The God Tree – The making of a dance film: Eileen Kramer

The God Tree – The making of a dance film: Eileen Kramer

I have already given it a name: ‘The ancient mother tree’, from an expression I had first come across in a book called Fire Country, by Victor Steffensen, about the way the Indigenous people of Australia have dealt with fire. I liked it. The tree that is to be our film’s location is indeed very large. From outside it looks more like a clump of trees, not just one, as it is. It must be very old indeed. Ancient. Sometimes, without thinking, I have found myself saying ‘sacred’ mother tree, instead of ‘ancient’. And that is interesting because of what is about to happen, as we stand outside the tree waiting for the rest of our team. What happens is only a small thing by itself, but it gives me a new name for the film we are going to make: an Asian woman on her morning walk, wheeling her sleeping baby in a pram, stops and says, “Oh, you’re making a film.” “Yes,” we say. And after another look up at the vastness of leaves, branches and what one can see of the trunk, she says, “In my country we would call anything as big as this ‘the god tree’.” Perhaps she is referring to the banyan tree in whose shade Prince Siddhartha sat waiting until he profoundly understood the real cause of mankind’s sufferings and became the Buddha. But that is not the story we are filming. At the beginning, my vision was of art and nature. An image I had seen, of a painting, quite large, hanging from a tree in a forest in Japan, had inspired me, and brought about the desire to make the film. Setting to work with this in mind, I had begun by making drawings of faces. I liked what I had done but went further, cutting the drawings out and backing them with a small stick so they could be held in front of my own face as a kind of mask. The effect of this – the black and white drawings, and a human body wearing a white caftan – was so startling to me that more and more images had appeared – a procession of masks and shapes and figures, against the backdrop of the god tree herself.

I invite other dancers and filmmaking friends to join me in this venture, and they come, intrigued by the idea of using the tree as our location. We have cinematographer Richard Corfield, and composer Mike Nock, as well as Patrick Harding-Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser, who have been top contemporary dancers in London; Julia Cotton, a dance teacher and performer at ADT; Shane Carroll, who has worked with Bangarra; actor Maria Mercedes, and Geoff Weston, a performer who has given up the security of his restaurant business ‘for the sake of adventure’. Sue Healey has offered to help me with the camera direction and editing. Sue is well known in the world of contemporary dance; she received the Australia Council Award for Dance in 2021. We are ready to start. There is no story or plot yet, but as it turns out, in the mysterious way the mind deals with such problems, this aspect is taking care of itself. It has not yet all been revealed to me, but I have confidence in what the mind – my mind – is up to! It is working in its own way.

We enter the tree. I say ‘enter’ although with something so vast I hardly know what the right word is. The branches are so thick and heavy, it is hard to see the whole trunk. We have come to make a dance film, but the mother tree, silent and still as she is, has, with her strange power, not yet permitted us to get started. As we walk from the green lawn of the park into the dimness within the tree, I feel as if we are entering a mysterious Grimm’s fairy tale. We are moving within another world, curtained by the extraordinary aerial roots of the god tree – thousands upon thousands of long streamers that grow from the branches straight down. It is as if the ground accepts them, and they, growing so thickly together, form rooms and corridors, offering different views and narrow momentary glimpses of the world we had left outside. There is no shot list. We simply start shooting our surroundings, confident that the story will take shape.

That first day, Sue and Richard, the cameraman, have entered the tree ahead of the rest of us, and we come upon them in one of the ‘rooms’ created by the aerial roots in their abundance. Sue is standing as if hypnotised by something. It is a single leaf, attached to one of the roots, hanging like a little bell from a spider’s web, turning and turning, almost furiously. Richard feels he must shoot. As the leaf reaches a climax in one direction, it stops for a moment, before starting off again the opposite way. When it becomes still at last, I say to Sue, now you must turn in the same way. She does so, and when she stops, her hair, which has been cut recently, moves in the most attractive way against her cheek. Her smile is a moment of great charm. “We must keep this shot,” I say to Richard. “We must use it somewhere.”

