Summer 2004

The dancer’s image as a memento mori

Dance 2wice

Edited by Abbott Miller and
Patsy Tarr. Texts by Nancy Dalva
Phaidon, £24.95

Dancers, their bodies honed to perfection, are inherently photogenic: performers by nature, they are the perfect subjects for a certain type of composed, stylised photography. Their taut, trained bodies can, it seems, do everything and do so beautifully. There is a way in which their control over the physical heightens a bittersweet, paradoxical awareness of the fragility of the body, the inevitability of death: bodies at the peak of perfection acting as mementos mori.

This melodramatic thought hovers over this beautifully produced book, which brings together 23 photographic essays on contemporary dance from the award-winning magazine 2wice. The magazine is an interdisciplinary journal but its first love is the heady, rarefied, often challenging world of the New York dance scene. Over the past seven years, photographic features have acted as a showcase for individual choreographers and dancers, with a range of stylish approaches to its subject.

Introductory texts by the book’s editors stress the collaborative nature of each series of images as the product of a dialogue between choreographer, dancer(s) and photographer. Dance is already a complex medium, relying on the interplay of several disciplines. Translating the experience of dance into two-dimensional images, the photographers add an additional layer to the collaborative endeavour, as does J. Abbott Miller, the book’s designer, who choreographs both the narratives specific to each photo-essay and the shifts in tone as one leads into the next.

The book opens with Christian Witkin’s image of Merce Cunningham in Rodinesque Thinker pose on a rooftop, members of his troupe colourfully spread behind him an apparently informal range of poses that unconsciously mimic the haphazard Manhattan skyline in the distance. Cunningham’s description of Events, the piece documented in Witkin’s pictures, as ‘not so much dance as the experience of dance’ sums up the process at work in the book, trying to convey something of the specificities of dance in the static medium of photography.

The muscular energy and movement in the pictures of Cunningham’s troupe recur in other images of groups of dancers. Witkin presents the Paul Taylor Dance Company in a dizzy, passionate blur: men in full evening dress leap high while their partners perform tight pirouettes, their long skirts swirling. The powerful black and white cover image, also by Witkin, shows members of the Stephen Petronio Dance Company supporting each other in a collective swoon. In various stages of undress they form a bacchanalian cluster against a pristine white background.

Martin Schoeller’s theatrical tableaux of the Parsons Dance Company are quieter and more eerie. Against a back-drop depicting a snowscape members of the Company covered in white paint drape across one another in a sleeping pile. A black-painted man walks alone behind them. Another image sees him perching astride the huddled mass of whitened figures. Dichotomies work well visually; choreographers know this, as do photographers: contrasts between black and white, active and passive, sleeping and waking, movement and stillness.

Elsewhere in the book, photographs of individuals reveal the personalities behind the performances. Schoeller’s stylised portraits of Mark Morris show the maverick choreographer sporting a gingham suit and flip-flops, or clad in a check sarong clutching a watermelon in one hand, a knife in the other. Similarly striking but more formal in tone are Andrew Eccles’ jewel-like shots of New York City Ballet soloist Tom Gold covered head to toe in silver paint against a dense black background. (See Reputations, Eye no. 45 vol 12 p.57.)

Josef Astor poses Marjorie Folman like a music box ballerina on a tiny stone plinth, a swathe of grey satin tied in a wide bow at her back. The feather cuffs of her sheer gloves echo her artfully dishevelled hair. Witkin depicts Janie Taylor as a modern Degas; her classical pose and calm upward gaze recall Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. By contrast, Karole Armitage is a contemporary club diva; Schoeller photographs her in sequinned trousers, sleeveless fur top and high heels.

Peter Rad’s series of images of Elizabeth Streb in the tight confines of a darkened box, the setting for one of her signature pieces, convey a claustrophobic ingenuity. The final image in this series shows the box empty, a potent metaphor for the temporality in which the dancers, and we, exist.

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