Dancers: Larger (and slower) than life

by Simon de Carvalho '14

"We are here," said Jill Johnson, the newly appointed director of the OFA Dance Program, "to articulate the ideas for which there are no words."

This is about as eloquent a statement of purpose as I’ve heard. Dance can, with motion, get at those particular emotions that just can’t be expressed adequately with words.

But what happens when these movements, flashes of expression, are slowed down about 120 times—when a 5-second burst of dance shot at 1,000 frames per second becomes 10 minutes of completely engrossing, utterly beautiful art? What does that do to the communicative power of dance as a form of expression?

Addressing these questions is the goal of Slow Dancing, a stunning installation by David Michalek that is housed at the Harvard Dance Center through Wednesday, October 5. Johnson will be giving talks on the exhibition 11a.m. Tuesday Oct. 4 and Wednesday, Oct. 5, during which the piece will be open to the public for viewing.

The work features elongated clips of 43 dancers -- among them such luminaries as Trisha Brown, Bill T. Jones, Elizabeth Streb, Judith Jamison and Johnson herself -- who represent a variety of dance genres: modern, ballet, hip-hop and various forms of cultural dance including Sufi whirling. Three of these 10-minute clips are displayed side-by-side on large screens. (For an idea of the scale, see this image from when the piece was exhibited at New York’s Lincoln Center earlier this year.) The order of the segments is random; no two viewings are the same.

For Johnson, this slowing down of dance makes its emotions more accessible: "It gives you insight into what it feels like."

Slow Dancing makes that clear: You can see the dancer’s eyes light up manically on a jump move, the muscles contorting and flexing with motion and passion, and these abstract movements suddenly take on very obvious and very poignant meanings.

Monday's welcoming party for Johnson included Harvard's President Drew Gilpin Faust, OFA Director Jack Megan, Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds and members of Harvard’s 20 student-led dance groups (as well as The Boston Globe).

Amid the conversations, congratulatory hugs and hors d’oeuvres, the slow dancers made their presence felt. My mouth was open in wonder while I stared fixedly at the dancers, when Dean Hammonds approached and said: "Mesmerizing, isn’t it?"

Exactly.

[Caption: Jill Johnson PHOTO: David Michalek ]