Saturday, April 14, 2012

Dance, Huuuge

Ocean. Photo: Charles Atlas

Within the span of a day, I saw the Royal Ballet's Romeo & Juliet and Charles Atlas' film of Cunningham's Ocean, both in HD, projected huge at BAM Rose Cinemas and the Whitney Museum, respectively. It's increasingly the way of experiencing dance that I'd either not be able to see for geographical reasons, or to record performances never to be replicated because the company has disbanded, in the case of Ocean. So there's great value in both, at relatively low ticket prices.

(1994), to John Cage's score, was filmed by Atlas in 2008 at an breathtaking venue, a quarry in Minnesota transformed into a theater in the round for 4,500 viewers and a huge orchestra. You don't get much of that scale during the dance performance itself, but Atlas includes several minutes of production set-up footage in the opening minutes. The first imagery of the dance itself is of Daniel Squire's body in an extreme close-up, and you can feel the power and explosive tension in his muscles in a way you never could in real life, even if you were dancing right next to him. These close-ups zooms transform the dancers into the superheroes I perceive them to be; their physical genius now more clear to see than ever, in companion with their fierce intelligence. Atlas splits the screen at fortuitous moments so we sometimes see the same duet from two points, or a meta-view of one of his cameras filming what we see on the other screen.

Ocean. Photo by Charles Atlas
The in-the-round aspect of Ocean gives it a unique spot in the repertory. In Nancy Dalva's transcript of an interview with Merce, he says, "Front was wherever you face," and that Merce said he was imagining 12 different access points. She writes that Merce was present during the filming, just offstage. Also notable is that it was inspired by James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, also the wellspring for Roaratorio (1983), performed at BAM last December. These two works are two of my favorite by the choreographer; they're different enough so that it's probably incidental, but whatever bright notes of imagination it sparked in Merce resonated. (In a space-time coincidence, Julie Cunningham and her pure lines happily featured prominently in Ocean, within a week of performing live in the same gallery with Michael Clark.) Ocean screens at the Whitney Biennial through April 15.

The Romeo & Juliet screening presented problems that recur when filming dance, and ballet in particular. The ebullient Federico Bonelli and technically superb Lauren Cuthbertson, in the lead roles of this version by Kenneth MacMillan, were featured frequently in close-ups at the expense of the context of the scene at hand, or the overall stage picture. But both did an excellent job at modulating their projection to accomodate both the balcony patron, who sees them as the size of ants, and the HD cinema viewer, looking up their foot-high nostrils. Perhaps as such filming becomes more commonplace, producers will adapt to these genre-specific filming problems—certainly no barrier to experiencing some of the world's finest dance.

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