Maya Deren
(1917–1961)

Maya Deren, various materials, Collection Martina Kudláček, Vienna, installation view, Neue Galerie, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke

Kiev-born experimental filmmaker, poet-writer, self-trained dancer, and photographer Maya Deren (initially Eleanora Derenkowsky) arrived in the United States in the wake of anti-Semitic pogroms in the Ukraine. Deren’s distinctive camera movement and sensuous geometry between the lens and the protagonist are palpable in At Land (1944); when circling with a 16 mm Bolex around the entrancing Talley Beattey for A Study in Choreography for the Camera (1945), and via the intricate rhythms of Chinese flute and Haitian drums bound with Wu Tang in Meditation on Violence (1948)—avowing her claim to make “the world dance” in film while generating a symbolic realm of discontinuous cinematic space. These works also reveal the lived poetics of the American avant-garde. In the 1940s, Deren joined African American dancer-choreographer Katherine Dunham as a personal assistant and toured with the Dunham Dance Company. From 1947 to 1952 she shot over 18,000 feet of footage and made sound recordings chronicling Haitian vodou rituals and ceremonies, music, and the communal performativity of bodies in trance. While the film itself remains an unfinished project, in her book Divine Horsemen (1953), Deren writes: “As the soul of the dead did, so have I, too, come back. I have returned. But the journey around is long and hard, alike for the strong horse, alike for the great rider.” It seems fitting that Deren’s last film, revealing a cosmological “ballet of the night:” The Very Eye of Night (1952), premiered in Port-au-Prince.

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