SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Independent film production company Auspicious Phoenix Productions released a new promotional trailer on Wednesday for LADIA, the studio’s upcoming nondialogue dance short.
Featuring choreography by Sandra Kramerová, who also performs in the titular role, LADIA is a female star — in the mold of flawless Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci and tireless video game heroine Lara Croft — abused by the constant struggle for perfection and external approval, who denies herself as human in an attempt to hide the cracks within herself.
“The choreography and the movie looks at a woman who dedicates all her effort to win the game, where the only game is to win over herself,” Kramerová said via email. “The idea was to show a female star being challenged to her limits and seeing the backstage moments of suffering in her own shadow.”
LADIA was originally a solo performance by Kramerová within a larger live stage show titled GAME ON!, a collection of energetic sports-themed dances that debuted in May 2017 at Dixon Place theater in New York City. The exuberant show took cues from the massive Spartakiads of the former Czechoslovakia and billed itself as “an exhibition of the theater of effort.”
Properly adapting the mood and emotion of the original stage performance of LADIA to the film required Kramerová and director Álvaro Congosto (THE SUITOR, UNCLE PHIL) to make challenging translational decisions.
“When I saw Sandra performing the solo on stage, I knew this was the right project to bring into a film,” Congosto said via email. “The solo was raw, powerful, and emotionally intense. I immediately felt very driven to turn it into a movie. Now the next challenge was how to convey all those different emotions through film language.”
Kramerová listed a range of physical actions and emotions as points of inspiration for the solo and the film. “Drill, effort, exhaustion, and passionate fight to win were the main focus,” she said. “What is hidden behind all the hours of sweat and hard work to reach perfection?”
LADIA marks the first collaboration between Congosto and Kramerová, as well as the first time Congosto has directed a dance film and the first time Kramerová has performed exclusively for a camera. Despite these firsts, each artist is well-accomplished and capable in their own right.
Kramerová has danced internationally for 25 years, holds a MFA in Dance from Sarah Lawrence College and a BA in Choreography from the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava, Slovakia, and works as a dance and yoga instructor in the Netherlands. Congosto is a Fulbright grantee with an MFA in Film Production from Boston University, and has worked as an independent filmmaker for 13 years, collecting numerous international awards for his recent short works, THE SUITOR, UNCLE PHIL, and THE DRESS.
“I have personally shot a lot of dance performances, but they are usually a frustrating experience,” Congosto said. “You are usually limited in your frame choices, and even though the images might look good, they never feel like when you see the performance happening in front of you.”
Finally freed from the physical constraints of a live staged performance, Congosto brought on cinematographer and Auspicious Phoenix co-founder Jim DanDee (CRANIAC!, OCULAR) to develop the film’s distinctly dark mood and atmosphere and help in filming Kramerová’s solo as organically as possible.
Congosto and DanDee both expressed a desire to “contain” the visuals, by focusing on nothing more than capturing the desired mood and Kramerová’s movements, allowing her to roam freely with her choreography.
“My approach personally was just ‘I’m gonna sit here, watch [Sandra] do the dance, see what she does, and then just find ways to capture it in an interesting way,” DanDee said in an interview. “Sandra’s the one who knows the dance. We’re just here to try and capture it and interpret it in the most hands-off way possible. We’re not choreographers.”
The filmmakers began recording test footage of Kramerová at The Space Studio, where the entire piece was eventually filmed, as she adapted the physical choreography of her solo piece to the layout of the room. Kramerová incorporated several distinct visual elements unique to the studio — the thick columns, white cyc wall, and freight elevator door — into the flow of her choreography.
“[Sandra] used this location in a very particular way,” said DanDee. “She was just like ‘This is just the way in which I feel like I would use this space for this dance.’ So it wasn’t necessarily even move-for-move the same as the one she had had before.”
Kramerová ultimately reimagined the entire performance for the studio environment.
“We tried to communicate through lighting and camera choices how every moment felt when seeing it live,” Congosto said. “My goal with this film was to make the audience feel the same way I felt when I watched it live.”
Breaking down the test footage into angles and coverage allowed Congosto and DanDee the ability to design and perfect lighting setups in the studio and hone in on truly capturing each individual moment. The segmentation also introduced some interesting challenges for Kramerová, who was used to performing continuously on stage and needed to adjust her approach for the camera.
“The flow of the choreography gets cut and divided into little sections and scenes that are shot out of order,” Kramerová said. “It is quite challenging to then achieve physical intensity within a scene that might only take a few seconds, where in the original dance it might take up to two minutes to build up the tension.”
Ultimately, she said, it is up to editing afterwards to do the job, a process Congosto described as “laborious and tedious.” The film features several sequences where Ladia dances and interacts with duplicates of herself, requiring multiple unique takes of each choreographed move and extensive compositing in After Effects to combine them into a single shot.
“I went into the editing room and assembled [the shots] together in the order of the solo,” Congosto said. “Funny enough, the result did not feel at all like the performance did on stage, so that’s when a long editing process started.”
Congosto “massaged, rearranged, and transformed” the footage based on feelings he wanted to convey in each segment of the larger piece. “I wouldn’t say the film has a narrative arc in a conventional way, but it for sure has an emotional arc, like any movie should have,” he said.
Seeking to reinforce that emotional arc in the film, Congosto prioritized a hierarchy of sound types — close sounds from Ladia to build intimacy with the character and atmospheric sounds to build suspense — that were shaped into visceral and emotional ups and downs by sound designers Jon Lloyd and Joy Song (QUIETUS, OCULAR).
Congosto’s meticulous shaping of the footage to fit his desired emotional arcs dovetails with the same exhaustive pursuit of perfection behind Kramerová’s solo performance. The resulting piece utilizes film language and editing to create a visual experience that’s physically impossible to replicate on stage, while still remaining tangible and grounded through the choreography.
“We had no idea on how to approach the process,” Congosto said, “but we knew that we wanted to make something that would feel real, something that wouldn’t look staged.”