JOHN J COOK
Warning: Exposure to Deviants and Free Radicals may be dangerous to your health – video to follow. [Video1] Filmic Kineticism in the work of DV8 Physical Theatre, Carbone 14 and LaLaLa Human Steps.
The hurling bodies of Edouard Lock's La La La Human Steps, Lloyd Newson's DV8 Physical Theatre and Gilles Maheu's Carbone 14 collided in the 1980s and 1990s on stage and screen. Charting new trajectories for western theatrical dance, Lock, Newson and Maheu with others of the Euro avant-garde redefined contemporary dance with their integration of an extreme physical movement vocabulary, popular music, set design, costume and film/video into a narrative, be it linear or nonlinear, structure.
Breaking away from the now more traditional Foucauldian reading of the camera as a tool for surveillance I draw upon Walter Benjamin's conception of dialectical images to envision the camera as an instigator and participant in the kinetic fulfillment of the choreographic design of Newson, Maheu and Lock.
In the following paragraphs I look at the role of kineticism in dance and film. I propose that in the dance films Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men by DV8 Physical Theatre, Le Dortoir (The Dormitory) by Carbone 14 and Velazquez's Little Museum by La La La Human Steps the camera functions not only to capture or record images, but also, to increase the kinesthetic exchange between audience and performer. In doing this, the camera performs a double role, one as an extension of the spectators visual sense and, secondly, as an apparatus that engages their tactile sense. If a microphone is used or after the footage is edited a third sense enters into the mix, the sense of sound.
While my primary focus centers on an exploration of how the camera engages the screen bodies in the above dance films transforming the visual performer into a kinetic performing, issues of gender, race, sexuality and physical risk must enter into my discussion. Just as editing and camera work offer the spectator different angles and perspectives to experience the choreography and dancing in a visual and kinetic sense, they also provide another entry point for approaching content and context in the dance.
In a reaction against the formalist aesthetics of Cunningham and the non-narrative semi-pedestrian works of many of the postmodern choreographers a number of non-American choreographers reintroduced "narrative," in part reclaiming the expressive technique of the modern dancers of the 1930s and 40s, but with a sharper political and social agenda. In the visual arts a similar reaction came from artists who rejected the absence of the figure in Abstract Expressionism. According to Mark Franko the abjection of a "politico-expressive" in favor of an "aestheticist perspective" in Cunningham represents a move backwards in the history of dance. (1995: xii). I would read dance-theatre as exemplified by the creations of DV8, C14 and La La La Human Steps as a leap forward then, building on Franko's implied “progresses” of the early moderns, infusing their expressivity with a contemporary, transfigured politicized body – a body transfigured by a somatic reaction to personal violence, an increase in inter-personal risk and the need to forthrightly address sexuality and gender in performance. Such transformations took place not only in regards to content and presentation of material, but also in use of music, costume and set design that influenced, and even created kinetic vocabulary. The latest addition to movement vocabulary, I propose, comes from the introduction of the camera and its captured images into and onto the stage.
Cameras possess the potential to transform stage bodies into screen bodies. In some cases, these bodies remain fixed by the two-dimensional format of video or film projections. They may shrink or expand according to the medium or locale of presentation. However, in the case of the films under discussion here, the camera functions in a more complex and integrated role in the filmed/video taped choreography. In Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men and Le Dortoir, the camera offers views of the dance from a variety of positions unavailable to an audience during the live performance. A privileged access democratically distributed through the medium of television or movie projector challenges the economic division of differential theatre seating. In all three works the collaboration between director and choreographer brings the audience into a new relationship with the performers and performance. Further, the performer her/himself revisits the performance now as an audience member able to engage his or her own image, and even, corporeality with the camera.
Filmic kineticism extends our engagement by linking the visual and somatic phenomena of performance from both the dancer's and audience perspectives.
While I would not like to employ Michael Taussig's argument on Mimesis to the dance works under review I do find his discussion of Benjamin to be very useful in furthering my own reading of filmic kineticsim or tactile vision in dance film/video. In his questioning of the visual dominance or ocularcentrism in Euroamerican culture Taussig (1993) proposes that touch aided by vision is more used and useful in navigating architectural and social space than vision alone. Addressing the questions: "How do we get to know the rooms and hallways of a building? What sort of knowing is this? Is it primarily visual? What sort of vision?" (Taussig, 1993: 26), the author employs Benjamin's argument from "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" to counter claims for the superiority of vision in knowledge acquisition.
