An edited version of this article appeared in ballet-dance magazine in 2011.
What stunning use of video. Through this medium, original dancers from Lucinda Childs‘ 1979 piece, ‘Dance’, ‘partnered’ live dancers on stage, in a performance that warped movement, time and space.
The seminal contemporary piece was first restaged in the US in 2009. Two years later, it opened Berlin’s annual Tanz im August (Dance in August) international dance festival, as part of its European tour.
One of the most effective and powerful uses of video in performance that I have seen, the projected images were not only mesmerising, but integral to the deep complexity and exquisite multilayering of this hour-long three-part performance.
The video was boldly projected, not as a backdrop, but in front of the dancers, on a massive almost-invisible scrim. Thus were the virtual dancers, filmed in black and white, thrust to the fore, dancing the same dance, but to slightly different beats and with more fluid arm movements than the live dancers.
Sometimes the virtual dancers were on the same plane and were the same size as their live counterparts. This was when they were most corporeal; their being ‘in front’ of the live dancers a literal and powerful reminder that it was they who had come first, it was they who were the original, so that while they might look like shadows, it is actually the live dancers, 30 years later, who are shadowing them.
At no time was this reminder most potent than when a gigantic figure filled the screen. Shot from the waist up and dancing repeatedly directly towards and away from the camera – and therefore the audience – it conveyed a cinematically dramatic presence that could not be ignored. You were confronted with the dancer’s eyes, face, body, her larger-than-life commitment to the dance, to life.
That dancer, those dancers, locked in time, was and were freed that night.
But much more than a tribute to these dancers, the piece was a tribute to dance itself.
Dance, ephemeral, lasting when it does, and gone when it is over, lives on only in memory. Video, however, is an extension of memory. With the aid of that extension, Childs breathed life into the memory of 30 years ago, by collapsing time, suffusing the present with the past and unifying then and now in a compelling homage to dance.
Yet the reception to Childs’ piece when it premiered 32 years ago, was far from warm. According to an OregonLive.com review of the 2009 re-staging, the original “rubbed many the wrong way .. the sensory overload is easier to process in a digital age”.
However, even then, the piece was acknowledged as having changed how modern dance was perceived. Today, it is a testament to how far ahead of its time it was and how accurately it captured the future.
At base, the movements, as with Philip Glass’ music, were minimalist, precise and repetitive, with incremental changes that were barely discernible, so seamless and flowing were the transitions. The formations, however, were complex and geometrical.
The dancers pulsed across the stage in straight lines, horizontally, vertically or diagonally, as if following an invisible grid. Sometimes, the formations were circular or semicircular, or intricate variations thereof that yet retained a fundamental simplicity.
The whole had the purity and organic resonance of nature itself. Nature, which is at once simple and complicated, can in movement be measured and endlessly repetitive according to some deep logic that is unfathomable. (Consider the ebb and flow of waves on a beach or a breeze-teased fern in a forest).
Still, the performance was not flawless. The central section featuring the soloist was plodding and discordant, with awkward, unfinished movements. It was saved, though, by the gigantic video projection and the realisation that it was Childs herself – now 70 – who was that young soloist. Another point of contention was Glass’ music, of which I had never been a fan; at times, it was so monotonous that it grated.
Notwithstanding this, as a whole, the brilliance of the piece cannot be denied. I return to the use of video. Sometimes, the virtual dancers were projected above the live dancers, as if dancing on a floor above the present stage. At other times, the video screen was split, and the dancers moved from one to the other.
Another technique was to freeze the video at different points, as the live dancers completed the full movements. The frozen images contrasted with the constant live movement and yet, because they were blurred – captured movements in flight – they added to the fluidity, an effective punctuating of the live movement.
And what fluidity. Through the use of jetés and glissades, the movements were a perfect interpretation of the music: light and aery, twirly and ceaseless, summoning the otherworldliness and timelessness of fairies and spirits, an impression again augmented by the haunting video.
Oh what joy to be transported for a little while to a magical realm and time. ω