Performing Arts: Dance
December 31, 2020
In 1966, Hilary Harris had a filmic field day with then Paul Taylor rookie Bettie de Jong. Entitled Nine Variations on a Dance Theme, the variations are Harris’s, which refract the danced theme: de Jong performing a short physical palindrome nine times with solemn exactitude. Never established in an all-encompassing static wide shot, Harris demonstrates how movement can only be captured if the camera is moving just as well.

The first two variations slowly circle de Jong to aggregately document two sides of her shapes, generating a three-dimensional awareness of the movement in the viewer’s mind’s eye. As the camera zooms in, finds more obtuse angles, and allows editing to break the sequential flow of the subject, we know exactly (and quite classically) how these increasingly adventurous variations deviate from their prime form.

Nine Variations was instrumental in unlocking the potential for dance-film as its own artform. Today as performing artists must figure out how to operate during a global pandemic, many are turning to (digital) film with a similar spirit. Recognizing this cross-generational connection, Taylor alum Michael Trusnovec and current dancer Kristin Draucker have revived the concept.

Nine New Variations can be seen as a continuation of Harris’s work, as it does not so much replicate, but riffs. Instead of one dancer, we have nine, each a female ambassador from the contemporary Western dance world. Instead of one phrase, diligently repeated, each dancer chooses a physical proximity to de Jong’s theme, sometimes quoting it directly, other times obscuring any trace.

Graham dancer Xin Ying commences, like de Jong, starting on the ground, though with more surrender to gravity. Of the nine, she is the only one to noticeably repeat her movement, setting up elusive structural promises.

Akua Noni Parker, of Dance Theatre of Harlem and Ailey, comes closest to both de Jong’s choreography and Harris’s filming, executing the climactic a la seconde leg lift completely out of frame, though with enough continuity to know exactly where she is headed. Margie Gillis, whose brother Christopher danced with the Taylor company, concludes. She evokes Harris’s penchant to discover bodily frames and topographical beauty in ostensibly unflattering perspectives, however conversely bringing them actively towards a fixed lens.

Others veer in camerawork and editing as well. Taylor alum Annmaria Mazzini wafts in a field, occasionally in reverse. Gallim artistic director Andrea Miller and Kyle Abraham’s Tamisha Guy employ multiple frames to put themselves in counterpoint. Pam Tanowitz’s Christine Flores and New York City Ballet’s Sara Mearns harmonize with themselves via cross-faded double exposures, and Lucinda Childs’ Caitlin Scranton steps between a wooded deck and an urban rooftop.

What Nine New Variations lacks is Nine Variations’s capacity to teach us how to watch it. Nine Variations is a dancer and a filmmaker working intimately together; Nine New Variations is a conglomerate of requisite isolation, in which dancers must be their own director, cinematographer, and editor, whether possessing those skills or not. An homage to radical experimentation yearns for connection where cohesion cannot be guaranteed.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews

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