Of all that we have seen, I am most taken by those aerial roots. Like the mother tree herself, they are silent and still, as hard to our touch as the thick branches that bear them. There is still no story except that, in my mind, the aerial roots are longing to escape from their mother branches. The three dancers, Anca, Shane and Julia, are waiting, in the costumes I had designed and made for them. These costumes are a sort of greenish grey-brown as if I had dipped the fabric in baths of colour from the tree itself. With one shoulder bare, they hang in curving folds down one side, and fall straight to the ankle on the other. The gown itself is unadorned, but each dancer wears a wide headband from which her own aerial roots flow from head to ankle. I had cut these from a costume I had once made but never liked. Laid flat on the cutting table, the fabric was wide and long, and I spent hours cutting it into long strips about two centimetres wide that curled around into long cylinders. I cut and I cut and I cut – until I had 100 or more of these ribbons. And at the end of each I made a knot – like the knotty lumps on those roots growing from the mother tree’s own branches.

With their backs to the camera, Anca, Shane and Julia are hanging, with right arm raised. I like this. They sway. They turn. Shane looks right to left. Julia almost stumbles and Anca supports her. It is stylised, not quite human. Freed from the mother branch, the aerial roots are slowly discovering the joy of movement. Throughout the whole sequence, the compositions they make are influenced by what they are wearing – the straight lines of the streamers that hang from their headbands and the curved draped sides of their costumes. I have an idea for a shot that Sue will film with Richard’s camera. She stands far back, with the view of the three dancers to about thigh level, and then begins to walk with the camera. The dancers remain stationery but as the camera moves it will seem as if they are the ones who are walking. The effect will add a kind of strangeness, I hope, to the scene. The dancers will make three or four dance movements before sinking to the ground: it’s as if they go right into the spirit of the place. This will be a close, sculptural kind of shot.

The aerial roots scene has been at the back of my thinking throughout my work on the film: the long tendrils hanging and swaying (which the real ones don’t actually do; they are far too stiff and solid). I have always seen it as the end, but now, in my mind, I have switched what was to be the final sequence to the beginning – underpinning what will follow. Sue as editor will decide what to do, but I hope she will start with the aerial roots dance, as to me, that really is the main part. At another point, Patrick, as a kind of Lord of the Tree, arrives on the scene, and there is a dramatic moment where he is startled by a large white bird with unflinching black eyes that stares at him then suddenly fluffs up all its feathers and flies off. The costume I have made for Patrick is a full wide robe and long cape-like affair. Dramatic though it is, its shape and character change very strangely as he moves. It does very well on camera in the scene with the bird, but in another scene Anca, Patrick’s wife, will say it makes him look Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I agree, so I return the fabric to its natural shape – my stitches are easy to undo – and design a new costume. Anca executes my new design with remarkable skill, so that her husband looks calm and, as far as Lords of God Trees go, suave and well costumed. She makes all his aerial roots hang, as they should, from his arms – his branches, had Patrick been a true and tried Lord of the Tree – with each long streamer knotted about six centimetres apart, all the way down. The next shot of the newly robed Lord of the Tree is a success. I love it!

After this we will shoot scenes with other characters, including Maria Mercedes as the spirit of the tree, with her gift of figs. And Geoff Weston as a travelling magician who distributes masks to the white figures: when they look through the eyes of these masks, they see things differently. The last dance we film is that of a mystery character, a spirit of movement, whose costume is nothing but a cloud of purple veiling all about her. This is my own dance, and it will transport us to a magic garden, where nature and art come together.

To ends our story and film of what the woman with the sleeping child called the ‘god tree’. We never saw her again, but we thank her for the inspiration we had from her presence on that first day I had expected to make a dance film in the environment of this strange and, for me, extraordinary setting, but when we began work, the virus had not shown itself fully. Since then, over many days and months of delays and lockdowns, the plan changed not once, but several times. As editor, Sue has not tried to tell a story with the scenes we shot but has created a series of vignettes that work together in a more complex way. I tend to want to find a connection between scenes, and it is a lesson to me not to demand a narrative. In the end, the film is not ‘about’ the tree, nor is the tree just an interesting location. The film has become a response to the tree, on many levels. And I like it very much. It is like a little jewel with each facet reflecting points of inspiration from many, many sources – tendrils of imagery, memory and experience that knit together from the past, the present and who knows where else.

Eileen Kramer

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Published by Basic Shapes Publishing Elizabeth Bay NSW Australia

Photography: Richard Corfield
Editing and design: Catherine Gray

© Eileen Kramer 2021