Alex Reuben’s sumptuous essay film Gingerella (RockaFela) explores the meaning of dance and synchronisation through consideration of various interpretations of the Cinderella myth. Amongst other things, it is a timely public engagement with science, health and art.
In advance of its screenings as part of The Enchanted Screen, Alex spoke to us about some of the ideas and inspiration behind the project.
What inspired you to work with the Cinderella story?
Gingerella (RockaFela) is an improvised film about improvisation. In 2008 I was in Belém at the mouth of the Brazilian Amazon as a British Council Artist in Residence. I’d become interested in the neuroscience of improvisation, how we dance and make music, the element of chance or ‘magic’ in their creation. I formed the idea of a ‘nationless’ dancer who had lost the will to dance, what that would feel like?
At the same time, Cinderella Rockefella, an Israeli novelty pop song in English (Esther and Abi Ofarim, 1968 – and originally a kind of American ragtime/country/blues by Mason Williams and Nancy Ames) came back fully-formed into my mind from childhood. A friend told me of a close copy by Brazil’s Tropicália art movement producer, Rogério Duprat. This ‘mirror-copy’ reminded me of mirror-neurons, themselves related to empathy in watching dance or cinema.
Belem is a kind of magical city which reminded me of the magic in fairytales. It’s an energetic, Amazonian metropolis with a vast, mesmerising, annual procession, celebrating a religious miracle – Círio de Nazaré – whose physicality is central to the movie. I had met a Belém artist with hair down to the ground and one day, walking to meet her, passed a shop called Cinderella. At the same time I was watching the physical, emotional horror of migration (Brexit was a while off). My process is improvised and so these ‘chance’ elements came together and to life.
How many versions did you study and what struck you most about any of these?
I conceived the multi-national DNA of Cinderella as a structure within which I could experiment with cognition, identity and improvisation. There are thousands of ‘Cinders’ folk tales worldwide and I read many versions, eventually settling on around thirteen, from China, Egypt, Scotland, Japan, West Africa, Italy, India, France, North and South American Indian, Greece, Germany and Sweden.
In 2012 I received an award from the Wellcome Trust, followed by Arts Council England which allowed me to collaborate with cognitive scientist, Professor Chris Frith, to research and begin dance plus film production. In the process I combined these tales to form a narrative by linking the common elements, changing narrative direction as they crossed, thereby continuing the theme of chance – or synchronicity, a key theme with Chris – perhaps forming a kind of stream of folk consciousness. I shot in Belém, Iceland, the UK and Budapest where Chris was working.
Performer Ellie Sikorski improvised without direction and with the idea of a dancer who cannot dance. Ellie responded to environment, landscape and a few words – in the context of moving images, dance and neuroscience. I’d become aware of cognitive, choreographic poetics embedded in language and how so many of our words and phrases originate in movement, e.g. ‘one step forward, two steps back’, ‘what a geezer’, ‘push comes to shove’ etc and so I incorporated these into the text.
I was most fascinated that the International Cinderella tales pre-dated the popular European versions, published by Charles Perrault in 1697 and later by the Brothers Grimm. Rhodopis was written down in Greece, 7BC perhaps via Egypt. The structures retained similarities in stories that appeared to pre-date cross-cultural communication across continents and that also suggested to me the possibility that we all evolve with certain, narrative needs. Later in editing, I randomly placed pictures and sounds over the story, poetry and cognitive discussions. The disconnected images and ancient stories created interpretations that had nothing to do with the (non?) intention behind the movement.
How do you think the Cinderella narrative is most relevant today?
Cinderella and movies perpetuate stereotypes of beauty, especially for children. I tried to focus on movement, away from our obsession with certain kinds of faces and bodies. In cinema, the emphasis on talking heads can also restrict film language. The cognitive theme allowed me to disconnect lip-synch and concentrate on movement. In fairytales, the symbolism regarding gender stereotypes, social morals, our subconscious fears and dreams are well documented and important. Recently there’s been exciting research by Durham University that suggests our folk tales go back thousands of years to pre-historic populations.
What makes art, poetry and fairytales persist over such a staggering period and what does this say about our cognitive and cultural evolution? For these stories to have survived, they must hit emotional, fundamental human truths that connect us across the ages. Distillations of human narratives that perhaps tell us something about the human condition. Cognitive elements, like ‘hope’, are universal – ‘rags to riches’ is the American Dream.
All the Cinderellas are very physical stories incorporating dance, violence and cruelty. The physical duress in the mass media coverage of migration and escape to the European dream also flickers on our screens. We may spend more time engaged with them than in more active physical activity or with each other. What connects in Cinderella is our empathy with a child’s loss, cruelty and belief in a magical escape – which comes true. Perhaps physical connection, dreams and empathy, are fast running out?
Gingerella RockaFela screens as part of The Enchanted Screen: A Season of Folk and Fairytale Films. Select cinemas only, dates vary.Find your cinema and book tickets
Supported by a Wellcome Arts Award and Arts Council England