Maya Deren, A Life Choreographed for Camera

Here are excerpts from an article by Mark Alice Durant, author of Maya Deren, Choreographed for Camera (Saint Lucy Books, 2022)—a favorite! An avid fan of Deren’s work, her time spent in Haiti, and her seminal book Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, I was drawn to this article’s references to her collaboration with dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist Katherine Dunham—through which Deren became interested in Afro-Caribbean culture—and with Trinidadian American dancer Rita Christiani, who performed (along with Anaïs Nin) in Deren’s 1946 Ritual in Transfigured Time. [This article was originally published in Aperture, No. 195, Summer 2009. See full article and photos at]

Drama and myth framed the life and death of Maya Deren. She was born Eleanora Derenkowski in Kiev in 1917 – during the early days of the Russian Revolution – and died forty-four years later in New York City, with whispers of a Vodou curse veiling the circumstances of her death. During her brief life she established herself as a pioneering experimental filmmaker and crusader for independent film, received the first Guggenheim grant ever awarded for creative filmmaking (1946), and in 1953 published the book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. The aura that suffuses Deren’s biography emanates partly from the enigmatic power of her films, but it has been magnified by her bohemian glamour and visionary intelligence, edged with a hint of tyranny.

Escaping anti-Semitic pogroms and the general chaos of the nascent USSR, the Derenkowski family immigrated to the United States in 1922 and settled in Syracuse, New York.  During the mid-1930s Deren attended Syracuse University, where she became deeply involved in anti-fascist and anti-war activities on campus. She later enrolled in a graduate program at Smith College, earning a master’s degree in English literature in 1939.

Deren went on to become the personal assistant to Katherine Dunham, an African American dancer/choreographer, and anthropologist whose fieldwork concerned Afro-Caribbean culture. Deren traveled with Dunham’s dance troupe as they toured around segregated America; the racism she witnessed during those trips left a deep impression. It was Dunham who also introduced her to the interwoven relationships among dance, ritual, iconography, and metaphysical transcendence in Haitian culture.

In 1942, Deren met Alexander Hackenshmied (later Hammid), a Czech émigré. [. . .] Film stocks and cameras, light and shadow, frozen moments and moving images, the very materiality of photography and cinema were the dowry of their union, and provided the essence of Deren’s new identity. In a biographical from 1953, she wrote: “It was like finally finding a glove that fits. When I was writing poetry, I had, constantly, to transcribe my essentially visual image . . . into verbal form. In motion pictures, I no longer had to translate…and I could move directly from my imagination into film.” Recognizing this moment of transformation, she asked Hammid to give her a new name – and so Eleanora became ‘Maya,’ after the Hindu goddess of illusion. [. . .]

Photography would remain an important tool for the rest of her life, but was never her central medium: she simply found it useful for ethnographic documentation in Haiti and for earning money as a freelance portrait photographer for such magazines as Vogue, Flair, Harper’s Bazaar, and Architectural Forum.

[. . .] Deren often spoke of the concept of time not being a fixed phenomenon, but something that was essentially subjective and unstable.  She adopted Einstein’s notion of the ‘relativistic universe’ to describe the idea of constant metamorphosis – of becoming as opposed to being. [. . .]

Deren’s best-known film is her first, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Shot in twelve days in and around her tiny bungalow in the Hollywood Hills, the film takes place in a haunting, circular dreamscape in which Deren and Hammid are the actors. The film’s symbolism is hardly oblique: a key, a knife, a mouth, and a hooded figure with a mirrored face. Yet it is worth suspending skepticism for works that transcend their contrivances, as this one does: Meshes of the Afternoon’s radical yet elegant use of film language still has the power to mesmerize. [. . .]

Ritual in Transfigured Time is considered by many film historians to be Deren’s most fully realized film; it is also the last in which she herself appears. Dancers Rita Christiani and Frank Westbrook are in the lead roles, and Anais Nin is also prominently featured. [. . .] The film utilizes repetition, slow motion, stop motion, and negative footage to thicken the fabric of its mysteries. The cocktail party scene is like a modern day Watteau painting, full of exaggerated mannerisms and desperate, brief embraces. Draped in black and holding three calla lilies, Christiani forges through a crowd that freezes into a series of minor tableaux, in which all the subtle gestures clotting the frame can be discerned before the moment is released back into animated flow. It is as if Deren were attempting a dialectical dance in which truth might be found between the stops and starts of cinematic illusion.

In 1947, Deren made use of her Guggenheim funding to travel to Haiti.  A motif that runs through her work, from Meshes of the Afternoon to the groundbreaking work she made in Haiti, is the idea of the body in an altered state, entranced, moved by unseen forces.  Film’s hypnotic influence seems ideally suited to revealing the realities of spiritual possession, but although Deren made several pilgrimages to Haiti, living there for about 18 months in her combined trips, and shot many hours of religious ceremonies, she never completed her film. (The edited footage, titled Divine Horsemen, was released posthumously.)  It is curious that the moving image failed Deren in her attempt to represent a real-world phenomenon of depersonalization; she was concerned that the footage of Haitians dancing and writhing in the state of ‘possession’ would be sensationalized and misunderstood.  This was, in a sense, a blessing in disguise because this ‘failure’ inspired her to write her incredible book on Haitian culture, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti.

[. . .]  While her observations of the cosmology of Vodou are exactingly recorded and analyzed in her book Divine Horsemen, there is very little documentation of her quotidian experiences in Haiti. What did she eat? Where did she walk? Who, if anyone, were her lovers?

The public image that Deren built during her lifetime, which has been fortified by successive generations of admirers, is so carefully constructed that it is difficult to see beyond it. A few atypical still images from Haiti have floated to the surface: an unmade bed; a boy contemplating a ferocious downpour; a hazy street scene, perhaps in Jacmel. In this last image are gathered a random simultaneity of gestures, a rare demotic moment in which a boy embraces another from behind, a woman balances a bundle of kindling on her head, and an elegantly dressed man glides across the wet street. Perhaps because Deren is not burdened with representing herself or her vision, the relaxed portraits of dancers, writers and musicians that she made for magazines have a similar openness. This rare informality is like throwing open the windows to a long-shut attic, which is the set piece of her legend. [. . .]

For full article, see

Also see a review by Sarah Rose Sharp at

[Shown above: 1) Book cover, 2) Haitian Bed, c. 1947- 52, and 3) Haitian Street Scene, c. 1947-52

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