Movers and Makers

Edited version of text delivered as part of Bodysurf Scotland’s Movers and Makers Programme: Focus on Katrina McPherson at Universal Hall, Findhorn, in March 2012

Pioneering avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage has written of his own conclusions on the meeting of dance and screen practice, stating that, ‘cinemantic dancing might be said to occur as any filmmaker is moved to include his whole physiological awareness in any film movement – the movement of any part of his body in the filmmaking’ (Brakhage in McPherson, 2001, p.132). Aside from the use of male personal pronoun, there can be little doubt that this observation has particular relevance when considered in relation to Katrina McPherson’s own twenty-year practice.

The first of this evenings pieces, These Three Rooms , was created as part of a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada in 1992. As viewers, we are immediately presented with an architectural and spatial proposition. Elements are set out like the clues in a whodunit: the clean white walls of a gallery-style space; a number of wooden chairs; four performers; a corridor; the suggestion of a domestic interior; a moving camera. The work is recorded from a sweeping, all-seeing viewing perspective, suggestive of a doll’s house, once the front has been hinged open, with the resulting interactions explored in differing configurations.

There are sequences of recognisably pre-choreographed, codified contemporary dance technique. These are explored through the variables of solo, duet, trio and quartet work. Aside from this clearly identifiable strand of content, there are other factors at play within the piece. McPherson weaves together very minimal elements: running, sitting, the close-up of a face, which, I would suggest, trace a clear lineage back to post-modern, Judson-inspired influences. We can also spot some early ‘trademark’ moves: a camera rotates in a clean white room and is positioned to reveal the length of a corridor as a single performer runs, becoming more distanced from the viewer.

As with later work, there is a sense of the viewer being placed both inside and outside of the action at differing times, and of the camera playing the role of agent within the unfolding field of motion.

Arguably, the satisfaction and sense of viewing pleasure in These Three Rooms comes in large measure from an appreciation of formal experimentation: of the way that McPherson manipulates and plays with the elements available to her, with codified dance one important element within this mix, but by no means sole focus.

Pace was created as a Dance for the Camera commission in 1996. Here, elements are pared back to the basics, with a single performer inhabiting a dance studio, where we can catch glimpses of windows, wooden ballet barres and traces of previous movement patterning on a black dance floor.

The work decisively explores alternatives to the conventions of continuity editing. We see the performer in dance practice clothes, which vary over the course of the piece: a white vest; a black zip-up top; a flash of red t-shirt , indicating jumps in timeline and emphasising the inherent artificiality of the construct. It is made very clear to us that we are watching something that has been patched together from a variety of takes. As viewers, we are never presented with a ‘safe’ distanced view of a finished sequence of movement that resembles a live, theatre viewing perspective, where the audience is ‘over there’ watching the dancers, who are ‘over here’. The camera duets with the performer, providing a sense of what McPherson herself has described as ‘being drawn closely into the dancer’s kinesphere, creating the feeling that the two are involved in an intimate, albeit virtual duet’ (McPherson, 2006. p.131).

Much has been written on the issue of kinetic empathy, or kinetic resonance, when watching movement on screen, and recent research suggests that as viewers we are engaging our system of mirror neurons at the level of unconscious, physiological response in a process of ‘moving with’. As engaged viewers of Pace, we experience a choreography of fragmentation and montage, where minimal disclosure of material: an arm, the circling of a leg; a face; dropping to floor level and recovering; an off-kilter turn, sending our own mirror neurons into compensatory overdrive. (Grimes, 2011, p.35)

The work’s title is emphasised by the build of Philip Jeck’s minimal electronic score, and echoed by a layering of the visual edit. This is contrasted with use of stills and  slowed motion, again leaving us in no doubt that what we are experiencing is the product of technologically-enabled mediation.

Moment, which won the Best Screen Choreography award at IMZ Dance Screen Monaco, in 2000, develops and amplifies elements recognisable from previous work.

We see two young, female performers in practice clothes, executing a never fully disclosed movement sequence with a relaxed movement dynamic recognisable as release technique: sometimes in unison and at times moving in and out of contact. Building from an indistinct opening montage of light, abstract shape, and sound, movement elements are disclosed in carefully controlled increments, building a partial picture of a much larger visual environment. In Moment, we are initially allowed only tantalising glimpses of subject matter at close range, so that reading back my own note-taking takes on an abstract quality, ‘elbow/hand/hair/torso/turns’, as we are drip-fed a diet of clues and signifiers.

