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Screendance in Lisbon - InShadow 1st International Festival of Video, Performance and Technologies
Peter Sparling, 12 Novembro 2009

Dance has always lived multiple lives on and off-stage, recorded on cave walls, in sculpture and paintings, diagrammed by court choreographers, drawn and described by explorers, expeditions and anthropologists, and held up as the embodiment of poetic form (or lack thereof) by writers and dance critics. With the advent of photography and soon following, film and video, dancers rather suddenly have a historical body: proof enough for copyright protection of their works, and a lens through which to come to new understandings of the moving body's relationship to its cultures, its environments and to itself. More recently, digital recording technologies have been commandeered by directors, choreographers and dancers to capture, track and detect movement; the body responds either in a reactive mode, performing for the camera or providing fodder for the choreography of camera and editing effects, or it tries to turn the tables and "play" the technology like a musical instrument. It shifts between the reactive to the generative mode, investing in the camera and editing all the tricks of its trade assimilated in a relatively recent legacy of modern to post-modern esthetic stances.

When watching a screendance-or work intended for a life on the screen whose existence is dependent upon three interacting systems of life support: the moving body, the (moving or static) camera and the editing program-I ask myself the following: Who's zooming who? Does the camera and editing emulate/imitate the body's movement? Does the moving body react to or re-conceive of its movement materials in response to the camera? Does it anticipate, emulate or imitate the aspects of editing, i.e. cross-dissolves, jump cuts, as raw material to be fragmented, slowed down, sped up, manipulated, seen from multiple angles at once, dwarfed or enlarged in relationship to its setting or within a black void? Is the camera (our eye onto the subject and ultimate arbiter of our frame of vision) reactive, indifferent, empathic, respectfully distant or observant, curious, invasive? Am I captivated such that I lose track of who's in command and become engaged instead in a generative act of unfolding, an evolving experience between screen and my own body that creates its own poetry-one that "works" as its own unique and irreducible sum of its parts?

These issues came pouring forth in profusion (not tumbling down as a house of cards) as I attended events and screenings of the InShadow 1st International Festival of Dance, Performance and Technology in Lisbon, Portugal, from November 24-26, 2009. The festival's artistic directors and gracious hosts, Ana Rita Barata and Pedro Sena Nunes, took on the enormous task of mounting a comprehensive showcase that served both the burgeoning global phenomenon of screendance and their pioneering impulse to educate their Portuguese audiences and support their own artists. Their spirit of generosity and inclusion pervaded the programming of the festival, and, true to most film and video festivals, resulted in a marathon succession of screenings that may or may not have shown works in the best light. 
The InShadow Festival took place in the elegantly efficient Sao Luiz Teatro Municipal. It included three special sessions screening South American video dance curated by Silvina Szperling, a lecture, performance and workshop by the Swiss-Italian company AiEP-Avventure in Ellicottero Prodotti featuring co-directors Ariella Vidach and Claudio Prati and their special brand of interactive dance performance and technology, and a "trans-disciplinary performance" by CIM-integrated multidisciplinary company. Antonio Cabrita of CIM led a three-day video-dance workshop with a final presentation by participants. InShadow also featured five installations in the nooks and crannies of the theater on its three levels, providing a shifting kaleidoscopic effect of images appearing around every corner and voices or music drifting up the stairwells. Two films featuring Lisbon's river Tagus-History by Karsten Liske in collaboration with Sasha Waltz and guests and Cacilheiros by Pedro Sena Nunes-- provided love poems and moving tributes to the host city. The lush, muscular film, Nora, by Alla Kovgan (who was present to lead a master class in Choreographing Cinema) and David Hinton-an award-winning favorite of the festival circuit featuring Zimbawe-born dancer/choreographer Nora Chipaumire-closed the special sessions. 
I was able to attend a few of these sessions but focused my attention on the five screenings of works in competition. The directors themselves admitted that often works submitted were too long, particularly the Portuguese entries; my strong feeling was that, apart from the few gems that really stood out from the many more plodding attempts, most entries, regardless of country of origin, lacked editing that balanced efficiency of proportion and expression with a kind of elegance and grace most suitable for the medium of dance on screen. The overall lack of control of duration betrayed an exhaustion and over-attenuation of materials, images, and subject matter-at the expense of sustaining what scholars are now dubbing "kinesthetic empathy" of viewer with screen.

