Picture a buff twentysomething guy and a short, round middle-aged lady in a raincoat cavorting awkwardly through an unfinished loft to heraldic baroque music. Or a quartet of lawyers in suits in an elevator lobby erupting in expressive gestures and utterances. Seen on video, both scenarios are curiously fascinating; at the "Dance With Camera" show at the Institute for Contemporary Art where these works are on display, a museum guard has learned all the lyrics to the lawyers' nonsense songs.
"Dance With Camera," which opened in September and runs through March, is one of a kind. No comparable show displaying works that effectively marry the potentials of the camera and dance has been seen anywhere else. Festivals such as New York's Dance on Camera and Philadelphia's Motion Pictures specialize in screening dance films, and there have been major projects exploring the art of dance documentation. Visual-art blockbusters and biennales showcase video pieces using dance. But this show is unique in presenting galleries full of carefully selected films, videos and photographs, products of an investigation that began in the 1960s into finding a symbiotic pas de deux between dance and camera.
With black-and-white walls, a combination of wall-mounted screens, monitors and projected films, and sequestered viewing rooms for single works (sound bleed is an issue), the exhibit feels both spacious and focused. Resonances between the works are plentiful. Several feature dancers in special spaces or in interaction with sculptural objects (such as Mike Kelley's riffs on Isamu Noguchi's sets for Martha Graham).
Others see them in close-up from a variety of angles (Elad Lassry's "screen tests" of New York City Ballet dancers) or executing a conceptual score or game (Bruce Nauman's filmed experiments with repetitive stepping within a taped-out square). Many make use of the camera's ability to move dance outdoors.
Represented in two dimensions, dance calls on a visual artist's acumen in framing, revealing space and sequence, and collapsing or expanding time. These works range from highly conceptual exercises to pure distillations into interactive kinetics. Some are performed by non-dancers, some by highly skilled practitioners - members of Merce Cunningham's company, for example, or the Brussels dance scene. A work by Eleanor Antin even riffs on the space between those two when she play-acts at being a ballerina, George Plimpton-style.
Three black-and-white works share a speed-demon urgency, a body-gone-over-the-edge quality, achieved in different ways. Ed Emschwiller's Thanatopsis from 1962 captures multiple moves in single frames to create the image of an eerily throbbing female form, moving in a way impossible in life. Bruce Conner's BREAKAWAY, which merits its own viewing room, is set to a Motown-ish single by Toni Basil. At breakneck speed, this montage of Basil's kittenish pouts and dressing/undressing is deliciously fun. Tarantism by Joachim Koester is the film with the most up-to-the-minute dancing. Thrashing, convulsing and wild, its performers are skilled and fearless virtuosos, caught in a series of pans at varying distances.
"Dance With Camera" is so rich it's hard to take in during a single viewing. Mounting time-based artworks in a museum means that when you complete watching one, you enter midway on another. Being selective and attentive to start times, you can see works start to finish. Or you can choose a tasting menu of images, at the cost of missing the artists' intended narrative arcs. The solution is giving it more time. Admission is free and the show warrants multiple visits.
The work on view represents a Eurocentric slice of the dance field, largely omitting world dance awareness and the contemporary fusions that are so prevalent now. Also, to learn the names of performers or choreographers here you'll have to look in the gallery notes.
The ICA is providing several ways to enrich your experience of "Dance With Camera." You can go through the show with three different voice-over commentaries accessed via your cell phone. A comprehensive catalog for the show with an essay by curator Jenelle Porter will be available in January. Already past are several workshops and lectures, but still to come are screenings on Kinetic Cinema with Philadelphia videographer Carmella Vassor-Johnson (Feb. 24), and the ongoing Dance With Camera Cinema Program at International House with a wide assortment of films and videos, including several from the show screened large and sequentially. That series concludes March 17 with the Technicolor icon The Red Shoes, in a new digitally re-mastered version that premiered this year at Cannes.
Sometimes the simplest choices are the most effective. At the show's end, Tacita Dean's moving study of Merce Cunningham is nearly motionless, demonstrating how the camera's frame can serve as a stage for artists who can be brilliant in any format. Cunningham, filmed in his 88th year in a series of seated stillnesses, seems distilled into pure presence. Performed to John Cage's groundbreaking composition 4'33" - which tasked listeners with regarding ambient sound as music - Dean's Merce (Manchester) is a representation of Cunningham's homage to his life partner, Cage, and also a final appreciation of Merce himself, who died at 90 last July and whose life was one of so much movement, so much activity, and - seen toward its end - perfect stillness.