Upstairs at Arthouse, above the Sunstruck watchers, dancers on film loop over and over, not caring whether an audience is there. Are they different to ‘live’ dancers, or do audiences just want to believe that dancers mind whether we are there? We want the work to be about us, about communication with us, about connection, but what if it isn’t? What if it is only for the performers? And would we know/feel the difference anyway?
Some of these niggling questions are alleviated when we watch dance on film. We’re not confronted with breathing bodies, so it is perhaps easier to detach and to simply watch the work before us, and not to get caught up in the pseudophilosophical concerns about relationships between the performing bodies and watching bodies.
Other than this, what is the defining difference between dance on film and dance on a stage? I should probably warn you, I don’t have a defining answer (and nor do I necessarily think the issue is at all problematic). But I’m interested by the question.
Two of the films I saw at Dance Massive, ‘The Revery Alone’ and ‘Tango de Soledad’ (comprising two thirds of Billy Cowie’s Stereoscopic: the screenings cycle, and the third was not showing on the night I attended) furthered this inquiry for me.
‘Tango’ is a beautiful work, a five-minute solo with a mournful cello soundtrack and a melancholy yet buoyant monologue voiceover. A woman and a chair rest in a room which looks like it is made of an old blackboard, haunted by traces of every sum, every diagram, every sentence ever sketched on it. Her movements are gentle and unsurprising, a kind of ode to the lost companion addressed by the abstract letter in the voiceover (a teacher? student? lover? friend? all of the above?). Oh, and there’s one other important feature. It’s filmed in 3D and when you don the old-school red/blue cardboard and cellophane goggles, the depth of that room is replicated and you might as well be sitting in it.
‘Might as well be.’ So what is the value of putting a conventional work like this on film? Apart from the obvious economic benefits of being able to much more easily tour a work, and even exhibit it simultaneously in multiple locations? (And, possibly, inspiring wonderers like me to idly query the nature and implications of ‘reality’.)
Well, ‘The Revery Alone’ is a perfect example of a dance film which really makes the most of its own form.
Instead of sitting or standing to view, here, the best option is to lie down on one of the comfortable recliners provided. Above your head, a woman hangs, naked, in the space above you, and as your eyes adjust to the unsettling colour of those 3D glasses, she turns and slowly arcs to look over her shoulder, right into your eye and so close you could touch the small mounds of her vertebrae. For seven minutes she hangs above you; slowly adjusting her position on the four handles that her hands and feet cling to; twisting and tangling and inverting her body, all with a mesmeric languor. You lose all sense of perspective, direction, and gravity (which, of course, are illusory) and at the same time it feels remarkably ‘real’ and natural that a dancer be above you. And it is the medium that allows this simultaneously disrupting and satisfying capsizing of reality.
When I first went into the room which holds ‘The Revery,’ the image was static, the woman mid-hang, and the room empty of other viewers. My companion and I lay down and watched for a few moments, wondering whether the movement was so slow as to be imperceptible, or whether the work began with a long freeze. After a while, we suspected that probably the projector was misbehaving. But we stayed in that empty room looking at the image for many, many minutes. We stood up and moved around (noting that, incidentally, the 3D image had a strange and eerie Mona Lisa-esque capacity to tilt around the space to follow you!). I wondered, briefly, whether there were people beyond the curtained-off edges of the viewing space, watching us and being entertained by our response and our discussion.
Eventually, we did seek someone to fix the projector for us, and we were so entranced by the work that we lay through two cycles of the projection, feeling equally engaged the second time.
But the point is that we were confronted by that old chestnut: What Is Art? If the work was a static image, with a ‘running time’ of seven minutes, signposted on the door, then how would we respond to it? Was it a dance film equivalent to John Cage’s 4’33’’? What right did we have to expect more than a static image anyway? Or, conversely, what right would the artist have to offer us nothing but that? And what would it mean if that were the work? Perhaps I’m being too esoteric and/or flippant. But the accidental experience really stuck with me, and I thought I’d attempt to ‘review’ it. So. There you have it.
Attendance at Dance Massive (Melbourne) was made possible through the arts@work Critical Acclaim program. Critical Acclaim is an arts@work (Arts Tasmania) professional development program aimed at increasing the breadth of critical discourse and discussion in both the arts industry and the public arena.