Is this symptomatic of the sudden rush to highlight dance as the ultimate subject matter for film/video? Or does it betray a narcissistic infatuation with and seduction by the high-resolution image and its ability to paint new landscapes or settings for the dancing figure? Is it the inevitable fallout from the extraordinary proliferation of a new, hybrid medium still searching for its own legacy and sense of scale in a fluid, ever-evolving universe of low and high media technologies? Can the dancing body reinvent itself as if it could digitally reorganize and reconstitute meaning-in-motion, without becoming a victim of its own reflection in the camera eye? Has the human organism and our ability to detect, capture and track its behaviors changed that much since the first cave paintings? Can we be re-wired to detach ourselves from that body as generator of its own set of meanings and also see it as a prism for more abstract investigations of light, movement, and the relationship of figure to ground, to its culture, its ideologies, its cosmos? In this new (digitally disseminated and projected) light, is the dancing body the mediator and vessel of both everyday occurrences as we know them and of apocalyptical prophecies anticipating terrors we all share in our global village?

From the 57 juried screendances selected from among 277 entries, then curated and grouped together in 5 festival screenings, reoccurring themes emerged that were quite unintended by the hosts. I have noticed similar themes in my decade of teaching screendance at University of Michigan, and of viewing hundreds of student and "professional" works. The most obvious of these: women thrashing in red dresses, usually involving bodies of water or submergence, and vast landscapes which either threaten to dwarf and diminish the figure or become diminished and trivialized by awkward attempts at narratives and a confused mash of real time/theatrical time, characterized by contrasting traditions of movement stylization, invention and intention within contemporary dance (modern/post modern/contact/somatic). Often, the real time of the camera as it follows its bewitched figures among the ruins stretches my capacity for suspended disbelief or enchantment far beyond my limits, and I'm left repulsed, nauseous, and shaking my head at the folly of it. I am not moved, because the camera, narrative and movement erase each other by lack of a dynamic tension necessary to register as an emerging point of view, whether reactive or generative or merely passive. But as I said before, this comes with the territory of film festivals, particularly those featuring and promoting a relatively new hybrid art form racing to keep up with the improvements in the technologies that define it.

My reflections are meant less as complaints and more to invest meaningful dialogue into this endeavor and participate in the creation of context. I do this quite selfishly for myself as practitioner, teacher and one who believes that scholarship and theory best emerge out of practice; it is here I also must admit that two of my works were screened in competition. After viewing the newer of the two, SIDE B, I was furiously scribbling notes to myself on revisions and edits in the darkness of the screening room. Viewed among so many others in need of editing, the work's weaknesses hit me like a slap in the face, and I was smack up against my own shortcomings. I had to confront my own inability to step back and "kill my little darlings", to scrap about half of what was up there. (I can't wait to burrow back into editing and re-choreograph the thing. What a blessed, rare opportunity to see my work among others and with an audience to actually experience something I try to simulate and anticipate in isolation as I edit at my laptop)

Along with red dresses, water and twitching bodies in altered states, there were RUINS everywhere: dance in the ruins. Was this the prophetic call, the stubborn insistence of life to play out its internal dramas and dreams in the least habitable of spaces? Here, the camera provides access (limited only by frame and mobility of camera) such that any space-interior or exterior-becomes a stage or arena of engagement, or for attempted colonization, migration, insertion, inhabitation, or appropriation. Is this post-apocalyptical? So many flailing bodies among the ruins of civilizations past and present? And bodies in the throes of butoh, contact improv and Pina Bausch? A world vision emerge of bodies on the verge of nervous breakdowns, the breakdowns themselves "performed " for the camera, leaving an aftermath of digital traces, laying waste to time and the screen space. Occasionally, there is an oracular power fused with the ocular, or with the opticality of camera resolution, color, light and treatment of the moving image as a design against and in relationship to a negative space-most likely a ruin or a desert landscape. Tarantellas, trances, fits, a repetition compulsion... a playing out for the 21st century screen of the disruptive, convulsive rhythms and impulses of Stravinsky/Nijinsky Sacre de Printemps nearly a century ago in Paris.