Applying Taussig interpretation of Benjamin to the extended eye of the audience, the camera, we can connect Benjamin's concept of ""physiological knowledge" built from habit" (1993:26) to the choreographic use of repetition and intimate screening, via zooming, in DV8, Carbone 14 and La La La Human Steps. Taussig could easily be describing a theoretical framework for the opening scenes of Dead Dreams or Le Dortoir in his statement:
. . . [T]ouch and three-dimensioned space make the eyeball an extension of the moving, sensate body? Which is to say, an indefinable tactility of vision operates here too, and despite the fact that the eye is important to its chaneling, this tactility may well be a good deal more important to our knowing spatial configuration in both its physical and social aspects than is vision in some non-tactile meaning of the term. (1993: 26).
As the dancers of DV8 build their kinetic vocabularies in rehearsal and on stage, it is through their touch - often violent and forceful, which constructs the narrative of Dead Dreams. By using filmic kineticism, the camera, editor, director and choreographer make the audience in some small way a part of this process. Such an inclusion can disturb the balance of spectatorial distance offered by a visual perception alone. Dance historian Ramsey Burt makes just such a conclusion. "As dance of 'physical theatre', Dead Dreams...focuses attention uncomfortably on the male body and uncompromisingly highlights taboo areas of masculine behaviours through channels of nonverbal bodily communication that, . . . . are marginalized in western society." (1995: 190.)
Dead Dreams 1988
Newson based his piece on Brian Master's book Killing for Company, the story of Dennis Nilsen, a homosexual serial killer. Nilsen found his victims in the 'backrooms' of gay discos. Nilsen murdered several men he had picked-up at gay clubs. He kept their corpses in his flat afterwards for company. Dead Dreams begins in the backroom of a gay disco. Four men checking each other out engage one another through an exchange of bodily pulses and impulses. The set's bare walls and imperceptible ceilings frame the action. Its sparseness weighs the space with a feeling of entrapment heightening the spectators’ perception of the tight, confrontational and highly erotic movements. The four performers dress in identical blue pants and shirts that provide little indication of class, time or ethnicity.*
Camera / Action
Hinton and Newson chose to shoot Dead Dreams in black and white, in part I believe, to create a conformity of style and appearance besides rendering the monochromatic quality of the dreams/nightmarish reality Nilsen described in his diaries. As the first screening was meant for television, broadcast video was used instead of film.
In an early scene the camera pulls into Russel Maliphant's stomach as Douglas Wright slaps him. The camera lens comes too close to only serve as a conduit for voyeurism, it becomes too personal; in a sense it becomes tactile.
As the camera zooms in we lose sight/site of the body's spatial orientation- its status in the hierarchy of space, time and bodies. Our gaze dissolves into contact and activity. We, as audience, leave the position of spectator entering into an unclear position of participant and observer. With our new proximity to the action comes an enhanced aural experience as the sound of the slap against Maliphant's flesh is intensified by the camera's microphone. We follow the viewfinder down Maliphant's body as his pants are pulled down. The camera cuts to Newson caressing and kissing the white outline of a lover long gone and to Charnock, who is slowly descending with his mouth wide open and a silent scream on his lips. The camera pulls back or zooms in on each physical act so that they appear to take place at the same level. The juxtaposition clearly suggests oral sex, where the same scene seen at different levels in the live performance remains vague and atmospheric.
The shot resumes its interrogation of Wright as we follow Maliphant's foot now squishing Wright's face. As he jerks in a spastic reaction to this sadomasochistic torture, the camera zooms in to the quivering hand thrust between Wright's legs. Isolated to only a body part the movement takes on a new importance from the live stage performance. Even though its somatic meaning may not have changed, our kinetic experience of it as spectator has. The proportion of the gesture to the whole gains significance with the close-up and with the subsequent editing. With the audiences' attention so finely focused on this one gesture what happens to the rest of the performance environment? Does it simply disappear for that moment? Or, does the audience change positions with the dancers? Are they indeed watching us (the camera) now? Is the audience under scrutiny? The relationship between viewer and viewed becomes unstable. Our reliance on sight does not prove sufficient to keep our status as outside observer. The direct interaction with the camera forces open new sense experiences, or makes the viewer more aware of these senses, for an engagement with the performance.
We are privileged with an intimacy to the choreography through the camera not necessary available in a live performance. We, of course, are distanced as well by the two-dimensionality of the screen bodies.
