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Australian Dance Theatre

'Held'

by David Mead

March 10, 2007 -- Derngate, Northampton, UK

Dance taking still or video photography as a partner is nothing new.  A number of choreographers have experimented with projecting still or video images on to screens as the performance unfolds in front of them – it has to be said, not always successfully.  Though when ADT director Garry Stewart teamed up with highly respected New York dance photographer Lois Greenfield, they were after something a little different.

Greenfield has made a name for herself capturing those moments that are too fast for the human eye to catch.  Put this together with Stewart’s athletic choreography, and you get a series of quite stunning photographs that capture the dancers in flight, often horizontal to the ground, as if they are somehow defying gravity.

So, does it work?  Initially the dance is exhilarating as the dancers rush on and off and hurl themselves around Darrin Verhagen’s thumping score.  Greenfield squats centre-front of the stage taking pictures that are a split second later shown on two giant screens to each side.  But immediately there is a problem, and it’s the one that seems to afflict most experiments like this.  Do you want me to watch the dance or the pictures?  What happens, of course, is that everyone continually switches from one to the other, the flash of the camera (extremely annoying, by the way) quickly producing a conditioned response to change focus.

The photography is stunning, and somehow the fact that they are black and white only adds to their impact.  Sometimes they are taken from the front of the stage and sometimes to back, but they do get a little predictable, and Greenfield seems only to look for the spectacular mid-air shot, ignoring everything else.  Only twice do we see something new, first when she uses a rapid fire device that produces six shots a split second after each other, making them look like some sort of multi-limbed god or goddess.  Later, she uses a zoom lens to get right in close on particular parts of individual bodies, although this doesn’t really work and sometimes leaves you wondering quite what you are looking at.

So what of the dance amongst all this photographic wizardry?  Stewart has a wonderfully athletic group of dancers who certainly throw themselves around with abandon.  But just as Greenfield’s photography gets rather repetitive, so does Stewart’s choreography.  There are moments of adagio amidst the frenetic action which allow the audience to catch their breath, but as a whole it really doesn’t go anywhere.  Much of the choreography appears to have been engineered for the camera to produce good pictures.  But good pictures do not necessarily make good choreography.  Greenfield isn’t giving us another eye on a dance performance; the dancers are her tools.  They are there for her.  It is the camera that is king in what in reality is a 55-minute photo shoot.  An amazing shoot, but a shoot nevertheless.

The audience reaction at the end suggested they liked it.  “Held” feeds the audience a diet of fast, athletic, gymnastic and daring dance, performed by a very talented company.  It gives us a series of quite stunning photographs.  The problem is, they take away from each other.  I can imagine that the process of creating the work was interesting, stimulating and challenging.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t always lead to a great product.  It’s an interesting experiment and worth seeing for Greenfield’s pictures alone, but it doesn’t provide any answers as to whether and how dance and photography can be equal partners in performance. 

“Held” continues on tour to High Wycombe, Bradford, Truro, Woking, Salford and Edinburgh

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