Deren, Maya (1908–1961)

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Deren, Maya (1908–1961)

Russian-born American experimental filmmaker often cited as the creator of the first film of the American avant-garde and the "choreo-cinema," a collaborative art between the dancer and the camera. Born Eleanora Derenkowsky in Kiev, Russia, on April 29, 1908 (some sources cite 1917); died of cerebral hemorrhage in St. Alban's Naval Hospital, Queens, New York, on October 13, 1961; daughter of Marie (a teacher) and Alexander (a Russian-Jewish psychiatrist called Solomon in some sources) Derenkowsky (name later shortened to Deren); attended the L'École Internationale (Geneva), Syracuse University, and the New School for Social Research; New York University, B.A.; Smith College, A.M. in literature, 1939; married a labor reformer (divorced in 1938 after three years); married Alexander Hackenschmied (a Czech filmmaker who worked under the name Alexander Hammid), in 1942 (divorced); married Teiji Ito (a composer), in 1960.

Awarded the first Guggenheim fellowship ever bestowed for creative filmmaking (1946); first woman and the first American to win the Cannes Grand Prix Internationale for Avant-Garde Film (for Meshes of the Afternoon).


(with Alexander Hammid) Meshes of the Afternoon (1943); At Land (1944); A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945); (home movie, with Hammid) The Private Life of a Cat (1945); Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946); Meditation on Violence (1948); The Very Eye of Night (1959); The Witch's Cradle (released incomplete, 1961).


An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and the Film (New York, 1946); The Divine Horseman: The Living Gods of Haiti (New York, 1953); Divine Horsemen: Voodoo Gods of Haiti (New York, 1970).


"Choreography of Camera" (Dance, October 1943); reply to Manny Farber in New Republic (November 11, 1946); "Creative Cutting: Parts I and II" (Movie Makers, May–June 1947); "Meditation on Violence" (Dance Magazine, December 1948); "Movie Journal" (Village Voice, August 25, 1960); "Cinema As an Art Form" (Introduction to the Art of the Movies, ed. Lewis Jacobs, 1960); "Adventures in Creative Filmmaking" (Home Movie Making, 1960); "Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality" (Daedalus: The Visual Arts Today, 1960); "A Statement of Principles" (Film Culture, summer 1961); "Movie Journal" (Village Voice, June 1, 1961); "Chamber Films" (Filmwise, no. 2, 1962); "A Lecture …" (Film Culture, summer 1963); "The Very Eye of Night" (Film Culture, summer 1963); "Film in Progress" (Film Culture, winter 1965); "Notes, Essays, Letters" (Film Culture, winter 1965); "A Statement on Dance and Film" (Dance Perspectives, no. 30, 1967); "Tempo and Tension" (The Movies as Medium, ed. Lewis Jacobs, 1970).

Russian-born Maya Deren was America's best-known independent and experimental filmmaker in the era during and following the Second World War. As a director, actress, producer, writer, and lecturer, she was instrumental in helping experimental filmmaking in the United States achieve a position of respect in the international art world. Her works, seen as definitive American trance and ciné-dance films, used ritual and symbol to explore the relationships between real versus imagined time and space.

Deren was born in Kiev, Russia, in 1908. Her father had served as a medical corpsman in the Russian army and her mother was the graduate of a strenuous program in an arts conservatory. The family immigrated to America a few years after the Russian Revolution (1922), and the family name was shortened from Derenkowsky to Deren. In the United States, her psychiatrist father repeated his medical training, became a lecturer in mental hygiene in Syracuse, New York, and joined the staff of the State Institute for the Feeble-Minded in Syracuse, of which he was eventually the director. Deren's mother worked as a teacher and encouraged her daughter to seek out the best education possible. Deren received her high school education at L'École Internationale in Geneva, Switzerland, and rejoined her family following graduation. At Syracuse University, she studied journalism and would later be known for uncommonly articulate writings about the cinema. During her student years, Deren wrote for left-wing periodicals and entered into an early marriage to a labor reformer with whom she relocated to New York's Greenwich Village, where the couple became active in the American Socialist Party. After receiving her B.A. from New York University, she did graduate work in literature at Smith College with a master's thesis that discussed the influence of the French symbolists on the imagist poets. Later, Deren's film work would be noted for its resemblance to the Imagism movement in poetry. After three years of marriage, Deren divorced in 1938.

