This is the first of a series of occasional essays where Fuse dance critic Debra Cash will reflect on dances made for camera and new technologies. As they used to say, don’t touch that dial!
By Debra Cash
We should have seen it coming. After keitai shousetsu, 70-word novels serialized as cell phone text messages, became all the rage in Japan about five years ago (and where, reportedly they accounted for five of Japan’s 10 best-selling novels in 2007), dance made for mobile devices had to be in the pipeline.
It’s not that “minidances” hadn’t been thought of before. Something like 30 years ago, visionary public television producer David Atwood suggested that snippets of dances made for the camera be “sprinkled” among crasser advertising spots.
Created expressly for the iPad, which the project’s sponsors call, not completely inappropriately, “a new performance space,” the project “explores the unique spatial, visual, and temporal conditions of the tablet, and its possibilities for choreography. The performance was created to embrace the multi-directional orientation and gravitational pull of the iPad.” Bokaer’s performance was filmed by Ben Louis Nicholas in four segments, so that you can either watch one dance from shifting points of view or—much more fun—have the illusion of controlling multiple dances tumbling across the screen in various trajectories and crowding each other for screen real estate.
I am wearied by claims that a given art experience is unprecedented, and the breathless claim that Fifth Wall “invites the viewer to participate in the making of a dance” is overstating it by half. In Fifth Wall, the choreographic elements and camera views are set. (And no, no, no, the image is not remotely three-dimensional. The app is filmed in conventional 2-D video.) The app’s design presets a number of sequences that the viewer can shuffle, add, eliminate, squeeze down, and enlarge. Based on the interaction functions built into this particular device—especially the automatic reorientation of the screen from portrait to landscape mode when you turn it on its side—viewers can generate unexpected juxtapositions.
Conceptually, this effort is a natural progression in Merce Cunningham and John Cage’s decades-old strategy of scoring a dance out of disparate pieces. The two men and their collaborators—not to mention their generations of followers—explored this strategy not only on stage but with a number of different media types, from Nam June Paik’s avant-garde television programs of the 1970s to the iPod shuffle accompaniments Cunningham provided for some of the last works of his long career.
The Fifth Wall team comes by Cunningham’s legacy rightfully. Ardent dance philanthropist Patsy Tarr’s 2wice Arts Foundation, whose mission is “to publish digital and print projects that focus on the intersection of photography, dance, design, performance, fashion, art and architecture,” was a major funder of the Cunningham company in its last decades, and Bokaer part of its final cadre of distinguished and devoted performers. In fact, in a sweet memorial, last summer the 2wice team released a free app made up of images and brief videos from the Cunningham company’s final decade.
For 20 years, Tarr and art director Abbott Miller published Dance Ink (renamed 2wice), an expensive and gorgeous biennial magazine that matched dancers and photographers in “photographic performances.” I fondly recall a fantastic image of a daisy-chomping Mark Morris, dressed in a gingham suit and flip flops, whose figure bled into the wallpaper behind him, a huge joke given the fact that there is no more unlikely wallflower than the divalicious Mr. Morris. (Clothes may not make the man, of course, but Tarr regularly notes that she owns a museum-quality collection of Geoffrey Beene couture. She’s a woman of chic taste: you can check out her family’s Manhattan aerie and fluffy dog, here.)
In a New York Times interview noting the release of the Fifth Wall app, Tarr declared herself “enchanted with technology.” Nonetheless, there’s something positively retro about the project’s public explanation of its behind-the-scene mechanics this way: “the dances were shot with a special camera able to rotate 90 degrees vertically and horizontally, while the box, set on roller wheels, can swivel 360 degrees. That flexibility, along with Bokaer’s carefully crafted choreography, enables the app’s magical, gravity-defying hijinks.”
Defying gravity is as dear to dancers as it must be to astronauts—but most of us have seen Fred Astaire, in love, dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding (1951). Recently, animator Galen Fott cast a learned eye on the proceedings to reverse engineer how Stanley Donen created the illusion, based on Astaire’s original idea, relying on much more rudimentary tools. Technology is great and often indispensable. But inspired visions are better.
(And by the way, if you still prefer your dancing live—and I swear, there’s room for both—Bokaer is coming to Jacob’s Pillow this summer partnered by American Ballet Theatre/Bolshoi star David Hallberg in a program whose visual decor by Daniel Arsham will be as tailored to the Doris Duke Theatre as the iPad-scaled revolving box is for Fifth Wall.)
c 2012 Debra Cash