Visual Arts

SMoCA's "Dance with Camera" Is Dancing Around the Truth

Natalie Portman's portrayal of a psychotic prima ballerina in the thriller Black Swan shone a glaring light on the world of professional dance. It's not all frilly tutus and magical nutcrackers — that's just the fantasy the dancer creates on the stage. Similarly, deception is at the core of "Dance with Camera," a collection of movement-related videos, portraits and photographs on display through May 1 at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. It's a high-energy, high-impact show that's as intellectual as it is entertaining.

Take Eleanor Antin's Caught in the Act, for example. The photographic series captures an older woman dressed in a tutu and pointe shoes striking neoclassical ballet poses. Her hair is pinned back into a flawless bun. Her face is serene. She is the epitome of grace and beauty, surely a successful prima ballerina with a renowned dance company.

A peek at the accompanying video reveals that the "dancer" is actually Antin, who has no ballet training. Her legs wobble as she struggles to keep her balance in front of the camera lens. A second look at the photographs, after seeing the video, and you might spot the surprise captured in Antin's eyes when she hits a perfect fifth position, arms above her head. The lesson? Don't always believe what you see.

The examination of truth continues in Joachim Koester's Tarantism, a black-and-white film in which a group of lithe dancers undulate in a frenzied state. The gathering is reminiscent of a voodoo ritual or a Pentecostal service in which parishioners are imbued with the Holy Spirit. Turns out Koester's film is based on 16th-century rural Italian dance that was thought to cure the bite of a wolf spider. Scholars believe the "cure" was concocted as a clever way of circumventing moral laws banning dancing. The deceit of Koester's video registers when his dancers are caught relaxing as the camera pans past them.

The most intriguing piece in "Dance with Camera" is a video portrait of the late choreographer Merce Cunningham, set to composer John Cage's 4'33". If you're familiar with the Cage piece, you'll understand the irony here. The composition is silent except for ambient noise. Filmed seated in a chair inside his ballet studio, Cunningham appears to be perfectly still. There is no motion or music. The only soundtrack is the tick, tick, ticking of the old-school projector and the metronome of a nearby exhibit.

Just as you relax into submission, the cameraman counts down with his fingers and Cunningham moves. It's a moment akin to the ghostly child crawling out of the television set in The Ring. Creepy. With Cage's piece, the lack of music forces us to listen intently to every sound. Here, the stillness makes the smallest of movements important. It may be a mind trick, but it's a brilliant one.

Surface humor is another ploy the featured artists use to throw the viewer off-balance. In Ann Carlson and Mary Ellen Strom's Sloss, Kerr, Rosenberg and Moore, four lawyers in business suits form a clockwork machine of familiar motions. One mimics driving a car to work. Another lawyer shuffles papers. It's a quirky commentary on the everyday life of an ambulance chaser. In a video series by Oliver Herring, a tall, slender young man performs an awkward pas de deux with a matronly female factory worker. It's hard to keep a straight face watching the pair do simultaneous leg lifts and squats. By soliciting untrained dancers, Herring, Carlson, and Strom break the illusion of perfection created by dance professionals.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Luis Jacobs' A Dance for Those of Us Whose Hearts Have Turned to Ice, a tongue-in-cheek film short in which artist Keith Cole dances naked in the woods of a Canadian park. Cole waves T-shirts around like a Japanese kimono dancer and makes snow angels on the icy ground as his exposed genitals bob up and down in rhythm. Talk about blue balls.

The laughable routine looks random and imperfect. But everything Cole does is intentional. The movements are based on Francoise Sullivan's choreography and the flailing T-shirts a nod to Loie Fuller, the early-20th-century burlesque performer known for her swirling Serpentine Dance. What appears to be a farce is actually a very clever piece.

The camera allows an artist to capture and revisit a moment in time, something that is impossible with a live dance performance that is constantly moving. The trick is that it becomes difficult to separate reality from the fantasy that the artist behind the lens wants to project. Mind games aside, "Dance with Camera" is a fun exhibition. You just might leave tapping a toe.

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Wynter Holden
Contact: Wynter Holden