SIFF Watch: Director Dayna Hanson brings dance films to the masses with 'Improvement Club'

A relatively new genre, dance film is still trying to figure itself out. It's beloved by professional and working dancers, choreographers and fans, but has yet to attain major attention at big film festivals or the box off (and no, "Center Stage" doesn't count). But Seattle director/dancer/choreographer Dayna Hanson is doing her part to elevate dance film -- largely by combining it with other genres in her new feature film, "Improvement Club."

"Improvement Club," which Hanson describes as "a love song to art," is a hybrid narrative feature film with elements of dance, but a story line that speaks to those who have forgone financial stability for their craft. It follows a ragtag dance troupe who, when their upcoming performance falls through, are forced to reexamine why they're doing what they're doing.

"There are a lot of working artists in this country...this is what they do every day," says Hanson, who herself has been working as an independent artist for years. The film is semi-autobiographical and, Hanson says, just the next step in bringing dance film to a larger audience.

"I started working on promoting [dance film] in the early 2000s...and to watch how that genre has taken hold in this community is incredible," Hanson explains.

When it premiered at South by Southwest this year, following a long and arduous process, she says she knew it was going to get some attention. 

"I kind of felt like when it got into South by Southwest, it was kind of a green light for any filmmaker who wanted to do anything that was even a little bit outside. And that absolutely applies to this wonderful community of dance filmmakers who maybe want to take their work to another level or another place."

The film was, in fact, a community effort -- and it has some big names in the credits. In addition to Hanson, who is an important member of the rich dance community, the cast includes area dancers Paul Matthew Moore, Jessie Smith, Wade Madsen, Dave Proscia, Pol Rosenthal, Maggie Brown, Jim Kent, Peggy Piacenza. Behind the camera, there were also some big guns; noted local cinematographer Ben Kasulke oversaw the look of the film, while and Seattle film favorite Lynn Shelton acted as a script adviser. 

Why make a dance film about struggling dancers? Hanson says the answer is simple.

"It's a story about people putting their hearts into trying to make art...this is a tribute to those people who are just never going to stop doing it."

Improvement Club screens tonight at the Harvard Exit. For more information, visit SIFF's website