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‘Unspoken’ a gorgeous film-dance collaboration

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Jessica Wagner and Dance Theatre of San Francisco appear in the film “Unspoken.” (Courtesy Josh LaCunha/RJ Muna)

Dance Theatre of San Francisco is doing something different for its fourth fall season: Instead of appearing live, the dancers are the focus of a gorgeous film called “Unspoken.”

Directed by longtime photographer RJ Muna and featuring contemporary choreography by DTSF artistic director Dexandro “D” Montalvo, the evocative film premiered Friday at the Vogue Theatre.

On hand for the screening were Muna, Montalvo, the score’s composer Daniel Berkman, the company’s nine dancers and executive director Annie Henry, who said of the project, “It’s a really interesting, different way to see dance; we’re only scratching the surface.”

For Montalvo, the film serves as a document of the troupe’s artistry (“’Dancing With the Stars’ does not represent us,” he said), as well as a way to preserve contemporary ballet for posterity.

“I like shadows; things that come out of the darkness,” said Muna, famous for his award-winning still photographs of professional dancers and other subjects.

The 22-minute black, white and gray work, nothing like a concert film, fulfills its creators’ goal to evoke emotions without telling one single story.

Edited by Sam T. Chase, the film’s a series of beautiful, moody vignettes, which showcase the dancers’ amazing movement, faces and bodies in changing settings. Sometimes the performers are draped on chairs, sometimes they’re bunched up, sometimes in a chase scene, sometimes against a wall.

One amazing sequence has an image of a woman, on her back doing what look like an abs crunch exercise; it goes on to flicker, with different troupe members executing the same motions. It’s magical, and an excellent illustration of the power of film.

Close up versus far shots, shifting light, and varied camera angles (most interestingly from above, not used often enough in photographing dance) emphasize how film brings out elements of dance that live performance cannot.
Percussive, modern electronic sounds with changing tempos by Berkman, who also uses an African, lute-harp style instrument called a kora (as well as cello and guitar), add urgency to the compelling imagery.

Simple, sleek costumes by Christopher Dunn – leotards, slips, tanks, shorts – do not distract, and rightly put the focus on the film’s concept and the dancers. They are: Dunn, Mia Chong, Sharon Kung, Adonis Martin, Kelsey McFalls, Cooper Neely, Dalmacio Payomo, Jessica Wagner and Juliann Witt.

It will be nice to see them again and again, as “Unspoken” makes it way on the festival circuit, and into DVD collections of dance lovers.

Presented by Dance Theatre of San Francisco and RJ Muna
Where: Vogue Theatre, 3290 Sacramento St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 8-12
Tickets: $15 to $20
Contact: dancetheatresf.org
Note: Screenings on Oct. 8-9 include a live performance of an excerpt from the movie.

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