There's nothing nice about Monday's inbox: a bulging headache of weekend emails and last week's procrastination. Not so for subscribers to 52 Portraits who are guaranteed a short oasis of dance, music and film in their inbox. Perfect for more procrastination.
The premise to 52 Portraits is addictive simple. The weekly email links to a website with a new short filmed portrait of an emerging and established dance artist, the identity always a surprise. Created by choreographer Jonathan Burrows, composer Matteo Fargion and video-maker Hugo Glendinning, and produced by Sadler's Wells, each film is similarly set with a simple black backdrop and a table the performers dance behind.
It's been nearly 25 years since Burrows was a soloist with the Royal Ballet, and in the intervening years he has choreographed, taught, published, researched, received an honorary doctorate and become one of the most interesting figures in contemporary dance. Matteo has been a constant collaborator in composing music for his dances and since 2002 the pair have created an ongoing series of duets. The most recent, Body Not Fit for Purpose, was performed last night along with a screening of a selection of the 52 Portraits at the opening of Light Moves Festival of Screendance in Limerick.
These duets have been phenomenally successful, winning awards and in constant demand by international producers. Although Burrows and Fargion are interested in collaborating with other artists, the heavy schedule of tours alongside teaching and other commitments has made this difficult.
“We also wanted to shine light on a younger generation,” says Burrows. “They’re redefining the dance landscape without anyone realising it. At the same time we wanted to honour a previous generation of dance artists, and to refuse the usual way people get left off and marginalised as they become older.”
52 Portraits offered the pair a streamlined chance to collaborate with fellow artists that they admire: the artists could enter Burrows and Fargion's world and vice versa. The films, from one to three minutes, are choreographed by the participants and set to a song that Matteo writes and performs alone or with his daughter Francesca.
“It’s a pretty efficient production line we’ve got going,” says Matteo. “After the filming, which I don’t attend, Hugo sends me the chosen take and Jonathan sends me a lyric which he writes, usually on the train home, based on the answers to a set of stock questions asked of each subject. He also asks them for a piece of music that is in some way significant to them, and I use this as a basis for a biographical song. Sometimes I steal a chord sequence, sometimes a fragment of a tune, the instrumentation, tempo or, sometimes, I ignore it altogether.”
However short, the films are surprising revealing. Most are deeply personal, whether focusing on artistic idealism or day-to-day life. Mette Ingvartsen's film, set to the tune of Suck and Let Go by Peaches, deals with how commercial imagery uses sexuality to sell products, a theme that the Danish choreographer and dancer is pursuing at present in live works. In contrast, Londoner Alexandrina Hemsley, whose work focuses on the politics of gender and race, chose to make a duet with her 75 year-old father to the tune of The Best by Tina Turner. The history held in bodies is revealed by 91-year-old Robert Cohen, whose solo opens with a phrase that he performed with the Martha Graham Company, a role previously performed by Merce Cunningham, while the occupational poverty within dance is highlighted by dancers such as Wendy Houstoun, who is torn between the joy of dancing with the humiliation of constantly having to justify herself and her work in grant applications.
For Mary Wycherley, filmmaker and co-curator of Light Moves, 52 Portraits is important not just for its biographical or archival role, but also in how it points the way for dancers to engage with audiences.
“By bringing dance to the screen it expands the audience throughout the world,” she says. “But the videos also work within the slippages between disciplines and dancers are becoming more comfortable breaching these permeable boundaries between dance, visual art and film.”
She sees a growing conversation about the different ways dancers can represent themselves and how their identities as dancers can be maintained as they engage with other artforms. Burrows and Matteo see no such boundaries: Matteo performs movement as part of their duets and Burrows has studied music composition with Kevin Volans.
Wycherley is also drawn to the simplicity of the films. The format sidesteps the emphasis in production found in narrative-based film-making and focuses attention on the individual. Establishing the one-to-one relationship between viewer and dancer was the reason for the table, according to Burrows: most people who watch will also be sitting with their laptops at a table and there’s an equality in that meeting. As the year progresses, the individual portraits have created a mosaic that depicts the contemporary dance world, an important statement to make.
“I’ve come away from the year of work with my prejudices dismantled bit by bit, by the brilliance of the dancer’s mind and the myriad of intelligent approaches people take,” he says. “It’s not a coincidence that this comes about at a time when dancers are more and more working together again collectively. This togetherness is a brilliant act of resistance to the horrible forces of individualism currently wrecking our societies. Dance is seen as a soft art, but there’s a fierceness at its heart and a generosity that we need right now.”
Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion will discuss 52 Portraits as part of Light Moves Screendance Symposium tonight. See lightmoves.ie