Repeated anchor points emerge to ground our viewing experience: a windmilling of arms; an s-shaped snaking of hips; the weighted planting of a lower leg, as camera perspective gradually enlarges to give us a sense of surroundings: the wooden balconies and floor of Hackney’s Round Chapel. Signature strategies emerge: a circling camera; the use of stills and slowed motion; the dancers travel the length of a wooden floor, filmed from an overhead perspective and from ground level. A wrist clasp; feet; faces.

The documentary, Adugna, created in 2001, follows the work of a company of young performers in Ethiopia, under the direction of a long-time pioneer of inclusive practice in dance, Royston Maldoom. McPherson and Fildes allow interweaving strands of footage to speak tellingly on behalf of their subject matter. The spontaneous informality of social dance forms is set against the immediately recognisable rigour and formal constraints of a Graham technique class. Muldoom is observed skilfully and good-naturedly cajoling towards technical precision in rehearsal footage, with the control of the white-costumed, performed results presented in eloquent slowed motion.

A dance-familiar eye will find much to recognise, regardless of geographical setting. A community centre audience; a piece based on football; a class of tinies stretch arms, eyes glued front, with a pile of discarded training shoes in a corner. Floor-level dancers, receiving a massage.

McPherson and Fildes also reward the viewer with an extraordinarily memorable  final image. A single dancer, framed against an external African sunset, with a fluttering strand of fabric.

In the next of this evening’s works, Sense-8, which was created in partnership with Manchester-based Touchdown dance in 2001, many of the themes and approaches evident in McPherson and Fildes’ work are developed and elevated to new levels. The piece deals with a representation of Touchdown’s creative processes, combining sighted and sight-impaired performers creating movement through the medium of contact improvisation.

The work begins in darkness, with a threading together of performers voices. Short, isolated phrases as they describe their movement are woven together to create an aural environment, where distinctive cadences and phrases (‘gesturing with her arm’ ‘left and right’) become an entry point for the viewer.

Movement fragments and verbal description begin to coincide, placing the viewing experience deep within the movement environment, as the dynamic fluidity of a male-to-male and male-to-female duet are reconstructed entirely by means of montage edit.

The work also begins to construct a highly sophisticated visual coding system, referencing its own context, by use of documentary or surveillance-style, black-and-white footage, with video time code visible in a corner of the frame. The camera moving on its track is also made visible, as is McPherson, seen discussing options with the dancers, as again, we as viewers are left in no doubt that we are watching both a product and a record of a dual, unfolding process. At differing points within the work, we are clearly on the inside, experiencing the movement with the dancers, while at others we are witnessing the filming from a safely distanced perspective.

Proprioception is the body’s method of sensing displacement and spatial relationships relative to itself. It’s something that dancers use as an invaluable but often unarticulated professional skill. Sense-8 is the work which for me comes closest to capturing this elusive somatic process on screen, and I would argue that this is no small achievement.

The last of this evening’s works is the recent collaboration with Chinese/Tibetan dancer and choreographer Sang Jijia. In There Is A Place, from 2010, McPherson appears to be revisiting the spatial and architectural propositions and concerns of the early work, with a focus on scale, by means of a single performer visible against the starkness of a horizon line. In an interior space – suggestive of an otherwise deserted pink-walled classroom, with a single line of chairs and a beautifully positioned shaft of sunlight – Philip Jeck’s soundscore builds from whispering and spoken word. McPherson’s camera captures the hyper-motility of the performer’s arms and hands. Visual fragments and themes develop into more fully realised episodes: the shadow of socked feet and hands on a wooden floor; the rhythmic journey along the length of a table; a revisiting of the external world and then an opening of arms, and a turn of the head.

The work has been screened at a large range of festivals worldwide. In addition to the sophistication and skill level apparent in its construction, I wonder whether this has to do with the fact that it deals, to my eyes, with the all too rarely-explored issue of maturity. Many years of embodied intelligence and lived experience are evident in the dynamic range of an experienced performer, and in the creative strategies used by the filmmakers to carefully construct a portrait of their encounter.

Chirstinn Whyte 2012

Grimes, K. 2011 The Dance-Adapted Mind Dance Theatre Journal Vol.24 no.1
McPherson, B. (ed.) 2001 Essential Brakhage New York, McPherson & Co.
McPherson, K. 2006 Making Video Dance London, Routledge