In the middle of Dead Dreams we shift from the more personal deliberate narrative to a highly charged dance sequence with a pounding disco background reminiscent of Edouard Lock's rock scores for La La La Human Steps that engages the camera in a frantic game of pursuit. From just outside (on the edge) of the frame a bodies hurls itself into our visual and visceral path (focus) catching our attention and another dancer in his grasp. The camera follows the momentum as the dancers hit the floor only to rebound instantaneously into another directed fall and twist. As the cameras follows the trajectory of the dancer's motion so it becomes an accomplice to the kinetic vocabulary of DV8's physical theatre. The camera brings us, as the audience, closer to the physical and kinetic reality of the performer offering us an experience that crosses over the visual boundary of the screen into the somatic arena of the dancers' bodies. In one instance the camera falls with a close-up of the dancers and we become immediately aware of their sweat, their heavy breathing and their physical exertion. The moment is thrust upon us just like one dancing body is thrust upon another in Newson's choreography. As the scene develops we recognize that the dancers cannot escape from their physical borders. In repeated attempts to surmount a wall at the back of the stage, the camera shifts from one position to the next in rapid succession emphasizing the futility and effort in their struggle. We can follow footsteps on raw flesh, the exchange of sweat and grimaces of their faces in preparation for the ensuing jolt of hand, knee or shoe to their body.
Le Dortoir 1989
The dormitory of Le Dortoir comes from Maheu's childhood days at a Catholic boarding school in the 1950s and 60s. The opening scene starts the dramatic tension that Carbone 14 sustains for the length of the piece. Gilles Maheu trembling and wet holds a gun to his throat contemplating suicide. As bodily images float over Maheu he takes time to reflect on turbulent days which brought him to this point of self-destruction. The opening dance sequence introduces the space and figures to the architectonics of the space establishing a corporeal relationship between performers and objects in kinetic dialogue. We immediately notice the functionality of the objects and the clearly define gender identities of the dancers. Starting with the pseudo-innocence of a late night pillow fight and adolescence practical jokes the stage is set for the unfolding of political and social dissent and upheaval.
The space is open with a couple of alcoves providing separate areas for scenes to take place in. The walls on one side of the room are covered in blackboards, another area, unclear because of the editing, has four Plexiglas panels, like full body mirrors. The camera moves among and with the space and its objects unseen.
Rebecca Schneider draws on Benjamin's concept of the "Dialectical image" in her book on female performance artist to highlight the perormativity of gender, body and fantasy in performance. Le Dortoir and Velazquez's Little Museum use cinematic effects to expand the bound performance space into "dreamscapes" (1995:52) challenging kinetic and spatial boundaries.
Camera / Action
The physical objects and physical space are used to further the kinetic, emotional and psychological narrative. For instance, the beds provide spaces for individual development of character, serve as a platform for partnering and interaction between dancers, function as vehicles/machines of/for danger, delineate barriers and create a spatial allusion between a past and present temporal continuum. The camera brings the spectator into the kinetic space of the dancer and the bed. Our experience is literally dizzying. As our focus quickly shifts from that of performer spinning the bed to performer challenging the bed to the bed we cross-over the visual somatic divide as we did in Dead Dreams.
Filmic kineticism takes over pushing the audience's kinetic and aural sense to a level not possible on stage with this action. Perhaps, even the choreographic intent is better served in this section of the dance with film than with live performance. With stunning editing, especially considering this work predates miniature cameras, we are placed into a confusing position of identifying our experience not only with the dancing bodies, but with the moving objects as well. The revolving bed continues a circular rhythm that permeates the choreography and emulates the larger circular narrative at play in Le Dortoir.
A series of Plexiglas mirrors along one wall provide a designed space for action to increase in violent content without providing an increased physical risk to the dancers. The rock throwing and shooting sequences are physically and sonorously enhanced by their properties. The dancers can get very close without touching one another, and in turn their aggression can reach higher levels without increasing the potential for physical injury too much. It does exist in every aspect of this work. The Plexiglas also extends our role as voyeurs within the dance and plays with the juxtaposition of gender identities by reflecting the male image over the female reflection. The camera, however, challenges our position as voyeurs as it did in the first scenes of Dead Dreams, by forcing an intimacy of tactility upon us.
Besides a highly defined space, Maheu has a very refined movement vocabulary that technically does endear itself to dancers, but does not employ codified steps.
