Review 2 of 2: Austin Dance Festival 2021 - Dance on Film
by David Glen Robinson
The culmination of Austin Dance Festival 2021 was Dance on Film, the innovative program of the Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company to present selected global dance films to Austin audiences. Unlike the canceled 2020 Austin Dance Festival, the 2020 Dance on Film program was presented in November of last year, safely under outdoor covid protocols at Rocket Cinema in Moody Meadow. This year’s edition returned joyously to the same venue.
The core concept of Dance on Film is to present dances that were produced as cinema, film, not merely staged dances committed to film from first entrance to curtain call. This meant that all the devices, techniques, and magic of cinema could be woven into the imagery of dance. As Shakespeare said: “All the world’s a location for film.” (Not.) But this year’s selectees might believe that bent aphorism, with many outdoor rural and urban locations and use of boom cameras and slow motion and drone photography. And of course, special effects. Film editors received full credit for their impressive work. Fifteen dance films were selected for this year’s program. Ilana Wolanow and Lisa Kobdish produced the show. As with the live performances of the Austin Dance Festival, only the highlights of the film component can be described in a review of reasonable length. And again, the films not mentioned are no less worthy than those that are. Dance on Film began promptly at 8:45 pm to the sounds of crickets and crunching popcorn.
“Melancholy Man” made use of boom photography to enter an apartment on the west side of Manhattan and rise to the brick-wall-enclosed rooftop. The set was strung with pinlights and strewn with potted plants, exactly as one might imagine many such rooftop refuges in today’s Manhattan. There, a single male dancer attired in New Yorker office casual danced a poignant, slow dance of solitude. The dancer was Ryan Steele, who has recognition as a Broadway dancer, his highly skilled phrases impressive evidence of that fact.
“A Dance For” is from Germany and offers direct pandemic commentary. A solo male dancer performed in brief scenes in several rooms and corridors in an empty house. Occasional scenes showed a motionless figure covered with a sheet. As the program notes asked explicitly: “What is art when its audience becomes nothing but a mere ghost?”
“Exhale” is a dance from The Netherlands, a solo. A tall, long-limbed female dancer made several traveling phrases of well extended shapes and gestures, all in a darkened studio. Her costume was multicolored fabrics that seemed to float and spin around her as she leaped and twirled. Her aspect was dreamlike, and also troubled. Then the scene changed to an underwater setting. She danced some of the same movements, in a bottomless column of water, in the same costume. The fabrics streamed around her and swirled as though she were some fighting fish. She was as flexible and commanding in the water as she was in the air. Close-ups at times showed fabrics spinning around her face in a swirling oval, suggestive of her in the womb. Her reflection was clear on the upper surface of the water, and sometimes it seemed the camera was recording the reflections alone. Note: all the photography in this piece was crystalline. Then the dance returned to the surface studio. She was dry. Her costume was dry. She danced another section, followed by another underwater section. This dyadic sequence repeated more than once, each dyad mirroring itself. The emotional climate remained dark. The piece ended underwater, the dancer’s face a few inches under the surface layer, looking upward at her surface reflection. She exhaled small bubbles from her mouth in a slow line floating upward to the face, her face, until the bubbles disturbed the surface layer, their ripples widening until the upper face image was erased.
“Toporzel,” from Poland, was an outdoor dance in an old quarry in Polish mountains. The dance was conducted by the obligatory shirtless male dancers we have come to expect. Black and White drone photography at high altitude drifted over a mountainous landscape, slowly moving toward a cut in the mountains, a quarry perhaps, or open pit mine, abandoned. The scene cut to a solo by a male on a rocky landscape, then back to the drone shots, definitely homing in on the quarry. This sequence repeated until all seven dancers gave their introductory solo. Then the dance became various combinations of male dancers, all partnering in some way with the massive rocks and surfaces of the outdoor setting. The second part of the dance, or end sequence, began with a shot of a bare rock ridge. Then the heads of the dancers in a line appeared over the ridgeline, then their shoulders, then their chests, then their entire figures, making jerky, out-of-sync movements while approaching the camera. They were trolls or gnomes, the demented guardians of the hard, hard earth that formed them. The pairings and group work continued, showing that harshness was not the only theme of the piece. The soundtrack by Henryk Gorecki, the go-to composer of magnificent music for performance art in the 90s, was perfectly paired with the cinematography and choreography of “Toporzel.” The end of his piece, over the final tableaux, was three long, loud full-orchestra chords, held and extended, anything but accents, enough to test and tax the wind of any professional orchestra. They were announcements of pride and presence of the human condition. The strength of cinema in blending and accentuating the various artforms that may come together is seen here in “Toporzel.” This quality is better and more evident than any other selection in the program.
