As a teenager, Charli Brissey shot videos of family members and friends with a large VHS camcorder.
It was the beginning of an award-winning filmmaking career that mixes dance, science, technology, live-action and animation with innovation.
Brissey, who uses they and them pronouns, is an assistant professor of dance in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. They love both dance and film, and said the latter allows them to express their creativity in new ways.
“What I like about filmmaking, it’s a different kind of palette of options,” Brissey said. “I can sort of bend time and space in ways I can’t do with dance.”
Brissey’s films have been presented in galleries, conferences, film festivals and performance venues around the world. Many of them include queer content or content centered around movement and dance.
The films are often categorized as experimental, meaning that they have a non-traditional narrative and are usually driven more by visual or kinetic qualities rather than a particular storyline.
One of their most recent projects, the video-animation hybrid film “Canis Major,” is about a writer who has writer’s block but is able to get through it with the help of their dog. The film toured to 17 countries and won multiple awards, including Best Experimental Film at OUTFEST and the Richmond International Film Festival.
Brissey doesn’t follow a set process or pattern when making a film.
“It’s always different. It’s always incredibly nonlinear or unplanned,” Brissey said. “I don’t do big storyboards. I don’t pre-plan a lot of content or editing. A lot of the actual shooting and editing is done pretty improvisationally, and it often changes as I go.”
Brissey’s love of filmmaking started in middle school.
“I had a big camcorder I would lug to school every day. I would write scripts and make my friends be the actors,” they said.
Brissey earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in dance at Virginia Commonwealth University and went on to study kinetic imaging there.
“That’s when I really dove into experimental video work and integrating my dance training with my filmmaking desires and skills,” they said.
Brissey has two master’s degrees, in kinetic imaging and in dance. They have worked at U-M since 2018 teaching film, composition and technique classes in the dance department.
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Brissey’s latest project, “future fish,” is set to premiere in March at the Jam Handy in Detroit. It is a live-performance iteration of “Agua Viva,” a multiyear research project exploring the choreography of oceans, water systems and the deep-sea floor as potentially radical sites for reimagining the terrestrial future.
Brissey and an MFA dance student will perform in the piece as the last two fish left in the sea. They hope to tour the East Coast and Midwest with “future fish” later this year.
Brissey also has a book project. “Dance We Must: Choreographies of Space, Time, and Emergent Matter(s)” integrates auto theory, speculative fiction and movement scores from U.S.-based dance artists to illuminate the potential of choreographic thinking in creating social-political-ecological landscapes.
Looking ahead, Brissey plans to continue finding new ways to reach people with their art.
“I want to keep making live performances and I want to keep making film work, so on stage and on screen, and just figuring out new ways to present all of that kind of work during the pandemic, and to engage audiences across geographies,” they said.
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
Last winter I had an outdoor film shoot with dance majors where we put up a greenscreen in a foot of snow and danced on a tarp. It was the only way to make it happen because of COVID-19, and it was totally absurd and fantastic. Such a glimmer of joy amid so much loss and sadness. That project really helped me (us?) push through that awful pandemic winter.
What can’t you live without?
Dogs, books, good coffee, sparkling water, hats, copy editors.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
I don’t know if this counts, but I really love Sava’s. It’s one of the first restaurants I went to during my campus visit, and whenever I have guest artists, visiting scholars or friends in town we almost always meet up there at the end of the workday. It’s become this place I definitely associate with work, but the funner side of work. The more social “after hours” part of the job that allows for different kinds of connections and conversations.
What inspires you?
I’m inspired by people who are bold and risky and hungry for new ideas. It doesn’t necessarily even matter what the project content is. It could be anything from food to quantum physicals to films. When people are really into what they’re doing — especially when it involves something bigger than just themselves — I find that energy very intoxicating.
What are you currently reading?
I tend to read many things at once. At the moment the two taking up most of my time are “Her Body and Other Parties” by Carmen Maria Machado and “A Body in Crisis” by Christine Greiner.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
I learned a lot about being an artist in academia from my mentors in grad school: Jennifer Monson, Tere O’Connor, Cynthia Oliver and Sara Hook. Without them I’d be a mess right now. Also Octavia Butler. Whenever I start feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing, Butler always gets me through.