Theater archives

Bridgman/Packer Dance Split Themselves in Three; Elaine Summers Looks Back, Intermedia-Style


A man’s feet suddenly point 180 degrees away from the direction he’s facing. Both this man and a woman standing a short distance away wear white net hoopskirts; later his double seems to be under her clothes. Another time, her body appears where his legs should be. These are just some of the startling images in Under the Skin, the 2005 work by the husband and wife team of Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer that opened their performance in the Baryshnikov Art Center’s Howard Gilman Performance Space.

For people who, like Packer and Bridgman, have been together for more than 20 years, getting under another’s skin has more than one meaning. You finish each other’s sentences, wear each other’s socks, fall in love with the same antique-shop object you can’t really afford and probably shouldn’t buy. What keeps the sophisticated video projections that are integral to every Bridgman-Packer duet from seeming gimmicky are the human implications they explore. You may marvel at the effects achieved through technological wizardry, but you’re also amused, charmed, or disturbed by the ways in which two people’s images and dreams and memories of each other fly around like shadows in the wind.

Like Under the Skin, the pair’s dizzying new Double Expose is performed to an excellent jazz score by Ken Field, who also adds his live sax to the recorded music. The piece is, of course, rife with doppelgängers. It begins like a film noir, with the two wearing trench coats and hats (his a fedora) and prowling in narrow paths of light (design by Frank DenDanto III) beneath their own large shadows. Behind them, Peter Bobrow and Jim Monroe’s video shows busy New York streets and mysterious abandoned spaces. In the most exciting segments of the piece, Bridgman—live and on video—is searching for Packer; she’s perhaps frightened of him, angry too.

Their wariness is accentuated by their brilliantly timed video interactions. The fact that each live performer has a life-sized film double makes us see their situation as especially unnerving, and we have to track not just two performers but four. Their images can dissolve unexpectedly or pop up in doorways that were empty a moment ago. He sees her; she disappears; he wheels around and races out of our sight. She walks into view and stands in front of a building, watching the street. Suddenly he’s beside her; she gasps and hits him; he falls; she vanishes.

From the beginning, other images of them are sighted in the distance, and these grow larger and more prominent. As part of a second couple, Packer wears a blonde wig and is sportily dressed; she’s a blonde in her third-couple appearance too, but now she’s clad in a skimpy white satin shift. Couple #2 Bridgman has a baseball cap, and his Couple #3 self is bareheaded with glasses. They have their own fleetingly glimpsed scenarios—the #2 pair seen kissing in a park, Bridgman #3 groping for something on the ground, Packer #3 pushing him away and laughing every time he importunes her.

Real and virtual entangle the way they do in our imaginations. A few aspects of the production are puzzling. I have no idea, for instance, as to the relevance of the brief sequence of highly stylized animated beasts (by Karen Aqua) that floats across the scrim at the back. However, although I’m not entirely sure why the man in the coat is searching for the woman and why she wants to avoid him, their interactions are compelling. Perhaps the other couples represent them at other stages of their lives. That certainly is suggested by a sequence at the end, when the live dancers lie on separate mattresses and images of their other selves are projected from overhead to snuggle up to them spoon-fashion. (It’s staggering to imagine the split-second timing and spatial awareness needed in the backstage and onstage activities, as well as in the triggering of the bank of projectors at the feet of the front-row spectators.)

I haven’t mentioned the dance element. As in all Bridgman and Packer’s pieces, it’s there but only occasionally featured. They tend to move together like people having fun on a ballroom floor or showing a little flair to impress each other. But their ability as dancers infuses the gestural and physical activity necessary to power all those rendezvous with their multiple selves, some of them tattooed in light with the imprint of a partner’s watchful face.

The week before Bridgman/Packer dance appeared, Elaine Summers showed a retrospective of her work in film and dance in “Back to New York City,” a series of events curated by Juliette Mapp as part of Danspace’s Platform 2010. Summers, a choreographer, filmmaker, and pioneering teacher of Kinetic Awareness, would surely acknowledge Bridgman and Packer’s performance as a feast of intermedia. She founded the Experimental Intermedia Foundation in 1964 and defines the term as something more specific that multi-media. In intermedia, the live performer mingles with projected imagery and becomes part of it.

