Hybrid or not

Jacqueline Millner on the dance video conjunctions of Dance Exchange and interventions on SBC TV

Given the galaxy of stars and heavyweight institutional support, the Dance Exchange work, entitled … and yet, promised far more than it delivered. It may be unfair to criticise a project for its ambition, but perhaps a more modest approach, in terms of the number of participating “directors” and the length of the video “interventions” may have made for a project more befitting the talent of its contributors. Twenty-one artists and theorists were given short black and white video footage of two dancers (Josephine McKendry and Nick Sabel), performing extracts from Russell Dumas’ A, B, C, D, E, F, G, together with access to an editing suite and artistic carte blanche. A great idea, but the overwhelming impression of the resulting video pieces screened back to back on two monitors, one at each end of the otherwise empty Artspace, was of unfulfilled potential.

The less than innovative use of video as a medium and frequent disregard for the sound dimension of the work were particularly striking in light of the project’s avowed “hybrid” nature. I suspect this testifies not to the inherent limits of the medium, nor to a lack of imaginative ideas, but rather to a shortage of time and technical support for those participants not familiar with the creative manipulation of video. For my money, I would prefer to read an essay by Meaghan Morris in all its length, nuance and complexity, than listen to a standard voice-over of some snippets of it on action cinema overlaid on a fairly straight piece of video. Another theorist, Rosalyn Diprose, used exactly the same technique, with only the text and the voice differing. I would argue that the poetry of Nietzsche’s “Dancing Machine” is better evoked without the literal contextualisation in footage of contemporary dance.

Lack of technical support should be no excuse, however for seasoned video practitioners. Perhaps the circumscription of the subject mater was the villain instead. Both Stephen Jones’ 70s rock clip psychedelia— initially enticing in a rare use of colour and distortion—and Reva Childs’ juxtaposition of cosmetic surgery digital-dreaming with the dance, ultimately lacked impact. Similarly, the narrowness of the raw material made for rather forced subject conjunctions in the works by Helen Grace, Laleen Jayamanne and Solrun Hoaas. Here the dance figured as extraneous rather than integral to the conceptual project.

While this apparent incommensurability is an interesting feature in itself, with its suggestion of the inevitable essentialism of dance, the argument was not developed. It is as if the video makers never resolved their original discomfort with the brief. Susan Norrie, for example, addressed this dilemma through minimal use of the dance footage, momentarily overlaying just two almost still shots of the prone dancers on mesmerising slow motion scenes of a rippling, treacly sea. Seductive surfaces and origins mythology made for an appealing if somewhat familiar work.

That this discomfort with the nature of the project prevails in so many of the works is all the more apparent when one sees Joan Brassil’s piece, which alone handles the dance with great assurance. This is not a token use of solarisation and juxtaposition, but a considered choice of video effects to heighten the ephemeral energy and textural complexity of the dance. Brassil’s sound component is also successful—a deep, insistent aspiration that struggles to anchor the fleeting nature of the images.

Also assured is Debbie Lee’s Sound Folly 3. The screen is broken into six jagged parts, the images appearing and disappearing as if cut and whipped into place by the beat of a session of martial arts or torture. Lee’s choice of image from the dance footage—close-ups of jumping feet—her video manipulations and dramatic soundtrack work seamlessly together to create the violence of a body going through its paces.

Effective soundtracks also rendered Andrée Greenwell’s and Ion Pearce’s contributions interesting. Greenwell’s jazz impro in rehearsal mode, complete with “Once from the beginning!” and impromptu laughter, and Pearce’s intercutting of his cello-machine with its random but melodious sound and aesthetically balanced design, both made some sense of the dance. Sandy Edwards’ soundtrack, the C&W ballad, “Beautiful Lie”, worked surprisingly well as accompaniment for the dance, although the intersection of a photo narrative of Edwards’ evocative black and white images with the dance footage was not successfully resolved.

The project could claim hybrid status merely on the breadth of its participants: artists working with sound, video, installation, painting, photography and music; writers on film and cultural theory; responding to the videotaped work of two dancers and a choreographer; in the context of a live dance performance. Judging by the catalogue testimonials, many of the participating “directors” personally experienced a certain hybridising of their practice—some coming to video for the first time, some realising a long-held desire to collaborate with Dumas. While this process is undoubtedly important, the project must also be judged on its exhibited finished works, and here, I would argue, the potential for crossover was not fully realised. Rather than reading as a hybrid work, the components of … and yet remained separate entities, a contemporary dance, and a set of video pieces, the majority of which did not come close to stretching or bending the medium beyond well-tried expectation.

… and yet—new work by Russell Dumas. Interventions video dance installation: various artists and SBS TV, August 21-September 10, 1995, Artspace, Sydney.

RealTime issue #9 Oct-Nov 1995 pg. 38

© Jacqueline Milner; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1995
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