MAn oeuvre-centric film in an art gallery doesn’t usually mean cool fight scene choreography or toe-tapping beats. Historical standards – for example 1960s and 70s mavericks like Bruce Nauman pacing his studio on camera, or Judson Dance Theater’s study of dance in everyday life – usually have austere aesthetics and cerebral appeal. The Whitechapel Gallery’s upcoming exhibition Moving Bodies, Moving Images exhilarates work, then, doing something new. “It’s often very cinematic,” says Lydia E, a curator of films that feature dazzling drag artists, human-plant hybrids and girls with superpowers performing stylized martial arts.
A striking example is Hetain Patel’s superhero riff Trinity, in which a young British Indian woman channels the voices of her ancestors to develop special powers: a forgotten medium of communication combining kathak dance and kung fu. Co-written with Louise Stern, who is deaf, the project came in part, says Bolton-born Patel, from a sense of being misunderstood, not least of “growing up being misunderstood by my appearance – realizing my body speaks in ways I have no control over.” Do, like the color of my skin”.
Moving Bodies … promises to be a showcase for this moment in other ways, including our need for physical expression and solidarity in a world emerging from lockdown. This is especially true of artist and choreographer Eric Minh Cuong Casting’s series Form(s) of Life videos. The two people she collaborated with – former boxer Kamel Meseleka (who had a stroke) and dancer Elise Argaud (who has Parkinson’s disease) – usually spend their days being cared for indoors.
Our connection to the natural world is another thread, as in Igle Budvitite’s eco-science fiction vision of young men navigating lichen forests and sand dunes as fungi grow on their bodies and seem to mutate and merge with trees and rocks. “There is a sense that we are not separate from this environment; They are us and we shape them,” says Ye. The location is also the focus of Alia Farid’s extraordinary work, At the Time of, a poetic documentation of Iranian fishermen celebrating the summer solstice and shot on the Persian Gulf island of Kesham, an important region for the global oil trade. Yet Farid’s camera captures a community seemingly cut off from the modern world in fragments that can seem both familiar and strange: masked figures in tall straw hats dance and parade in animal costumes; In a narrow pink room a young man is performing a dance – a traditional way of welcoming guests.
Dance becomes a platform for exploring the push and pull between personal identity and larger cultures and traditions in Barbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burka’s Fudge Que Vai (Set to Go), the exhibition’s most evocative work. Working closely with gender-fluid dancers, the artist duo created their portrait of Frevo, a carnival dance in the Brazilian city of Recife. In what artists call “forgotten and abandoned” urban spaces, performers work magic. As a pose is struck, a sequined backside shakes or an umbrella flies to an outstretched hand, and the traditionally heterodox dance transforms. While dancers can make frevo their own by mixing in voguing or samba, artists point out that dance also defines them.
“Each generation brings its own knowledge and experience,” Wagner and De Burka said. “The beauty of it is that Fravo transforms them like no other way.”
Four acts from the show…
Heten Patel’s Trinity (2021), Original Picture
“The fighting language in Trinity was created as a meeting place between martial arts and sign language,” says Heten Patel, who collaborated with a deaf screenwriter on his film in which a young British Indian woman develops strength. “Although I’m a fan of kung fu films, I often wish they did more. [In the film] It is the renaissance of the first human language – the language of empathy, the language of deep connection between people.”
At the Time of the Eve by Alia Farid, 2019
Shot on an island in the Persian Gulf, Alia Farid’s film captures ancient summer solstice festivals that seem out of time, yet also have unexpected resonances with experiences around the world. He says he is interested in “making visible the rift between land, identity, culture”.
Barbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burker’s Fudge Que Vai (Set to Go), 2015
A traditional dance unfolds before our eyes in the portraits of the four performers of this film. “Ryan Olander is a highly respected traditional Frevo dancer,” said the artists of this portrait. “And Ryan is also Alice, a drag queen who performs Butt Cabello, a dance from that scene in a downtown nightclub. Dancers have, literally, a foot in tradition and a way to survive as an artist in the contemporary pop form.”
Eric Min Kwong Casting’s Form of Life, 2021
Artist-choreographer Eric Min Kwong Kastaing describes his film series in which dancers help patients with degenerative diseases regain movement from their former lives – in this case as a boxer – at the “intersection of mindfulness and choreography”.
Moving Bodies, Moving Images is at the Whitechapel Gallery in London 12 October to 8 January.