A film by Summers opened the gone-down-in-history first concert of Judson Dance Theater in 1962. Arriving audience members had to walk in front of a film by Summers and composer John Herbert McDowell to get to their seats. Dancers passed in and out through a split in the sheet it was projected on. The two had made it by cutting up some available filmstrips and splicing them together—all via chance procedures (Summers also showed dances of her own on that hours-long, tradition-flouting performance). I wish I’d gone to Judson Church in 1964 to see the full-length work that she considers her first important intermedia creation; those who experienced her Fantastic Gardens have never forgotten it.

I’ve always thought of Summers as a wise, benevolent, impish sorceress. She sees deeply into nature, whether it’s the nature of the landscape or human nature. For all her wisdom, she retains a certain innocence and playfulness and a respect for—and delight in—chance. Her Danspace program, titled “Improvisation With Sun, Moon & Stars,” begins with a short film, Absence and Presence (1968-87), on which she collaborated with Phil Niblock. The screen fills with a slowly shifting arrangement of very dark shapes. They look like hills, but as your eye revises them and the white interstices between, you realize that you’re seeing a woman’s thighs, maybe the intersecting bodies of two women: humanity as landscape.

In the 11-minute Two Girls Downtown Iowa (1973)—choreography by Summers, camera and editing by Bill Rowley—the two subjects approach each other in vanishing perspective; one, small and far down a sidewalk, advances toward the camera, while the other, her back to us, goes toward her. They run and leap in what seems like coltish abandon, but their progress was shot at 800 frames per second and projected at 24 frames—creating an illusion of extremely slow motion; they look as if they’re swimming in air to get to their exuberant embrace. Then they pass and move on, while a few pedestrians turtle along.

In the church, Douglas Dunn improvises in front of Summers’s 1976 film Windows in the Kitchen (camera work by Paula Court). The filmed dancer is the beautiful young Matt Turney, memorable for her appearances with Martha Graham’s company (Turney died in December, and Summers dedicated the Thursday night performance to her memory). The tall, slim Turney dances on what looks like a radiator cover by the old Kitchen’s windowed wall—dark against the sky—her long arms and legs exploring the flat expanses of glass. Dunn sometimes imitates the fluidity of those arms, but he also hops about, picking up on the birdlike sounds of composer Jon Gibson’s flute-notes in the film’s score. When he climbs onto a slight ledge above the church’s altar platform, he seems to be an admirer, wishing to join the dancer at her years-ago windowsill.

Saint Mark’s is a wonderful setting for a version of Crowsnest/Solitary Geography. We can’t see the film projected on the four sides of a cube the way it was at its 1980 premiere as an intermedia event at the Guggenheim Museum. But the members of the chorus intoning Pauline Oliveros’s Tuning Meditation do so from stations around the U-shaped balcony, so that their beautiful sliding dissonances float above us in a continuously re-forming cloud of sound. Four dancers, one in a white dress, intermittently merge with and retreat from the projected landscapes—a grove of birch trees in the wind, the branches of fruit trees, cacti, and red rocks; scarlet flowers, shot in closeup, loom over the performers like giant umbrellas.

For Skydance/Skytime/Skyweb (1984), composer Carman Moore (once a music writer for the Voice) leads a septet of instrumentalists in excerpts from his original, vibrant score. The whole church seems to be shimmering. There’s the music, Carol Mullins’s lighting, the swirl of clouds and sun glow projected on the floor and on the wall behind the altar, the tiny lights waved by some of the nine dancers, a glittery jacket on one of them, a silver sheath on another.

The dancers are, I imagine, improvising within a structure. Sometimes there’s thunder in the music; sometimes the projectors cast whirlpools on the floor. The performers create their own turbulence: At one point, a man is circling a slow-moving woman, dancing faster and faster, as if he means to snare her. When the music is calmer, another dancer turns herself into a jellyfish—her limbs like fluid tendrils. Dunn, wearing a sort of snowsuit and a blue cap, picks up a woman in an aviator’s helmet and gives her a whirl. Behind them, the film segues to what might be a campus with dancers on a lawn. Balloons appear in the church.

The evening ends with Invitation to Secret Dancers. Moore’s ensemble keeps playing, and the dancers bat the balloons at us and invite us onto the floor. It occurs to me that if this were the ’70s, people would dance out of their seats in a second. In 2010 it takes a bit longer to turn the space into a party.

In a 2008 interview for Performing Arts Journal, Summers said, “Intermedia is the way we make rainbows. The rainbow is not the sun. It’s not the rain or the mist. It’s something that’s made between all these things and in space. The projection has to be on the dancer. . .Intermedia is when you enter the image and get wrapped up in it.” In the retrospective evenings at Danspace, she made rainbows for us.