Fast moves, still lives

Erin Brannigan: ADT, Held

Australian Dance Theatre, Held

Australian Dance Theatre, Held

At this year’s Adelaide Festival, the Australian Dance Theatre (ADT) will premiere HELD, a collaboration with internationally acclaimed dance photographer Lois Greenfield. Garry Stewart has been Artistic Director at ADT since 1999 and his directorship has seen a huge increase in the company’s popularity both here and in the US, where ADT toured in 2001 and 2002. Stewart discusses the new project via email with Erin Brannigan.

 

Lois Greenfield is a photographer of the highest calibre. How did this collaboration come about?

I was in New York in January last year as a delegate for the Australia Council at APAP (American Performing Arts Presenters), the largest and most important arts market in North America. ADT had completed a 7-city tour of the US a few months earlier. At the conference the US delegates knew who we were and there seemed to be a great deal of interest. I was introduced to Lois who had heard about the company and after I showed her some images of the ADT dancers—suspended in the air and inverted—she immediately said she would like to photograph them. I suggested that perhaps we could actually extend the collaboration by utilising a live photographic session within the performance itself. Lois was immediately taken with this and so the idea developed from there. This set up had also been partially tested by Lois where, in one instance, she actually did have an audience witness a photo shoot in a theatre. Even in this simple set up she found that the audience seemed fascinated by the images she could extract from the dancing.

 

The American interest in your work seems natural given the tradition of high-octane work in that country—Stephen Petronio and Elizabeth Streb for example.

I think that the broad interest in ADT in the US is borne out of a cultural connection to the aesthetics of the formalist modern and postmodern dance heritage, which is an American phenomenon. Therefore there is a comfortable context for our work. Moreover, as is the case with Australian audiences or audiences anywhere for that matter, beyond the conceptual concerns I think our work can be received through its visceral immediacy. My works aim at a kind of poetics of extremity arranged through a formal structure. For the viewer, I think there is a vicarious thrill in witnessing extreme athletic dance, giving relief to our subconscious desires for flight. I guess some people see my work as a form of organised violence toward (and with) the body. Whether I agree with this or not, I do find this a much more interesting reading than just seeing it in the ‘joy-of-dance’ context.

 

What is the basis of HELD as a project?

Lois’ role in this project is the extraction of seemingly impossible moments that usually remain hidden within a given passage of choreography, images which will be projected instantaneously on a screen during the performance. Her photography allows the viewer to witness relationships between the dancers that are normally so fleeting they are rendered invisible. She takes photos at an incredible 1/2000th of a second. Her work is an assault on time and perception. [These images seem] surreal and magical because they defy our hard-wired comprehension of the physics of the everyday world.

Beyond Lois’ actual role in the work, the project is conceptually centered [on] the broader parameters of photography… I’ve had to embark on a bit of a crash course, reading everything from books on camera technique and the chemistry of film processing to writings on the philosophical and cultural meanings ascribed to photography and the image. I’ve also been looking at the work of other noted contemporary photographers such as Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus, Tracey Moffat and Wolfgang Tillmans.

In HELD, the stage becomes the photographic studio and in a sense an atelier—a space of work and process. Lights are wheeled around the stage, gaffer tape marks an ‘x’ to position a dancer and in each scene there are observers as well as photographed subjects present. Of course this is a stylised, theatricalised ‘studio’, so the phone isn’t ringing every 5 minutes and people aren’t sitting around eating order-in pizza. But the notion of stage-as-studio is something that drives the set design, lighting and the division of space as well as the demeanor and attitudes of the performers onstage. Other threads are drawn into the work such as framing and partitioning, the manipulation of light and darkness, being ‘in focus’ and ‘out of focus’ etc.

At times the choreography is performed in total darkness…Through the absence of light, the audience is invited to reflect that the act of ‘seeing’ is a result of perceiving light waves reflected off objects. In HELD I’m also using freezes, where the choreography will cease and the dancers remain frozen on the spot—a metaphor for the frozen slice of time that photos represent.

 

You have referred to the video component of HELD as offering an intimacy with the work through close up and the photographs as emphasising the heroic and virtuosic aspects of the choreography.

Lois’ work is, to a large extent, focused on the heroic, the virtuosic. And to an equal degree so is my choreography. Hence the chemistry between Lois and our dancers in the studio has been immediate. At its best, Lois’ work is primarily centred on the dancers relating to each other within an aerial orientation. Because the ADT dancers train and work regularly within this dimension the choices that are available to them in the air [are] far greater than those available to conventionally trained dancers.

In the last couple of years, I’ve also been developing a kind of sub-set vocabulary, which is antithetical to the virtuosity. I call this vocabulary ‘micro-movements’ where we reduce phrases down to minute physical impulses. I ask the dancers to express phrases through their bodies just beyond the level of the initial thought so that the movement produced is barely perceptible. This is an interesting counterpoint to the gymnastic end of the spectrum more commonly associated with my work. This ‘micro-movement’ also possesses an oblique relationship to ‘popping’ in breakdance, which has at times also formed part of the company’s movement vocabulary….[I]n HELD, the ‘micro-movements’ seemed to offer a powerful physical analogy to animation, so we created a series of projected mini-animations using Lois’ photos that are juxtaposed with the performance of the ‘micro-movements.’

In HELD I’ve also been attempting to give value to the…spaces that fall between the ‘uber’ moments in the air. Part of the video element in the work [includes] images of the dancers in moments of rest, featuring slow-motion close-ups on discreet gestures or simply their faces in a passive moment of listening. The interior world of the performers is referenced and amplified here in order to provide a psychological and emotional balance to their representation. Not all is bravura. Likewise with the movement. Some of the high speed, high powered gymnastic skills are represented in close-up and extreme slow motion in an attempt to shift the perception of the audience to the interior of the body. This stretching in time [through] video is a sort of deconstruction of the ballistic choreography into an experience that is more intimate for the audience.

 

Still photography is an interesting counterpoint to the speed of your choreography—the challenge it presents to photographic reproduction. Have you come across problems regarding dance and reproduction before this project?

I have never really attempted to represent the dancing body through reproduced body images before, apart from a couple of short films I made when I was a student at the University of Technology in Sydney. In the past it has actually been one of my pet hates to see the choreography reproduced on video in the same space as live dancers as it seems to be used too casually, not being inherent to the work. However, I…loved Ros Warby’s solo Eve which combines live performance with film images of her made by Margie Medlin. This is the most successful use of corporeal reproduction in a live dance piece that I’ve ever seen.

HELD also offers an excellent opportunity for the documentation of our work. As an adjunct to the fleeting emphemerality of dance as live performance, the photos become powerful emblems of our identity as well as the identity of the specific dancers. The David Parsons Company, for instance, are known just as much through Lois’ now iconic images of them as through their live performances. For us this is perhaps one of the very few instances where we may be able to gain some leverage out of mass media reproduction. As you know, this is not something that comes by every day in the marginalised realm of contemporary performance making.

Australian Dance Theatre, HELD, directors Garry Stewart, David Bonney, photography Lois Greenfield; 2004 Adelaide Festival, Her Majesty’s Theatre, March 1-6; www.adelaidefestival.com.au

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 30

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2004
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