A year following her graduation from Smith in 1939, Deren became personal secretary to the African-American dancer-choreographer Katherine Dunham . Although Deren was not a trained dancer, she and Dunham collaborated on a book of modern dance theory. Deren shared an interest in African and Haitian tribal dance, as well as in mythology and ritual, with the African-American dancers she met via Dunham. As Deren strayed from the ideas of Freudian psychoanalysis passed down to her by her father, she became increasingly interested in Jungian psychology, which along with Surrealism attached importance to "primitive" art, for its concepts regarding the archetypal symbol and "collective unconscious."

In 1941, Deren joined Dunham and her company on tour. She met Alexander Hammid, the Czech documentary filmmaker, in Los Angeles. Deren would remark that Hammid taught her "the mechanics of film expression and, more than that, the principle of infinite pains." The knowledge of film she acquired from Hammid was of large significance to Deren's creative development:

I had been a poet up until then, and the reason that I had not been a very good poet was because my mind worked in images which I had been trying to translate or describe in words; therefore, when I undertook cinema, I was relieved of the false step of translating images into words, and could work directly so that it was not like discovering a new medium so much as finally coming home into a world whose vocabulary, syntax, grammar, was my mother tongue; which I understood, and thought in, but, like a mute, had never spoken.

Deren and Hammid were married in 1942. Meshes of the Afternoon, her first film, was codirected by Hammid. The year was 1943, the 16mm equipment was borrowed, and Deren and Hammid lent themselves as actors to the 18-minute film with their Los Angeles house as the set. Shot in two-and-a-half weeks, Meshes was a silent film devoid of conventional plot. The initial sequence reveals a woman who is coming home after seeing what P. Adams Sitney, writing in Richard Roud's Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, describes as a "mysterious black-veiled figure before her. She observes the dislocation of several objects which will eventually assume symbolic dimensions: a key, a knife, a telephone, a record-player." The woman then falls asleep in an armchair before a window. As this action pattern is three times repeated, the objects become increasingly menacing. During the climax of the third repetition, writes Sitney, "three versions of herself perform a ritual around the dining-room table which ends in the election of one to attack the sleeping figure with a knife." At the point of the stabbing, the dream seems to end as she is awakened by her lover's kiss. She sees that the dislocated objects have been returned to their rightful places as she and her lover climb to the upper bedroom. Together they lie down. The woman, grabbing the knife, stabs it into her lover's face, which at the moment of contact is shown to have been an illusion. The woman has instead shattered a mirror that had held his reflection. "The pieces of the mirror fall mysteriously to the edge of a sea …," writes Sitney. "In the final cycle of the film a man approaches and enters the house again in the same pattern as her previous entrances only to find her dead, her throat apparently cut, with seaweed clinging to her, and the fragments of the shattered mirror about her."

"The film begins in actuality," remarks Deren, "and, eventually ends there. But in the meantime the imagination, here given as a dream, intervenes." In this first film, Deren began to use the medium as a means to eclipse traditional notions of time and space, in favor of a constructed time-space reality, an exploration for which her work would become well known. Meshes maintained continuous action while severing time-space unities, and the result was what Louise Heck-Rabi has described as "a trance-like mood by the use of slow motion, swish-pan camera movements, and well executed point-of-view shots." Deren would later pen a letter to her friend James Card, which traced the evolution of her six films. In this correspondence, she described a sequence in Meshes:

[T]he girl with the knife rises from the bale to go towards the self which is sleeping in the chair. As the girl … rises, there is a close-up of her foot as she begins striding. The first step is in sand (with suggestion of sea behind), the second stride (cut in) is in grass, the third is on pavement, and the fourth is on the rug, and then the camera cuts up to her head with the knife descending towards the sleeping girl. What I meant when I planned that four-stride sequence was that you have to come a long way—from the very beginning of time—to kill yourself, like the first life emerging from the primeval waters. These four strides, in my intention, span all time.

