, is the main wheel in introducing the two different characters as one. This depersonalization of the main character through choreographic and cinematic means thus made it also possible to question a reality of a photographic image as such, as well as the ’image’ one shows of themselves to others. This non-linear narration of the film and the two-sided character we see thus reflects on and deconstructs the social constructions of a role, in this case of an office worker; codes of acting in a specific environment, or situation; and the narrative of self one tells to him/herself.

A few years later, in A Portrait we used similar tools, building on to the knowledge gained from Unisono. Here the film looks at an ensemble of identities within one person, encountering simultaneously while the different mind states move the character rapidly through shifting locations, seasons, colors, and emotions. The film plays with the verticality of time, i.e. manipulation of time through shifting locations and the rapid change of identities performed by one person. Through editing a continuous and repetitive movement in changing locations and identities, the conception of time in the film creates a spiral or a loop where the only continuity is the character itself. The film expands a short moment of the character’s life into the whole sequence of the film, and draws an embodied portrait on the experience of fragmented identity.

As seen above, the poetry of film driven by the movement of the performers, moving images and the movement of the camera in relation with the possibilities of manipulation of time and space, thus opens up a critical field of experimentation within a film language. Using poetic strategies in creating the film images, and in structuring them with the logic of ideas and emotions question the narrative codes in cinema. In addition, the poetic film puts into practice the poetry of movement in the content of the film, not only in the structure of the film.


Radical meaning-making

Looking at choreography and poeisis, poetics as a creative practice, I would like to finally follow Ric Allsopp’s suggestion where ‘both poetry and dance are ‘languages’ that operate in excess of the functions of language, and open the possibilities of radical approaches to coherence and affection’ (2015, p. 4). As ’poetry has its capacity for poetics, for self-reflexivity, for speaking about itself; it is by virtue of this that poetry can turn language upon itself and thus exceed its own limits’ (Hejinian as cited in Allsopp, 2015, p. 7). 

With poetics as a practice in the film language and in the choreography filmed, it is possible to approach meaning-making from this radical and creative perspective – to question and to deconstruct socially constructed structures by applying poetic strategies into them. In re-thinking and dislocating traditional meanings and functions within film through a poetics as a practice, it is possible to also suggest another, not-defining, way of thinking, knowing, or acting.

Looking at a body as a site of carrying and questioning meanings together with images creating and questioning those meanings, in a world where the meanings are mostly constructed through written and spoken language, I can not think of any language but the language of dance film matching better with this inquiry into meaning-making mutually between visual, physical and verbal languages. The creative use of the language and a play with its constructed but flowing meanings seems to actually shift and question the reality from which it draws from.




Vilma Tihilä is Finnish film director specializing in dance film. The key elements in her filmmaking are physicality of the moving image, a poetry of film and choreography in editing. Tihilä’s work reaches towards the ideas which can be accessed with intuition and physicality – through emotions and experiences.

Tihilä holds Master of Arts in Screendance from London Contemporary Dance School, and her most recent dance films A Portrait (2022) and Carried in Silence (2023) are award winning films in Torino with COORPI Film Award, in Brazil with The Second Place at Videodance category and in Portugal as the winner of Videodance category. Tihilä’s films have been screened at various festivals internationally since 2016, including Loikka Dance Film Festival in Finland, Quinzena de Dança de Almada in Portugal, Constructed Sight Dance Film Festival in USA, F-O-R-M Festival in Canada, and Video-poetry Festival in Argentina, among many others.


Photo Otto Virtanen

Many thanks to Finnish Cultural Foundation and Väinö Tannerin Säätiö who has supported writing the essay.


Parts of the text are from my dissertation Reading with Cixous: A poetics and politics of a feminist dance film practice, submitted for the degree Master of Arts in Screendance in London Contemporary Dance School, University of Kent at Canterbury.


Reference list:

Allsopp, R. (2015). ‘Some notes on poetics and choreography’, Performance research: A journal of the performing arts 20:1, pp. 4-12.

Brannigan, E. (2011). ‘Maya Deren: Strategies for dancefilm’, in Brannigan, E. DanceFilm, choreography and the moving image. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 100-124.

Carter, O,. Maduoma, S., Marc A., Tihilä, V., Underwood, A., Williams J. (2021). ’ After Quarantine: The Future of Screendance’, in International Journal of Screendance, 12(fall), pp. 210-222 [Online]. Available at: https:/screendacejournal.org/article/view/8347 (Accessed: 1st May 2023)

Cixous, H. (1976). ‘The laugh of the Medusa’, Signs 1(4), pp. 875-893 [Online]. Translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Available at: https:// artandobjecthood.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/cixous_the_laugh_of_the_medusa.pdf (Accessed: 11 October 2019). 

Cixous, H. (1991). Coming to writing and other essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Deren, M. and McPherson, B. (ed.) (2005). Essential Deren: Collected writings on film / by Maya Deren. New York: McPherson & Company.

Hejinian, L. (2000). ’Introduction’, in The language of inquiry. London: University of California Press, Ltd.

McPherson, B. (ed.) (2005). ‘Preface’, in Essential Deren: Collected writings on film / by Maya Deren. New York: McPherson & Company, pp. 7-12.

Article photo: Sonny Baez