DEREN, MAYA (Eleanora Derenkowsky; 1917–1961), U.S. avant-garde filmmaker. Born in Kiev, Deren moved with her family to New York in 1922 to escape antisemitic pogroms in the Ukraine; at that time the family changed its surname to Deren. Eleanora undertook an arts degree at New York University, completing her master's dissertation on symbolist poetry at Smith College in 1939. Following university, Eleanora managed and toured with Katherine Dunham's dance troupe.
Settling in Los Angeles in the 1940s, Deren changed her name to Maya and made the landmark experimental trance film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) with Alexander Hammid. The film, set in Hollywood, unravels in a nightmarish narrative of repetition and symbolic displacement with objects magically appearing and transforming across the cut. Shot as a silent film, it was edited to Teiji Ito's drumbeat, generating a strong sense of rhythmic form and dynamic movement. In 1943 Deren collaborated with Marcel Duchamp to produce Witch's Cradle. The surviving fragments reveal themes that recur throughout Deren's films: the artist's role, the influence of nature, and a fascination with ritual. At Land (1944) shows Deren crawling across a dining table, oblivious to the diners. Its depiction of waves descending back into the sea subverts natural rhythms. In A Study in Choreography for the Camera (1945) the performer and the camera become dynamic forces as the dancer's twirls bridge disparate spaces. Meditation on Violence (1948) focuses on a Wu Tang ritual, juxtaposing violence and stillness. In Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) Deren experiments with slowed footage of two wind-swept women immersed in ritualized wool looming. Her final film, The Very Eye of Night (1959), is an incomplete collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School that synthesizes dance and Greek mythology against a background of blinking constellations.
Deren organized and presented lectures at universities across the United States and in Canada and Cuba to raise the profile of experimental films. Her innovations inspired the formation of Cinema 16 and Deren herself established the Creative Film Foundation to encourage independent filmmakers. Bridging the divide between praxis and theory, Deren wrote An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film (1946). In 1947 she won the Grand Prix Internationale for avant-garde film at the Cannes Film Festival and was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a first for a motion picture artist. This allowed Deren to travel to Haiti to film voodoo rituals and write Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1953; rep. 1983). To mark her untimely death the American Film Institute established the Maya Deren Award to inspire independent film and video artists.
Sources:V.V.A. Clark, M. Hodson, and C. Neiman, The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works, 2 vols. (1984, 1988); B.R. McPherson (ed.), Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film (2005); B. Nicholls (ed.), Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde (2001).
[Wendy Haslem (2nd ed.)]
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