The film became famous for this four-stride sequence. Regarded as a milestone in the history of American independent film, Meshes is widely considered to be the first film of the American avant-garde, responsible for introducing in America what Sitney has termed the "trance film" which he has called "the dominant avantgarde film genre of the late 40s and early 50s." While some critics have seen Meshes as among the tradition of European surrealism, Deren consistently denied that this was a surrealist film, wanting it to be viewed as "concerned with the relationship between the imaginative and objective reality."

Deren's next film, however, did indeed draw on surrealist notions and was planned as an exploration of surrealist artifacts as "the cabalistic symbols of the twentieth century" and of surrealist artists as modern magic-workers. This film, The Witch's Cradle, was shot in the Surrealist "Art of This Century" gallery with artists Marcel Duchamp and Pajarito Matta serving as actors. The film was released unfinished in 1961.

Hella Heyman and Alexander Hammid provided technical assistance for Deren's 1944 film At Land (15 minutes), which was described by Sitney as a "pure American trance film." During the film, waves land a woman, played by Deren, on a beach. Ascending a tree trunk, her head disappears out of the shot, to reappear at the bottom of the next frame where she is ignored by diners at a banquet table. Crawling to the end of the table, she finds a chess game, takes a chess piece that she then drops, and pursues the piece through different landscapes. Eventually, she is lost to sight in the dunes. Lewis Jacobs found the film's major cinematic value in its "fresh contiguities of shot relationships achieved through the technique of beginning a movement in one place and concluding it in another. Thus real time and space were destroyed. In its place was created a cinematic time and place." In this universe, remarked Deren, "the problem of the individual as the sole continuous element, is to relate itself to a fluid, apparently incoherent, universe. It is in a sense a mythological voyage of the twentieth century."

Deren, with her dark hair and sensual features, was known for her charismatic personality and dramatic appearance, and she was a central figure in the 1940s artistic community of Greenwich Village. Rabinovitz and Baumgarten in a Cinema Texas program note remark that her qualities alienated as well as attracted: "Rudolf Arnheim, Anais Nin , and James Agee have labeled her everything from strong-willed, commanding, seductive and hypnotic to dogmatic, obstinate, restless, unsatisfied, and energetic to the point of violence."

Deren's use of created space and time figured in her next work A Study in Choreography for the Camera made in 1945. Collaborating with the dancer Talley Beatty, she filmed this three-minute piece by partnering the dancer with the camera. Sitney's account of the film describes its beginning with "a circular pan in a clearing in the woods. In making the one circle the camera periodically passes the dancer; at each encounter he is further along in his slow, up-stretching movement. At the end of this camera movement, he extends his foot out of the frame and brings it down in a different place; this time, inside a room." As the dance goes on, the dancer moves through various places until, Sitney continues, "he begins a pirouette, which changes, without a stopping of the camera, from very slow motion to very fast. Then he leaps, slowly, very slowly, floating through the air, in several rising, then several descending shots, to land in a speculative pose back in the wood clearing." By introducing the potential for isolating a single gesture as a complete cinematic form, Deren created what New York Times ballet critic John Martin called "the beginnings of a virtually new art of 'choreo-cinema,' in which the dancer and the camera collaborate on the creation of a single new work of art."

Deren saw and used ritual as an action different from all other actions because its purpose is realized through form. "In ritual," she said, "the form is the meaning. More specifically, the quality of movement is not a merely decorative factor; it is the meaning itself of the movement…. The quality of individual movements, and, above all, the choreography of the whole, is mainly conferred and created by filmic means—the varying camera speeds, the relating of gestures which were, in reality, unrelated, the repetition of patters…. Being a film ritual, it is achieved not in spatial terms alone, but in terms of a Time created by the camera."

