On Friday, the Department of Dance, Drama and Film sponsored a screening of Gabri Christa’s experimental short documentary “Sheila.” Christa is a dancer, choreographer, filmmaker and writer and an associate professor of Professional Practice at Barnard College. Oden Auditorium was full of students eager to see the big-screen showing of Christa’s award-winning film.
The room was silent with anticipation as Christa stood at the podium alongside Assistant Professor of Dance Kora Radella. Radella introduced Christa to the audience, describing her background as a choreographer and filmmaker before giving her an opportunity to introduce her work to the audience. Christa confessed that she prefers that her work speak for itself. So, without further ado, she started her film. The film was a tribute to Sheila Rohan, one of the founding members of the Dance Theater of Harlem. Christa wrote, directed and produced the film alongside cinematographer Guy De Lancey.
From the start, the film’s deliberate color choices were striking and immediately captured the audience’s attention. The intense blue hues illuminated an elderly Black woman, Rohan, with long dreadlocks in the woods. After massaging her body with her hands, she took out a pair of pointe shoes and put them on. A combination of diegetic sounds, like crickets, and non-diegetic sounds, such as the music composed for the film, accompanied this introductory sequence for a thought-provoking effect.
Suddenly, a series of images were broadcast onto the woman’s body. These pictures had a much warmer, tan color scheme, which contrasted brilliantly against the blue of the rest of the screen. The images showed a video of the woman’s much younger self, dancing lithely and showing off expressive poses. The use of the elderly dancer’s body as a canvas was a powerful choice, as it displayed the beauty of memory locked in the body. It was the first of many instances of the physical interacting with the ephemeral in the film. The film explored the concept of memory stored up in the body and the connection between physical and mental phenomena. Finally, the elderly woman started to dance herself, showing the supple quality of an experienced dancer. As she continued dancing, images of other young dancing girls began to appear out of her view. Whenever the elderly dancer would turn to look at one of these girls, their projections would disappear. The film ended with a powerful image of the elderly woman standing with projections of all the other younger girls gathered behind her, symbolizing the impact and legacy of Rohan’s dancing career.
After the film screening, the audience of students was invited to ask questions. Christa was generous with questions, taking time to answer every single one. Audience members asked questions concerning themes, process challenges, color grading decisions and the culture of dance. It was an intriguing, educational and impactful screening. Christa expressed how important it was to her that the movie empower elderly women, whose contributions to society often go unacknowledged.