Creating New Dance Icons: David Michalek's "Slow Dance"

Yesterday morning, I got up way too early (for me, on a weekend anyway), to run down to Lincoln Center and take some pictures of what I just knew would be a huge line. The New York City Ballet distributed free tickets to the April 29th dress rehearsal of their new production of Romeo & Juliet. Tickets were given out on a first-come, first-served basis, and distribution was to begin at 9:00. I got there at 8:50, and here was the line:

It wrapped all the way around the State Theater to Fordham Law School! There was no way I could take the time to wait in it, and, from what I heard later in the day, you really had to have got there around 7:30 or earlier to get a ticket. Although, apparently, from what we heard later, they gave people who waited in line but were unable to get a ticket, a free admission to a non-dress rehearsal, that normally only sponsors are invited to, which sounds really nice as well! Anyway, very happy to see so many people interested in ballet :)

Then, it was such a nice spring day — the first in New York! — so I walked through the park to what seems to be becoming a weekly event for me, the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process series. This one, “Slow Dancing,” was super cool. David Michalek, a film director and portrait photographer, as well as husband of New York City Ballet prima ballerina Wendy Whelan, is currently creating a public art film installation to be viewed during the Lincoln Center festival this summer. Basically, he took five seconds’ worth of footage of 45 different dancers from various dance styles — ranging from flamenco, Indian, break-dancing and krumping to of course Ballet — slowed it way way WAY down, using a highly specialized camera that has heretofore been used only by the military and NASA for weapons and rocket launch analyses respectively (!), and projected them onto a 50-foot high screen. During the festival, three such enormous screens will be hung on the outside the walls of the State Theater (pictured above in the top two pics) and, each night after dark, the images of the dancers — three at a time and moving in extreme slow motion, will be projected onto them.

So, we got to see how this was made last night. Three dance giants — Wendy Whelan (of course!), Herman Cornejo from ABT, and Desmond Richardson — each came out onstage and did a five-second solo. (Michalek joked that this was the only time we’d ever see dancers of this stature dance on a stage for a mere five seconds!) The camera recorded the movement, and after each dancer finished and exited the stage, we viewed what had been recorded in the slow timing.

It was so incredibly amazing it’s hard even to describe. With the image slowed to such a great extent and projected onto such a huge screen, you could just see so much that you never saw before, and it gave you so much more respect for the dancer to see how perfectly, how miraculously really, his or her body actually worked to make the huge jump, difficult turn, or beautiful line really happen. Richardson, exclaiming that as a dancer he was “ecstatic and inspired,” said that “to see the actual muscle fibers … really shows the work.” It’s so true: I noticed with Richardson, whose musculature is so pronounded, that, in contrast to a photo where you see the muscles but without seeing them actually work, viewing them contract, lengthen, expand, and flex during each part of a jump is so incredible that it makes the jump so much more astounding than just seeing it caught in a still picture. With Herman, I noticed that his feet practically make semi-circles when he points, and they remain pointed right until the very millisecond he lands. I noticed the gorgeous lines Wendy made with her arms, legs, feet, and hands, and her defined leg and arm muscles as well.

Of course as a dancer you’d have to have an ego of steel to allow yourself to be filmed in such a way! You see every detail, and every asymmetry, every flaw, if you could even call it that. Michalek said that Whelan, upon seeing herself onscreen for the first time, was really upset about her knees “buckling” when she jumped, and, during the panel discussion, when asked how she now felt, with sweetly self-deprecating humor, she just exhaled and said, “oh, I’ve come to embrace my imperfections…” Everyone laughed because, it’s like, what imperfections?!… I did notice she was pretty nervous when being video-taped though — you could really see her left hand tremble during the slowed film.

What impressed me most though was how it really had an iconic effect on the, literally, larger-than-life performer. Michalek said, seeing so many pictures of his beautiful wife and her colleagues made him dismayed at the limits of traditional dance photography to capture the monumental nature of the body in motion.

Allowing — almost forcing the viewer to examine closely what it is that makes each particular dancer so great — Richardson’s musculature and strength, Wendy’s beautiful lines, and Herman’s beyond perfect technique and the personality emanated through his eyes — has a kind of heroizing effect. Regarding those eyes: perhaps I am weird, but I seem to focus a lot on faces a lot when I attend a dance performance. I noticed that both Richardson and Whelan closed their eyes a lot, or looked down so that it looked as if they were. I wondered how they did that — if I closed my eyes I would lose all sense of place and direction; I would have no idea where the floor was. It was this, I felt, that gave their dancing a very ethereal feel and was part of their own particular artistry.

