|Fang-Yi Sheu was among three live performers in "Slow Dancing" which incorporated slow-motion videos. (Ben Rudick)|
BECKET - At first, the floor-to-ceiling image projected on the back wall of Jacob's Pillow's Doris Duke Studio Theatre appears to be a still photograph. Indian dancer Shantala Shivalingappa, regal in a traditional peach silk gown, stands legs bent, feet pointing to the side in a stylized posture from the live movement snippet she's just performed onstage.
But ever so gradually, the image seems to breathe, to stir to life. In David Michalek's video-portrait project "Slow Dancing," Shivalingappa's five-second phrase is stretched into a 10-minute video. That might sound tedious, but it's a surprisingly revelatory experience for the attentive. In real time, the naked eye can perceive only so much. In Michalek's hyper-slow-mo world, we can see how a seemingly simple move requires remarkable effort, how muscles prepare for a jump or a foot rebounds when it reconnects with the floor. The result celebrates the stunning beauty of the human form, both in motion and in stillness.
Michalek's high-speed, high-definition camera, which was developed by NASA, shoots a whopping 1,000 frames per second. This allows Michalek to play back video many times slower than real time with crystalline clarity, allowing for the perception of extraordinary detail in movements ranging from the seemingly simple to the obviously complex.
"Slow Dancing," which features videos of more than 40 dancers, premiered at Lincoln Center last year and has been presented elsewhere several times since then. But this exclusive Pillow program is the first theatrical presentation pairing three video portraits with live performances by three distinctly different dancers, chosen to help "democratize" dance in all its rich variety. Between videos, Pillow scholar Suzanne Carbonneau interviews Michalek and the dancers about the process.
Modern dancer Fang-Yi Sheu, considered one of the finest interpreters of Martha Graham's work, said she found viewing the slow-motion dance of herself "very scary" in how much it revealed, but also "contemplative." Her video portrait offered a study in gravity and hydrodynamics. She asked for a costume that looks like "moonlight on water." It's an apt description for the cream-colored satin that flowed like liquid silver with every move. Undulations cascaded up and down her body like great waves, her long hair flying like sea spray. In slow motion, it was sheer poetry.
The most revealing portrait was of longtime Merce Cunningham dancer Holley Farmer. In her live performance, her flurry of off-kilter kicks and bends, with limbs and head etching five different planes at once, flew by in a barely perceptible whirlwind. In the video, it was apparent how complex and almost preposterously convoluted the phrase was, highlighting Farmer's remarkable agility and precision. She was clad only in spaghetti-strap leotard and tight shorts, and her bare arms and legs came into vividly sculpted relief.
The icing on the cake came with live solos by each dancer. Sheu performed Bulareyaung Pagarlava's lyrical "Song V," and Farmer danced excerpts from the Cunningham repertoire. Shivalingappa performed a modern-inflected solo by Savitry Nair sitting on the floor, her back to the audience, light dancing off bare shoulders that rolled and rippled, fingers that splayed and quivered. The experience of having watched each dancer in heightened slow motion made even the subtlest of moves in real time that much more captivating.