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Element Dance Theater

'Zoetrope'

by Eric Ray Kupers

October 30, 2005 -- San Francisco, California

One of the great gifts that contemporary, multi-media choreographers bring us is the opportunity to see things from multiple perspectives. While all art contains infinite possibilities for interpretation, multi-media work can push us immediately and viscerally into the realm of multiple truths—an experience that can be both enlightening and uncomfortable. Kristin Heavey and her Element Dance Theater consistently create works that offer rich palettes of questions, images, mediums and emotional journeys. Heavey is highly skilled in pushing choreography beyond just movement and into a lush world that she directs with panache. Her latest work-in-progress, “Zoetrope,” invites audiences to a fascinating dialogue about art and perceptions of reality.

Heavey has been making bold choices for years now, seamlessly combining modern dance, text, unorthodox aerial work and strong political statements. In “Zoetrope,” Heavey guides her company into fresh artistic territory that is very relevant for the San Francisco Bay Area and remains up until now mostly unexplored. She is collaborating with visual artist Chris Lanier to investigate connections between dance and digital animation. A zoetrope, as stated in the opening projections, is an animation device that preceded cinema. Still images were placed around a drum that when rotated gave the images the illusion of movement. It provides ripe metaphors for dance creation.

Avoiding a common pitfall of incorporating video projections onto the stage—wherein the video serves as simply a backdrop for the live action—Heavey and Lanier are interested in how dance and animation can dialogue with each other onstage. Exemplifying this query is a striking dance solo based on the concept of the “in-betweener,” which in animation creation is the person who takes the key poses of a character and joins them together with motion. Element dancer Anne-Lise Reusswig links a series of seemingly disconnected shapes with a ferocious, unexpected swirl of momentum. Then there is animation created directly from videos of the dancers from early rehearsals. There are moments when the live shadows of the dancers are reflected from in front of and behind the projector screen to interact with the animated images. Black and white footage of Cab Calloway dancing (and quick excerpts of the cartoons based on his movement) gets turned into dance phrases manipulated by each dancer. Heavey and Lanier are a collaborative duo committed to a true meeting and exchange of their respective forms.

I had the opportunity to see “Zoetrope” in numerous forms over the past year: as a full work-in-progress at Footloose’s “Women on the Way” festival (Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco, Jan. 2005) and then as excepts in group shows at ODC Theater/SF, Electric Lodge/Los Angeles and Renaud-Wilson Dance Festival/Hayward (Feb./March 2005). The complexity of the issues Heavey and Lanier are tackling lends itself to multiple viewings.

“Zoetrope” unfolds in a series of related vignettes, much like a set of Russian Dolls: each one opening a window to a deeper and more delicate version of itself. The design for the “doll” in this case involves an engaging look at the relationship of dance to animation and both of these to the psychology of projection. The core questions posed seem to be: How does the human mind make animated characters “real”? How do we “cartoon-ize” other people and situations through preconceived notions? Are we actually connecting with the world around us or living in a self-constructed animated haze?

To engage these questions, “Zoetrope” presents duets and solos that range from the silly to the poignant, and sometimes both at once. Both the choreography and animation are edited with a Zen-like clarity. There is just enough to take us on a journey, but neither the choreographer nor the animator indulge in the vast potential of tricks and special effects we know they could fall back on. A beautiful deterioration of a couple’s photo mirrors a wilting love duet. A highly stylized barroom scene, cross-fading into a romanticized desert island complements a high-energy duet that illuminates the zaniness of attraction. And the simple cartoon image of a broken heart perfectly counterparts a broken-hearted super hero, flying all over the stage to face her fears.

When the dance and animation both become visually complex, it is a conscious move on the part of Heavey and Lanier. By that point we have begun to see links both between the forms and between the images on stage and our own psyche—then “Zoetrope” blasts these links open. The final section features animation of the dancers that freezes their movements into singular moments—a kind of kinetic nostalgia. And as the dancers forge ahead with athletic and daring partnering, the animation catches up, falls behind, foreshadows interactions and exposes the underlying patterns. We begin to ask if these beings onstage are alive or merely extensions of animation bleeding across realities.

Does the animation support the dancing or the dancing the animation? What are the ways that we’ve kept ourselves apart from our lives by “projecting” or “animating” those around us? How can we reconnect? These questions are skillfully left for us to sit with, unanswered. And at the venues where Lanier set up the projector on the floor, a wonderful play of the dancers’ shadows formed a breathtaking collage with the live bodies and animated forms—all choreographed into an explosionof near misses, brief reunions and joyful flights.

Element’s performers are each unique dynamos. In my opinion, one of the most compelling performers on the West Coast, Reusswig has continually brought her fierce and razor sharp abandon to Heavey’s work to great effect. This time she is stunningly matched by newcomer Patric Cashman in a fast-paced face-off, energy currents between them palpable. Stacz Sadowski has an unusual finesse that he brings to every Element role. A robust athlete who combines grace, enormous strength and wildly entertaining presence, Sadowski remains a solid foundation for Heavey’s daring choices. Kristin Quok and Christina Goodney have both grown in their years with Element beyond their flawless technique to become electric performers. Quok’s broken-hearted super-hero achieves that rare balance of full-tilt comedy and genuine vulnerability—allowing us to gently touch into our own relationship grief. Goodney’s portrayal of withering love has an understated yet fully effective tragedy that bubbles just beneath her skin. The company brings to emotionally vivid life a collection of potentially difficult conceptual thrusts.

I am very glad “Zoetrope” is in progress. How will the work change with the constantly evolving world of digital animation? Will Heavey and Lanier dream up new links between their mediums? Can a theater setting contain their questions, or will the work have to venture into new venues, yet to be created?

Towards the end of the work, a quote by William James that exemplifies the thrust of this production is projected into the space, “Is consciousness really discontinuous... and does it only seem continuous to itself by an illusion analogous to that of the zoetrope?” We are asked to examine our own murky boundaries between reality and projection, animation and clear seeing. This very capable duo is in a perfect position to continue pioneering this cutting edge confluence of mediums. I eagerly await the next fruits of their labors.

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