Slamdance: Eerie, Visually and Emotionally Dynamic, ‘The Severing’ Delivers Unavoidable Intensity


Still from “The Severing.” (Courtesy Slamdance)

By Tervela Georgieva, Arts Writer


“The Severing,” a feature dance film directed by Mark Pellington, premiered at Slamdance film festival, delivering something unlike anything I’ve seen before. I don’t know about you, but when I see dance and horror all in one film, I’m instantly hooked. If I had any expectations before watching, the film defied them. It didn’t shy away from the uncomfortable, terrifying and confusing — every moment was charged with an intensity that demanded to be experienced. 

A Dynamic Performance

Choreographed by Nina McNeely, “The Severing” pushed limits of the human body and boundaries of dance. The film’s dancers —Maija Knapp, Ryan Spencer, Blake Miller, Allison Fletcher, Danny Axley and Courtney Scarr — exhibited a surreal range of motion. Every movement was intricately detailed, as though you could see each nerve in the dancers’ bodies move.    

The dancers’ contortionist movements seemed almost non-human, leaving you with a strange and haunting eeriness. Sometimes they covered their own mouths, making themselves unable to scream. Some bit their own leg, as though overcome by possession. Tender moments of partnership between dancers turned into moments of strangulation. Something that looked like love began to look like violence. As a viewer you became disoriented but couldn’t look away because a dancer was staring right at the camera, capturing you. 

A Reflection on Grief

“The Severing” captured all the different emotions that can be contained in human movement, even the terrifying and uncomfortable kind. It provided a way to reflect on the difficult moments of our lives. “It’s an expression of grief,” director Mark Pellington said about the film in a Q&A for Slamdance. “The separation when you’re kind of pulled outside of yourself and the difficulty of reconnecting with yourself, with individuals or with groups.” In a time where many of us are feeling a separation from others or ourselves amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this film offers us a way to think about our emotions and process them in a way we might not otherwise. 

The film challenged the viewer. Such intense displays of emotion can be jarring for those of us who have never seen them in the media or our own lives. It wasn’t a film that could be experienced passively, instead it forced the viewer’s participation and their unwillingness to be uncomfortable. And why should it always be comfortable? The film’s commitment to the experience of emotions of all kinds is what makes it unflinchingly honest and worth the watch. 


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