Her Ritual in Transfigured Time is generally considered to be the fullest realization of Deren's ideas. This 16-minute film, made in 1946, counted only two actual dancers among the cast (Rita Christiani and Frank Westbrook) while, in Deren's words, conferring "dance upon non-dancers." A more ambitious dance film than Study in Choreography, Ritual furthered her exploration of form. Deren used joined movements, as she had in Choreography, this time with one person beginning a movement, another continuing it, and another completing it. The film ultimately shows the metamorphosis of a woman from a widow in black to a bride in white, using the cinematic device of negative processing for the transformation.

Deren put forth her idea of the "personal film" in lectures and extensive writings as she traveled the United States and visited colleges, museums, and art schools. She published An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film in 1946. This work showed strong support of independent film following an analysis of American industrial and independent filmmaking activities. "Agony and experience" was Deren's description of her films: "subjective films concerned with personal feelings and problems in which the people are not individuals but symbols, abstractions or generalizations."

Kay and Peary noted in Women and the Cinema that "personal filmmaking meant personal film distribution" for Deren. Renting the Provincetown Playhouse on New York's Mac-Dougal Street in 1946, Deren held the first public screenings in the United States of 16mm films that had been privately made, and these attracted large audiences.

The same year, Deren was awarded the first Guggenheim fellowship ever given for creative filmmaking (she shared the distinction that year with the Whitney brothers). For her first four films, she became the first woman and the first American to win the Cannes Grand Prix Internationale for Avant-Garde Film.

In a departure from her earlier work, Deren traveled to Haiti for her next film to explore new avenues in ritual and myth. Although the film was never completed, her experiences in Haiti figured in her Divine Horseman, a book on Haitian cults (1953). Having gone to Haiti as, in her own words, "an artist, as one who would manipulate the elements of a reality into a work of art," she had been foiled by "the irrefutable reality and impact of Voudoun mythology. … I end by recording, as humbly and accu rately as I can, the logics of a reality which had forced me to recognize its integrity and to abandon my manipulations."

She returned to filmmaking in 1948 with Meditation on Violence (12 minutes), which used movements from the training of Wu-tang and Shao-Lin, two ancient schools of Chinese boxing, and aimed to "abstract the principle of ongoing metamorphosis and change." This was her first film to use a soundtrack, which included Chinese flute and Haitian drums. Dissatisfied with the result, she spoke of reediting the film but never did.

Deren's third marriage, in 1960, was to composer Teiji Ito, who had provided the score for her last film, The Very Eye of Night, made in 1959. This 15-minute dance film included a fair amount of optical printing, and took Deren "out in space about as far as I can go."

In 1961, following a series of cerebral hemorrhages, Maya Deren died at age 53. Called the "mother of the underground film," she had paved the way for the future of American independent films. Rudolf Arnheim eulogized Deren as one of film's "most delicate magicians." In her letter to James Card (April 19, 1955), she wrote of a near-fatal operation that had inspired her last film: "I came out of it with a rapidity that dazzled," she wrote. "Then I actually realized that I was overwhelmed with the most wondrous gratitude for the marvelous persistence of the life force…. And then I had a sudden image: a dog lying somewhere very still, and a child, first looking at it, and then, compulsively, nudging it. Why? to see whether it was still alive…. To make it move to make it live. So I had been doing with my camera."


Lyon, Christopher. International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Vol. II: Directors/Filmmakers. Chicago, IL: St. James Press, 1984.

Roud, Richard, ed. Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, 1980.

Wakeman, John, ed. World Film Directors. Vol. I. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1987.

related media:

Maya Deren: Experimental Films (1 hr. 16 mins.), video includes Meshes of the Afternoon, Ritual in Transfigured Time, Meditation on Violence, At Land, A Study in Choreography for Camera, and The Very Eye of Night.