STEP UP! Belgian Dance and Performance on Camera 1970-2000 is an exhibition series hosted by the Argos Center for Art and Media. The program on offer will run over a 9-month period. It is divided in three chapters and focuses on dance and performance as viewed through the lens of filmmakers and artists hailing from Belgium.
STEP UP's first chapter encompasses two group shows, the first one closes on November 13th and the following chapter will be on display from November 16th until December 18th, 2016. The last two chapters are scheduled for Spring and Summer 2017. If the first iteration of STEP UP! is representative of the exhibition series as a whole, this dynamic and well-orchestrated exhibition foreshadows an exciting cycle of events.
STEP UP! Chapter 1 sheds light on thirty years of Belgian creative output at the junction of video and the performing arts. It brings back to mind that Belgium has been a fertile ground for dance and that Brussels was once considered the contemporary dance capital of Europe. Eight films are presented featuring choreographies by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, José Besprovsvany, Michèle Anne De Mey, Vincent Dunoyer, Roxane Huilmand and Marc Vanrunxt. The works vary in length (five minutes to an hour), format (color or black and white) and time of production (spanning from 1978 to 2001). They are presented simultaneously in Argos' ground floor gallery, a spacious dark room segmented into well-defined viewing spaces created by colored panels and the screens themselves.
The works are displayed in a variety of ways, allowing for a rich viewing experience in which the visitor can decide to focus on a singular work or to view the works collectively, drawing connections between the eclectic yet related selection of moving images and performances. The films are either projected on large cinema-like surfaces (Rosas dans Rosas, Thierry de Mey, 1997 and Muurwerk, Wolfgang Kolb, 1987), on TVs installed on stands at eye-level (Superposition, Filip Francis, 1978; Dance of the Seven Veils, Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, 1991 and Evento, Marie André, 1986-1987), on a TV monitor positioned on the floor (Super-Superposition, Luc Deleu, Filip Francis & Wout Vercammen, 1978) or on large rear projection screens that add transparency and a sculptural quality to the films in permitting viewing from both sides (The Princess Project, Vincent Dunoyer, 2001 and Face à face, Eric Pauwels, 1989).
Although each work has a dedicated sitting space, the layout doesn't encourage the viewer to contemplate the films in isolation or to dedicate her/his full attention and time to each and everyone of them. Some works are more engaging than others and the group presentation of eight audiovisual works in the same space entails that the sounds of the different pieces inevitably blend into each other in a mood-creating yet somewhat dissonant way.
The common thread binding the works resides in the presented films' cinematic value, one that exceeds the mere recording and documenting of a live performance or dance. As the curators of the show Andrea Cinel and Ive Stevenheydens put it: "Of importance is that the videos on view are also creative (...) the works included in the exhibition were almost all intended to be films." The camera is used as an observation tool and, through various cinematic techniques, the filmmakers heighten the viewer's perception and experience of the dancers' movements. The resulting films add another dimension to the choreographies they document and to the performances they record and act as a springboard to explore plastic forms.
While Thierry de Mey uses a musical soundtrack, fast-paced editing and jump cutting between performers in close-up frontal takes to echo the repetitiveness and endurance-based character of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's Rosas dans Rosas, Eric Pauwels conveys the fluidity of Michèle Anne De Mey and Pierre Droulers' steps in Face à face by accompanying the dancers' movements with his camera. Some filmmakers adopt a less mimetic approach and experiment with superimpositions to create a distinct aesthetic (Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven's kaleidoscopic rendering in Dance of the Seven Veils of Marc Vanrunxt's performance) and to convey an additional layer of meaning that couldn't have been communicated in the live performance. The Princess Project, in which Vincent Dunoyer overlaps two video recordings filmed at the same angle and distance of him performing, is a case in point: the superimposition creates a fictional mirror image of Dunoyer as he engages in a duet with his spectral alter ago.
The cumulative effect of viewing these films simultaneously creates a compelling visual environment that pulses to the rhythm of the choreographies. I felt drawn to walk throughout the space, taking in parts of the films at a time and going back to the ones I was most curious about. I was particularly enthused by Wolfgang Kolb's Muurwerk in which the camera acts as a framing device, containing dancer and choreographer Roxane Huilmands' movements in a claustrophobic black and white quasi-photographic space. The static shots and the wall against which she performs along with the dramatic use of music, convey the sense of a constricted space limiting and conditioning the dancers movements.
I found that there was something mesmerizing about the experience of feeling my eyes examine and take in these works together, jumping from one screen to another in order to follow the differently scaled dancers entering and exiting the various frames that coexist in this cinematic gallery space. The energy emanating from the performers and dancers in the films is palpable and I felt their presence in an almost tactile way.
As the curators note in discussing Face à face by Eric Pauwels (1989): "Filming dance often brings up the basic questions of cinema: where should the director position the camera and how should it move? When and how should the director edit the recorded material? Filming dance means dealing with a contradiction: showing the performance in its choreographic dimension, in its duration, but also rewriting the body of the dance in the movement of the camera, in the editing." STEP UP! Chapter 1 is a welcome opportunity to experience the creative ways in which different practitioners have addressed and answered these questions in Belgium and I'm looking forward to more.
Argos Center for Art and Media, Werfstraat 13 rue du Chantier, 1000 Brussels, Belgium.