Photography has always rivaled painting when it comes to landscape, portrait, and still life. But the camera has no peer at capturing what our eyes aren’t quick enough to see: a baseball player’s dive for the plate, blood spattering from a bullet wound. This week, coincidentally, two dance companies present works emphasizing actual photos or photo imagery—in one case to freeze dancers in mid air; in the other to stop them short of fulfilling an all-too-clear craving.
Visible Content, a 2003 work by the fascinating Brazilian choreographers Rosane Chamecki and Andrea Lerner, was hard to watch, but the pair’s new Costumes by God takes discomfort to another level. In Visible, the dancers’ bodies were transformed by inner and outer violences, their responses repeated endlessly in slightly varying ways. The theme that’s varied in Costumes by God is eroticism—the sexual display intrinsic to Brazilian Carnaval and dances like the samba plus what happens in our bedrooms or wet dreams.
While the audience is entering, we’re treated to a a living-pictures display of chaste nudity: Levi Gonzalez and Jennifer Kjos gravely execute separate sequences of poses drawn from painting and sculpture (many of hers call to mind late 19th-century nymphs). A crashing entry of Brazilian pop, pink light, and showers of glitter introduces a different sort of photo op. Luciana Achugar, Maria Hassabi, Michael Portnoy, and Jeremy Wade are clothed (Portnoy wearing a white drape and a black hat, the others in everyday attire), and sometimes the poses they noncommittally assume involve touch: Hassabi and Portnoy kissing, Wade grabbing his crotch. However, many of the positions they take over and over reveal uncompleted gestures: Wade’s open mouth, say, caught by an unseen camera as it approaches Hassabi’s proffered crotch. The dancers walk into many of these we’re-having-fabulous-sex tableaux—duos, threesomes, foursomes—and hold their positions for a second, or for ages, before moving on. Chamecki and Lerner also have them obsessively repeat movements isolated from context: Standing, kneeling, or lying supine with their legs raised and spread, they vigorously hump the air.
Usually when Lap Chi-Chu hits them with pink light, we’re shown the more public erotic display we see in nightclubs, on MTV, and during carnaval. The gorgeous Hassabi advances on us like a diva, pelvis mobile, arms open to embrace whatever comes. Twice Fernanda Meyer crosses samba-ing, part of an invisible parade, her crown of ostrich plumes vibrating with her busy hips. Sometimes they’re awkward, moving in a cluster as if pressed in a crowd, trying clumsily to kiss. And often they’re in pain (or ecstacy), grimacing, growling, gasping, howling silently—large pieces of glitter stuck incongruously to their sweaty bodies.
What makes the thought-provoking, sometimes witty Costumes difficult to watch is not so much that it makes us feel like voyeurs, but that choreography is deliberately repetitive. Just as you think the hour-long piece might end, here come those maneuvers one more time. For whatever reason, Chamecki and Lerner want to burn their images into that photo album we call a brain.
The Australian Dance Theatre’s Held, choreographed by Gary Stewart and members of the company, is all about freezing moving instants. The master dance photographer Lois Greenfield (whose photos accompanied this column for many years) is onstage for much of the piece; two seconds after she shoots, her picture fades up on two free-standing screens and, sometimes, onto the back wall. You have to be quick of eye to absorb the parade of striking photographs and keep track of choreography that has moved on. Yet the arrested and projected moments show us what we haven’t really been able to see the live dancers do. They take off at top speed, spin in the air, and land; Greenfield shows us a suspended, slanted body, hair flying. Held‘s choreography seems to have been based on Greenfield’s signature style: she’s a genius as capturing midair moments. In raggy, lacy Goth attire and street grunge, the 10 fearless dancers hurl themselves into the air, alone and interlaced, plunge to the floor, roll, and rise to jump again. That’s the main—and most spectacular—theme of the choreography.
There are respites from this shot-from-guns dancing: Stewart’s style also involves muscularly rippling torsos, ornate arm maneuvers, and audience-aimed glowering; a changing array of solos, duets, and group work provides some contrast. However the element of display, including Geoff Cobham’s lighting and the more head-banging portions of Darrin Verhagen’s score, almost always operates at fever pitch. The two screens are actually three-dimensional objects like half houses that can be turned, joined, and pushed around. Shadowplay, strobe effects, and gorgeous previously recorded color photos and video images add to the impression that Held is a primarily a feast for the eyes and a tour de force for the camera and the dancers.
Before the piece begins, Greenfield snaps various dancers who amble onto the stage, kibbitzing quietly as they pose. The poses tend to be elaborately sculptural, yet since Greenfield is shooting in extreme close-up—concentrating on faces—we read these pictures intimately (Ross McCormack might be telling Shannon Anderson a haunting secret). Here the projections reveal more about the emotional implications of the poses and the individuality of the gallant performers than anything that follows.