“desasosiego” by any other name is good ol’ American ennui. And it is played for great comedy by five female dancers from Spain. They are aligned in chairs, dressed in office formal attire. Of course, they start falling out of chairs with wretched, disconnected facial expressions. The chair dances go on, one dancer in particular seemingly disconsolate. They add new layers to defeat the video audience, a favorite being a quiet sequence where they all eat a lemon, one each. They all made faces and shivery gestures along with the viewers in synesthetic sympathy, except for the disconsolate dancer. She bites and chews thoughtfully, looking out of frame, enjoying a private moment. Video editing established a strong presence in the piece when the dancers danced a standing sequence and seemed to start trading costume pieces. Different combinations of costumes seemed to slap onto the dancers. When the trick became obvious, it went wild. Costume pieces and fashions slapped on and off the dancers. Down to panties and high heels, up to overcoats and fur hats, but not in unison order. We knew we were in for a wild ride. The ending was no surprise, just stopping on the face of the disconsolate one. We didn’t care, we were still laughing.
“Killtronics.” This piece, from the United States, was an unmitigated scream, produced by filmmakers who hired their multitalented dancers to perform to a script. As such, the piece was the most direct narrative story in the show. The tiny set was a cramped, rundown, over-propped living room centered about a tiny couch on which a zombiefied, depressed couple could just barely fit. They watched a tiny box TV worthy of Pee Wee Herman, on which three figures danced, seemingly for days on end. Two of the figures were the dissipated couple themselves, the third a cyber-demonic figure. Trying to break the spell, the wife struggles to find the couple’s disco glasses to find salvation. She does so in the nick of time, and the couple’s souls pop back out of the TV. The glasses are frames with tiny mirror-ball facets glued all over them. The pieces are all about the size of tesserae for mosaics. Who knew their role in salvation? The demon has just begun to fight, however, and the combat plays out in disco dance. The Kill-your-TV-go-out-and-dance message of the piece rests just this side of heavy handed. But the extreme laughs ride the vehicle of socially responsible statements. I shall be shopping in vintage stores for my disco glasses shortly.
“AUTONOME – MADA MADA.” This piece from Canada, in contrast to “Killtronics,” stays with abstract contemporary dance to suggest a very clear narrative story vs the direct narrative with dance of “Killtronics.” Most of the narrative is established by the set, a small apartment room in 1950s Canada (some of the set-up is told in the program notes). A writer attempts to write out of his funk, his dance starting with his fingers making abstract gestures over the typewriter keys, which are not struck. He loses the battle with his inner demons in an increasingly energetic solo dance, dancing with an affect of loss and shame. Other scenes are cut in while his dance is in progress, a solitary figure walking slowly along the hallway outside. At the end, the apartment is in shambles, the typewriter on the floor, askew. The writer is in the fetal position against the wall. We see the hand and arm of the solitary figure approaching the motionless writer. The female hand gently touches the bowed head of the writer, a blessing to balm his pain. The prosaic and uplifting end is refreshing, and it shows how dance can be simple but penetrating.
“YOUR AMERICAN GIRL” The piece was a deep transit in dance, well-edited, of profound and genuine Texas landscapes (think vine-ridden East Texas). The solo dancer arrives in a clearing where a circle of African Americans in period costumes reflect about a campfire. Soon they dance, taken away in their minds to other days and other overwhelming concerns. The piece did not end as a statement calling for Black separatism and resegregation, seemingly a growing contemporary trend. Instead, the piece offered a sampling of antebellum and Jim Crow African American dance and costuming, removed from obscure archives and offered out as dance, rare gems of Black culture, a note of love to the world.
“It Cries Too Loudly” is from the United States but it is by a Lebanese author (director, choreographer), and here is an instance where the program notes were not helpful. The notes suggest that we can enjoy a dance about concerns with Lebanon, recent events, and the struggle of immigrants to find new identities. The video had nothing to suggest or evoke Lebanon. Instead, we saw three dancers, two male and one female, in a longish piece dancing their tragedies and joys in multiple outdoor and indoor locations. The poles of their emotional lives played out apparently in an autumn landscape of gray roads, hills, and skies interrupted by bright points of fallen autumn leaves, late blooming flowers and the costumes of the dancers themselves. The cinematography played up the enigmatic qualities of the dances (for they were indeed multiple) as when a male dancer falls backward in slow motion into a pond but stops before hitting the water, and the scene cuts to him in an interior room or studio perfectly dry and well coifed. Odd, the more the dance became increasingly abstract, enigmatic, and dreamlike, the more I identified with it.
May 29, 2021
10621 Pioneer Farms Dr
Austin, TX, 78754
Annual festival held May 29, 2021 at Pioneer Farms, Austin.