What does it mean to dance with the camera? Jenelle Porter, curator of this first large-scale investigation of choreography made for the screen, focuses on the way in which interdisciplinary practice has ‘demolished creative traditions and hierarchies’, impacting on fine art, cinema, dance and even MTV videos. Using John Cage and Merce Cunningham’s inclusive, ‘anything goes’ methodology as a jumping-off point, this extensive exhibition of film, video and photography (with an additional screening programme) deals with key issues in video dance, involving the notion of an informed collaboration with the camera as stage, audience and co-performer.
Faithful to its anti-hierarchical stance, the show’s design places chronologically disparate works in historically flexible relationships. Kelly Nipper’s recent, formally balanced, self-portrait stills are displayed alongside Mike Kelley’s complex video work; both diagonally oppose Eleanor Antin’s 1973 ‘Caught in the Act’, balletic photographs and a film documenting their production. The show’s layout offers the viewer a vital role in producing an individual, selective narrative, perhaps reflecting on Cage’s interest in chance. The light, plastic stools scattered across the gallery, to be picked up and set in front of any video-screen, augment this open approach.
Cunningham and Charles Atlas’ seminal ‘Fractions I’, 1977, works sensitively with the camera’s multiple functions, merging its specificity with the choreographer’s authority through persistent focus on the corporeal. Using live-feed video in stacks of on-set monitors, performers’ actions are repeated from various angles and distances; dancers’ bodies are obscured, doubled or extended during their interaction with the live footage. The film exploits the qualities of early video and the camera’s interference with the performance, as dancers become grey forms that pull in and out of focus, articulating the depth of the studio against the flat screen, their movements emphasised by a blur or halo effect.
Flora Wiegmann negotiates the conflict between choreographer and camera by both pushing and questioning the notion of non-hierarchical collaboration. For ‘Adaptive Lines’, 2007, the dancer responded to each specialist colleague’s decision (on location, costume, soundtrack, direction) by restructuring her choreography. Harsh editing, 360 degree views, speed fluctuations and varying light conditions and grains reinforce the precise strength of Wiegmann’s movements; the dancer’s body appears powerfully immune to temporal or spatial constraints.
Like Antin’s film, in which photographer and dancer work with touching amity while maintaining professional distance, Tacita Dean’s 2007 reinterpretation of Cage’s ‘4’33’’’, reveals a human presence behind the camera. Cunningham’s nuanced seated performance—shifting positions only to mark the three movements of the piece—is recorded on 16mm film. The cinematographer integrates into his own camera’s stage-space by recording his reflection in a greasy studio mirror; his arm position alters in time with the dancer/choreographer’s infrequent movements. The camera itself is humanised through the activation of its operator’s body, becoming dance-partner rather than being a monocular, imposing documentary device.
While the competing hierarchies of art, film and dance are not entirely ‘demolished’, dancing with the camera will continue to stimulate a compelling, productive tension within contemporary practice.
Becky Hunter is an artist and writer