I can count the real stand-outs on one hand: Slip Cadence, by Seattle-based Corrie Befort, trusted the two performers and camera to tell the story without any effects. A poignant short story for the screen featuring a man and woman conversing in gestural movement outside a home in a comfortable residential neighborhood, it clearly shifted between points of view using simple camera angles to alternately foreground the two interacting figures. The work effectively captured the slippage of muscle memory -which I rightly guessed was a danced depiction of the effects of Alzheimer's on a man and his caring wife or daughter. The scale was right; it fit in your palm like precious object and was graspable and absorbable in all its parts. Au, was a tour-de-force by its Spanish performer/creator, Vicent Gisbert Soler, extreme act of physical theater played out on a rooftop leading to a suicide. The Greater the Weight, a Canadian production by Marlene Millar and Philip Szporer, placed the extraordinary Dana Michel in party frock within the ropes of a boxing ring as she anticipated every punch of Ghislain Poirier's explosive score. Carbon Dating Angels, a clinical overlay of X-ray-like transparencies of a man's bare torso and shoulders, acknowledged technology's invasive pas de deux with bodies. Its obsessive visual rhythm overwhelms the action of the body; perhaps that is the point. These three also happened to win the Official Jury Awards.

One of many examples of dance in the ruins, Tolosa, from Silvina Cortés and Javier Gorleri of Argentina, highlighted exquisite dancing by Paul Fermani amidst the tracks of an abandoned train station. Obviously, the cinematic or directorial took precedence in this and many works, throwing off-kilter the balance of meaningful motion, camera work and editing to favor the gorgeous resolution of light/shadow, color and beautifully articulated dancers' bodies within the frame. How does one "stage" a narrative with dancers in a real site, accompanied by cellist who just happens to be practicing his etudes in the middle of nowhere, then jump cut to an imagined forest/Eden and back again, leaving the happy couple to disappear across the fields into the sunset? Gene Kelly/Vincent Minnelli meets So You Think You Can Dance in rural Argentina.

Which leads me again to my hunch re. the wages of proliferation of screendance, of available (and affordable) video and film technology, and of the seduction and elation of (finally) being able to record, capture, document and choreograph or paint with bodies on the screen. Perhaps in screendance's formative phase, this proliferation results in a certain level of mediocrity, repetition, imitation and the rapid emergence of a set of clichés. Is this a conscious act of borrowing-of certain curatorial precedents by dominant festivals guiding a world population to accept a certain set of acceptable images? Or is it a case of simultaneous discoveries or fascinations happening globally in relative isolation like an evolving algorithm for a complex system? Is this what happens in the telematic age, in the global village? 
I would like to be optimistic and believe that the field will continue to evolve and proliferate through the encouragement, largesse and generosity of spirit as demonstrated by InShadow. I also hope for an emerging dialogue characterized by interaction, comparative studies and rigorous self-evaluation-one that celebrates the multiple points of entry of its practitioners to the art form and addresses the questions: How do camera and editing technologies perform the body, and the body in turn perform those technologies? Where is the audience in all of this? Who is our audience? When do our endeavors become a systems demonstration performed in laboratory-like isolation (like those dancers activating video and sound via motion detection, tracking and capture on stage with no concern for "how it looks") for a small following with the assumption that the results will engage the witness and provide a cohesive body of meaning in motion? And how do we disseminate and display our works? Like paintings lined up side by side on the walls of an overcrowded museum? As installations, YouTube or website clips, shorts for interludes on the local public television channel? Like poets seeking publication in journals, magazines or anthologies, we send out our works to festivals, the best forum we have so far to display our wares. Will these festivals be able to keep up with the production and serve as proving grounds while also educating a public, creating a body of theoretical inquiry and generations of new practitioners? Or is this (also) in the hands of colleges and universities, conferences and symposia?

Kudos to InShadow Festival and its sponsors for providing an elegantly performed and thought-provoking program in the stunning setting of Lisbon. There was more than enough going on to make me want to return for more-even if the questions raised often outweighed the immediate rewards.