Cinema East’s final summer screening brings dance film Girl Walk // All Day back to Austin audiences on August 19 after its debut at SXSW last spring. Billed as a feature-length music video, the Jacob Krupnick-directed film is an enthusiastic showcase of dance styles set to Girl Talk’s 2010 album, All Day.
Traveling the span of Manhattan within a day’s time, Girl Walk eschews a traditional narrative but provides a loose through line that hooks audiences in to Girl Talk’s ever-shifting mashups. It follows a girl (dancer Anne Marsen) who escapes the rigid confines of her ballet class to dance in the streets of New York. Moving from the Staten Island Ferry to the High Line park to Bloomingdale's, and later Yankee stadium to Central Park, she searches for others to shake their groove thing along with her.
After some phone tag, I caught up with Krupnick this week to discuss making his film, showcasing divergent dance styles, and... architecture.
Culture Map: This was your first feature film. How did the project come about?
Jacob Krupnick: Three and a half years ago now, I had worked on a video art piece for a fashion show, and I'd had a lot of amateur dancers audition, moving to whatever they wanted. That's where I met Anne Marsen and John Doyle, who plays the Creep. I stayed in touch with both of them because I was really intrigued by how they moved.
Fast forward a couple years and I'd been working with film a little bit more and I'd had this idea to embark on this sort of renegade film project.
CM: So where did using Girl Talk's "All Day" come into play?
JK: I heard the album about a week after it was released, and I was just thrilled by it. On first listen, I thought, "This is the soundtrack to this idea that's been marinating in my head for a couple years." The idea was basically to take Anne and give her this gigantic playground to let loose, both in terms of dance style as well as in changing locations. And the diversity and accessibility of the soundtrack made me think, "This is what would make this project possible."
We put a short version up on Kickstarter to raise funds, and it was only because the project got so much attention that we really had the gall to make it a larger production.
CM: Ah. So this is one of those projects that takes off because of Kickstarter.
JK: It did play a role. We asked initially for five thousand dollars and ended up raising $25,000, which was completely surprising. Having 600 people donate to the project meant that we had more confidence to go out and film in the streets. We had a little more conviction that the idea itself was a good one. For a first time filmmaker, that's pretty important.
And I didn't know if it would work. I didn't know if it would be possible for me to tell a story truly without words, through dance.
CM: How did the story come about for you?
JK: After listening to the album again and again and again, I wrote a script that included the three main characters and their action. It included how they would interact with people in the street and even reactions that they might encounter.
In the end, we wound up improvising and deviating constantly. It's really hard to predict how people would react in the street, and for the most part, people didn't react. So we had to incorporate that into the story.
At other times, we would encounter something totally unexpected and would just go with it. So it helped to have a sense of what the [characters'] relationships would be like.
But for the most part, the dancers were in charge of choreographing their own movement, and they did that by responding to what the street gave them, rather than having a set routine.
CM: The film really shows how much you can do in public in New York that people won't even notice. What was shooting in public like for you and for the dancers?
JK: We really anticipated more reaction than what we got. I remain surprised that it was so minor. But we also shot with the smallest crew possible and never had any lighting so that we could let in as much as possible.
The camera tended to embolden all three dancers, and give a sense of purpose and belonging like, "Okay, I'm about to do something awkward and challenging here and be a misfit in public, but the camera justifies my behavior."
But in most cases, a surprising amount of the film was made with great gusto being summoned, and all of us — myself included— being like, "Alright, let's GO." That feeling of challenging ourselves made us feel like a little family.
I love the idea of breaking out of line. I think of myself as shy, and in a way, I had also had to break out of my own shell constantly.
CM: There are so many different styles of dance incorporated into the film. Tell me about putting all these divergent dance styles together and showcasing these performers.
JK: To me, the music borrows from such different stylistic places, that it makes sense to treat the dance in a similar way. The storyline is that the girl breaks out of the orthodoxy of ballet and wants people to dance with her, but also just wants to explore the greater variety the world has to offer. She wants to discover the city's bouquet, in a way.
Having a bunch of different dance styles represented — a bunch of which are considered fringe, like the voguers and the tumbling expert — the idea was to show that there's an alternative clan of people in New York who don't so much walk, as they glide and vogue and tumble through the city.
It's the idea that there are dancers among us, just most of us are too shy to cut loose in public. It's not so much that we don't have the skill.
CM: So Anne is breaking that code by dancing in public and doing it loudly.
JK: Yeah. I think what she lacks in technical perfection, she gains in charm and accessibility. The idea is not so much how great this girl is, it's more about feeling the energy that she has to offer. Technical perfection isn't nearly as interesting as what Anne offers, which is totally unique and wholly her own.
CM: You shot in places that are iconically New York but aren't obvious, like Yankee Stadium. What made the various locations appeal to you?
JK: I was interested in telling a story that was archetypally New York without it being touristy. There's a lot that's recognizable — and I wanted it to be — but I also didn't want it to feel like it was pandering to the tourist. I don't want to talk down to the audience or hit them over the head with the city — like, "Oh, there's the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building."
CM: Let's talk about the dancers' playing with New York's architecture. There's a lot of interaction with shapes and different spaces, and they explore the built environment in a way that you see those forms in a different light.
JK: Yeah. In general, I'm quite interested in architecture and the impact of the built environment on how we spend our days and whether we feel comfortable or uncomfortable in a space.
So much of this film for me was about public space and what we're allowed to do in it. I wanted to prove to myself as well as others that you can still use public space in a way that's quite free because — especially in New York — public space is so policed and so regulated. So the idea that the dancers could dance on things or jump through things seems playful but is also a way of saying, "Hey, you can get away with this. If you move quickly and you're careful, then it's a-okay."
CM: What do you hope audiences take away from the the film?
JK: Wow. We've shown it now in all these different contexts to different kinds of audiences. There have been nuns and priests dancing in the oldest church in Manhattan; we've done museum screenings. We did one on the beach at Coney Island for about a thousand people. In all these environments, you get something different because every audience is different.
But if there's one thing I want, it's to encourage people to move in a way that's unselfconscious. It's not so much about, "Are you partying hard enough to my movie?" It's more, if you can feel good about yourself and be unselfconscious and inspired to be less concerned with how other people look at you, because I really want the film to encourage that in people.
I've also had experiences at screenings where people who don't know one another come together and have a ball together.
From the beginning, I really hoped it would be this unifying experience that might be a little like going to church or a sporting event or concert. I'm not religious and I don't go to sports games so often, so I don't tend to have that sense of loving my team. So I really wanted to create this project that allowed people to come together and just smile without there being a team that you're on.
I've had something pretty close to that experience every time it's shown. People enter in whatever mood they're in and leave bouyant. That's really the greatest honor I could achieve with anything I make.
Girl Walk // All Day screens this Sunday, August 19th at Cinema East at Yellow Jacket Stadium (1156 Hargrave St.) Entry is $3. Krupnick will be in attendance for a post-screening discussion.