High point: Dancer Kira Kirsch peaks in Dolores Sugar High.

Rajendra Serber's Confident Steps into Film

Michael Fox April 13, 2010

From Michael Powell (The Red Shoes) to Carlos Saura (Sevillanas) to Sally Potter (The Tango Lesson), a stratum of directors has progressively reimagined the relationship between dance and film. Choreographer/filmmaker Rajendra Serber offers another step forward with his latest short film, Dolores Sugar High, premiering this weekend at the Garage’s Move(men)t3 show. “What most people are used to seeing in film is a narrative, driven by characters that are acting realistically,” Serber says. “In dance, people don’t necessarily expect to see a story told the same way. They expect to see something more athletic, generally. I’m trying to do something in between. I’m not trying to do abstract movement, like dance, but I’m trying to let the structure be defined by the physical movement. I think of it as an instant that’s happening, and the feelings these people have.”

Serber shot Dolores Sugar High on HD two summers ago in Dolores Park with dancers Kira Kirsch and Hana Erdman and a couple of triple-scoop ice cream cones. He did a version of the edit in 2008, and finally found time among his other projects to recut the piece and finish the audio mix. The six-minute film is part of a trilogy Serber is creating through an atypical form of collaboration.

“In my mind it’s a traditional way of working, but it’s a more recent tradition,” Serber says. “This choreography is not a series of steps. We practiced a specific quality of movement and once we had a clear vocabulary with the dancers and the different kind of scores, we went on location and improvised.”

Serber’s idea of a “dance film” involves not only an innovative synthesis of performer and content, but of performer and camera. “That’s what people expect—a document of a live performance—but what I’m doing is choreography for film.” Serber explains. “It’s never meant to be seen onstage.”

The Dance Movies Commission of the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in New York was naturally receptive, and gave Serber a $12,000 grant. Working with seven dancers and one camera, he shot five hours of footage on four locations (including a pair near 16th and Mission) that he’s currently editing into an 18-minute film with the working title Quince Missing. Set on the street at night, with people simply walking by each other, the piece will debut in October in New York with other EMPAC-supported films. Serber is hoping to book the West Coast premiere in the Bay Area before the end of the year—and before the program screens in Los Angeles in 2011.

The other work in Serber’s trilogy, Porcupine Bonita, showed last year at The Garage’s movement festival as well as at a dance fest in Ireland. But the filmmaker wants to take another pass at the film’s structure in the editing room.

The San Francisco native explored film from a couple of other directions before developing his particular approach and aesthetic. Serber did a number of live multimedia shows that incorporated video and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, moved to Los Angeles in the ’90s to work in the industry. He took a job as an assistant producer, but it wasn’t a good fit. “I moved there because I was interested in film,” Serber recalls. “I realized I didn’t care enough about mainstream film for it to be my job.”

That’s not to say that Serber has no interest in long-form. To the contrary, he’s plotted a course in that direction.

“My goal is to do feature length work, for sure,” he states. “I have a few different ideas. In my mind I can do them right now; I could have done them five years ago. I need to communicate that to prospective investors and foundations.”

The best way to achieve that, Serber has concluded, is showing rather than telling.

“I need to do some shorts right now—doing shorts allows me to clarify a style of working,” he declares. “But it’s not that meaningful until you see it. ‘Oh, that works. I was interested in watching that from beginning to end and my attention didn’t wander, and it wasn’t a conventional narrative.’ It’s important to me to do short subjects in order to build toward making feature-length dance films.”

Yet another, quite different project is Good Guy/Bad Guy, which Serber worked on during his recent FilmHouse residency and temporarily put aside when he received the EMPAC grant. Conceived back in 2001 with the multimedia performance group RK Corral as a live show that would become a feature film, it comprised 700 still photos from which Serber is building the animation, mostly by himself and sporadically when he can hire people. He describes it as a narrative and a comedy and an animated feature. “There isn’t dance, per se, but I think a lot of animation is like choreography,” he says.

It’s apparent from talking with Serber (his web site is that he relishes engaging the creative process.

“San Francisco is definitely a great place for artists that want to collaborate with other artists,” he declares. “There are dancers that want to do something that isn’t defined by a specific school of dance—people who want to work between the lines. On the other hand, it would probably be better for me to be in Canada because there’s more funding for [both] dance and short dance films.”

Notes From the Underground
Denise Zmekhol’s Children of the Amazon airs Sunday, April 18, at 2 p.m. on KQED . . . Grateful Dead: Crimson, White & Indigo, a three-hour film of a 1989 concert, screens in a “sneak “review” April 19 and 20 at the Balboa Theater. . . . Indican Pictures acquired James Savoca’s Around June, which screened in the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival, and plans to open it in September. The Ninth Street Independent Film Center’s screening facility is now available to filmmakers any Friday for $150. Drop a note to or visit

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