The movement sequences range from formal and stylized to the literal or gestural working in a coherent whole. The introduction of text stops movement momentarily then as the delivery of the text intensifies it (re)generate movement. The camera draws in on the speaker functioning in a mimetic visualization and then kineticization of the spoken text. In other words, the movement does not become integrated with the spoken word in simultaneity, but in counterpoint as in the short monologue included in Dead Dreams. For instance, a Bukowski text initiates a physical action that evolves into a complex movement phrase once the text is finished. The energy builds up in the actor's voice as the camera comes closer and closer until it explodes and the shot quickly changes from the steady close-up to a frantic impulse tracing the movement.
The physical movements in Le Dortoir often come across the screen as being lyrical, but with a twisted edge, frequently precarious though skillfully executed. They involve great physical stamina exposing the dancers to serious personal risk. Meticulously choreographed while leaving room for a personal identity of the individual dancers, the look and work of the company allows for a diverse physicality in performers. Carbone 14, like DV8, avoids identifying itself with a preconceived notion of what a "dancer” should look like.
The last work to be discussed, La La La Human Step's Velazquez's Little Museum, like Dead Dreams and Le Dortoir is based on a previous stage production. Unlike the other two it is not a re-staging of dance work, but a surrealist fantasy injected with choreographic vignettes from a piece called Infante C'est Destroy.
Velazquez's Little Museum 1994
Camera / Action
Lock's choreography since the beginning of his dance company in the early 1980s has been driven by the superhuman dynamics of Louise Lecavalier. Velazquez is no exception. Lecavalier's dancing redefined physical theatre in the 80s. Her high velocity spiraling turns incessantly throwing herself against partner earned her admiration and awe from many. Her extreme physique has prompted considerable discussion concerning her gender identification. Ann Cooper Albright argues in Choreographing Difference that Lecavalier's "vaulting back and forth across the stage creates an intense physicality that both literally and figuratively crosses over [emphasis hers] gender norms." (1997: 29) In filming Step's Velazquez's Little Museum Canadian director Bernar Hébert faced the challenge of capturing Lecavalier's and her fellow dancers' kinetic volume and speed. To do this Hébert, as Hinton and Girard before him, elongate the visual line of the dance zooming in to a point where the visual has the potential to turn tactile. At first the camera keeps its distance (I speak as if only one camera is present, but obviously we have many angles with many possible relationships. Then it joins the action increasing the audience's kinetic, even choreographic, experience. We do not hear the sound of the camera or its operator nor do we see her/his sweat. As mentioned before, the camera in this work does not become an extra performer - instead I posit that the camera collaborates with(in) the kinetic vocabulary of the choreographer and dancers bringing the viewer into the dancers kinesthetic space. The editing must match the rapid tempo of the movement to recreate the experience of Lecavalier's dancing. This is true for each of the films considered here, the actual tempo of the movement is never changed by the camera or editing. The kinetic involvement of the screen bodies matches the kineticism of the stage bodies in all of the works.
Filmic kineticism attempts to bridge the dimensional divide between screen bodies and stage bodies. Consequently, in the work of a few directors, camera operators and editors they bridge the divide between the visual and somatic. In these cases a new spatial and sensual performance environment emerges. One that make intimate the act of choreography and dancing. In no way can this experience replace the live stage event, nor does it try to. Instead, another genre forms made of flesh and tape, of light and sweat. Physical theatre lends itself to such collaborations due to its extreme kinetic language and individual accessibility of performers. Each film bears the unique stamp of director, choreographer, designer and dancer. It is my attempt only to expose moments of collusion and empathy.
Albright, A. C. (1997). Choreographing difference : the body and identity in contemporary dance. Hanover, NH, Published by the University Press of New England [for] Wesleyan University Press.
Benjamin, W. and H. Arendt (1969). Illuminations. New York, Schocken Books.
Burt, R. (1995). The male dancer : bodies, spectacle, sexualities. London ; New York, Routledge.
Franko, M. (1995). Dancing modernism/performing politics. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.
Schneider, R. (1997). The explicit body in performance. London ; New York, Routledge.
Taussig, M. T. (1993). Mimesis and alterity : a particular history of the senses. New York, Routledge.
John J Cook holds a PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University. He is currently curator for the Chicago based dance film and video festival CineDance 2003. Dr. Cook will be a visiting assistant professor in Comparative Arts at Ohio University for the 2002-2003 academic year. He continues to collaborate with the performing ensemble Perishable Produce based in Istanbul and Chicago.
* These utilitarian outfits of blue working class or black pants and white shirts of the service industry became an unofficial uniform for physical theatre and performance art groups in the 1980s.