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dance film


investing in dance screen

justine shih pearson: at empac and dance on camera, new york

Justine Shih Pearson is a performance maker and researcher, and is the Producer of ReelDance.

Mysteries of Nature, Dahci Ma Mysteries of Nature, Dahci Ma
IT IS A COLD GREY DAY IN EARLY JANUARY, AND I AM WINDING MY WAY NORTH ALONG THE HUDSON RIVER TO TROY IN UPSTATE NEW YORK. AMIDST HARD-PACKED SNOW LITTERING THE SIDE OF THE ROAD AND SLEEPY INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS AWAITING REVITALISATION RISES THE BRAND NEW CURTIS R PRIEM EXPERIMENTAL MEDIA AND PERFORMING ARTS CENTER (EMPAC)—AN AU$300 MILLION ARTS, TECHNOLOGY AND SCIENCE CENTRE FOUNDED BY RENSSELAER POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE AND OPENED IN OCTOBER 2008.

A monumental glassy structure perched on the side of a hill, the building contains an acoustically awesome 1200-seat concert hall, a theatre, two large studios able to be used as residency spaces, recording studios or flexible presentation environments, and a clutch of offices. With an emphasis on research and a healthy slate of commissions and residencies to date, EMPAC seeks to provide both a place and program in which technology and the arts can inform and transform one another. A curatorial team led by director Johannes Goebel together with the new building’s state-of-the-art facilities—from custom-designed soundproofing panels to its connection to Rensselaer’s own on-campus supercomputer—promise exciting opportunities for audiences, artists and scientists alike.

On the day of my visit concentrated activity was taking place in the theatre, as filmmaker Brent Green prepared for the coming season, and in one of the studios as a team of people experimented with 3D cameras and a live feed. New media artist Sophie Kahn and choreographer Lisa Parra had set up residence in a tiny blacked-out space high in the building where they were working on a new video installation, body/traces, one of this year’s EMPAC DANCE MOViES commissions.

A project started by EMPAC’s Dance/Theater Curator Hélène Lesterlin in 2007, with a gift from the Jaffe Fund for Experimental Media and Performing Arts, the commissioning program supports new work from the Americas in the field of experimental dance film and video. The commissioning program has now been through two highly competitive open calls for proposals, helping to produce four dance films in 2007/08 and three films and body/traces in 2008/09. For a field of practice that has been dominated by European makers, and (given our relative sizes and access to funds) is well represented by Australian and New Zealand practitioners, the EMPAC DANCE MOViES initiative provides a welcome boost to dance screen production in North and South America.

If the inaugural EMPAC commissions are anything to go by, there is a strong and diverse field of activity waiting in the wings. Last year’s four films premiered at EMPAC’s opening in October where they drew capacity crowds to the concert hall. I had the opportunity to see them at the 37th Dance on Camera Festival at New York City’s Lincoln Center one late night in January this year.

Matchbox, Daniel Belton Matchbox, Daniel Belton
The program included Victoria Marks and Margaret Williams’ Veterans, a film featuring five young US veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who play out memories of combat on the streets and beaches of LA. In Joby Emmons and Elena Demyankenko’s Kino-Eye a lone dancer’s moves through a Moscow apartment building are captured via video surveillance. Using split screen techniques to emulate the layout of security monitors and grainy, glitchy footage produced by the equipment, Emmons reminds us of the surface of the screen as both a flat assemblage of time and colour as well as a voyeuristic window in on the action.

PH Propriedad Horizontal is an excellent short from Argentinean team David Farías, Carla Schillagi and Maria Fernanda Vallejos. An abstract study of holding and being held, gravity and counterbalance, and the geometry of a long narrow alleyway, PH uses close-ups, extreme camera angles and editing to explore rhythm and relationship between the dancers, and between the dancers and their architectural space.

A highlight of the festival was the final EMPAC commission, Nora, directed by Alla Kovgan and David Hinton. Based on the life of Zimbabwean-born dancer Nora Chipaumire, this film is part biopic, part fable, part dramatic cinema and part dance film. Filmed on location in Southern Africa and lusciously coloured, Nora engages with concepts of self and memory, and the active process of remembering, using a language of dance. The traditional tools of filmmaking—lighting and landscape, pacing and movement—draw out story and character, and a searing performance by Chipaumire as herself, her mother, her father and other characters provides a strong emotional centre. Tableaux are carefully composed within the frame and in a gesture towards silent film scenes are punctuated by brief and sometimes humorous intertitles.

Cinema history emerged as one possible theme for this year’s Dance on Camera, with packed houses jostling elbows and braving sub-zero temperatures for a tribute to Busby Berkley, and several shorts in other sessions recreating early cinema aesthetics in new ways. Of these, Richard Move’s Bardo, a study of light on the human form after Martha Graham’s 1930s recording of Lamentation, and New Zealander Daniel Belton’s films Matchbox and After Durer were most notable. Belton, also a finalist in last year’s ReelDance Awards, has developed a highly distinctive style of dance filmmaking in which his dimly lit cast of characters is cleverly manipulated through speed and scale to create a flickering, black and white, Buster Keaton-like world of games, strange instruments, construction and toy theatre.

Korean filmmaker Dahci Ma’s Mysteries of Nature was the winner of the Festival Jury Prize. An accomplished and poetic contemplation of primordial and urban environments, Ma follows fingers probing at a downy skin, children emerging from mud and a man who becomes a torn plastic bag blowing in the wind. Unconventional screen proportions, a sharply dissected frame and inverted camera angles create dizzying but ultimately intriguing perspectives.


37th Annual Dance on Camera Festival, New York, Jan 6-17

Justine Shih Pearson is a performance maker and researcher, and is the Producer of ReelDance.

RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 25

© Justine Shih Pearson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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