Herman was the exact opposite. His eyes never closed. At the beginning, when he first took the stage, they were focused straight out at the audience; I was sitting in the center of the fourth row and it was kind of freaky how it looked like he was looking right at me, in a proud, but almost confrontational way. Then, as he began his jump, his eyes remained wide open and directed firmly out at us; it was only when he went to land that they briefly glanced down at the floor so he could get his sense of place. Then, he immediately went into another jump, this time with a turn, and it was so incredible to see his eyes remain widely, alertly opened, and his gaze directed in the same place, until he had to rotate his head to complete the turn. His eyes, I felt gave him a very solid, very masculine “thereness” or presence, that I suppose is perhaps a Latin thing. I bet if Jose Carreno or Angel Corella were filmed, their eyes would be the same. I think that is what so draws me to ABT.

Anyway, the reception was a lot of fun as well. Doug Fox was in town, so I convinced him to meet me there, and he was very glad he did since the techie aspect of it was right up his alley. And, speaking of other brilliant techies (not to mention great dancers!), we ran into Kristin Sloan and her boyfriend, Doug Jaeger, as well :)

All of these dancer whom they chose to exhibit last night, though, were pretty similar in terms of body-type and obviously style of dance. It’ll be interesting to see the break and belly dancers. Definitely do not miss this spectacular celebration of dance. It’s showing outdoors at Lincoln Center from July 20th though 29th, from the hours of 9:00 p.m. until 1:00 a.m.

8 Comments

  1. wow! i love herman cornejo…so undervalued at abt, i think. we need to see him as romeo (with xiomara as juliet?) now *that* would be star casting!

  2. Herman’s romeo was incredible in chicago. One of my favorites.

  3. I’d love to see him as Romeo — I’ll have to see if he is cast at the Met; don’t think he is — and I’ll have to look back at Chimene’s blog post on his performance in Chicago.

  4. Tonya,

    You are a hoot! I love to read your comments and I think I will have to bookmark your blog.

    I may have to join the oohs and ahhhs poeple up top because my wife is always telling to control my excitement… obviously I am an ooher and an ahher.. and scream bravo and brava without the slighest reservation when my WOW bone has been tickled.

    I normally hate lawyers except the Lawyers Guild (my lawyer… Marty Stoler)…. the ACLU and Michael Rattner… and my friend Pam who is a union lawyer and opera lover who I met on a Met Opera line for a PR event. So you have clearly joined the ranks of good lawyers and the meetable. hahahaha.

    I think a little Winger meet up would be interesting… Jennifer is a hoot too!

    Marcelo does kinda look like a god.. doesn’t he? Actually all the ABT dancing dudes are terrif… and the gals twirl like angels.

    I read about the Michalek project in the NY Times or somewhere so I am anxious to see it. Thanks for the mini review of the Gugg event…. that was something to see.

    Slo mo is very interesting but artificial. But there is some amazing dance photography… Try the black and white images of Gene Schiavone. He gets it and gets it good.

    I suppose it will be on in the evening only like a drive in?

  5. Thanks Jeffrey!

    Funny, I feel like I’ve heard of Marty Stoler, though I don’t think I know anyone from the Lawyers Guild…

    I feel like Marcelo attracts all the nutty fans — women who stalk him in Japan, construction-worker guys who come alone to Swan Lake, me… :)

    Yeah, Michalek said he was led to the project by what he felt was the inability of dance photography to capture motion adequately, and I can see what he means and think this is a fascinating project, but I do think there are some really amazing dance photographers out there. Yeah, it can only be shown at night because of the light problem. So, since in summer it gets darker later, they are planning to begin it each night at 9 p.m.

    We’ll definitely have to plan a Winger event this summer!!

  6. The intersting thing about the slow mo analysis of movement in dance is that I am not sure how this might be used by dancers and choreographers to improve dance. If what it reveals are the most subtle mini micro movements… I would think they are largely uncrontrollable by our consciousness. Grosser movements may be.

    I am really talking through the top of my head here cos I didn’t see his work. I am sure it is interesting in the same way it is interesting to look at a drop of pond water under a microscope. I just wonder if it has “practical” use or is that not the purpose… It’s just art.

  7. Yeah, the dancers definitely said they learned a great deal about their “imperfections” watching themselves like that! I’m sure it could be a great learning tool for students, just might be very expensive to use all the time!

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