Michalek’s secular chapel in the daily bustle of Harvard Yard

by Mattie Kahn

It should come as no surprise that Slow Dancing, the brainchild of contemporary artist David Michalek, was not developed overnight. After all, the work is rooted in a deliberateness that goes beyond titular acknowledgment. The piece is comprised of more than 40 video portraits of dancers. Each vignette is displayed on a super-sized screen and in hyper-slow-motion, such that a would-be instantaneous gesture can play out over the course of a full minute or longer. The effect is mesmerizing.

The work’s pacing of 1,000 frames-per-second can be both difficult and pleasurable to watch—an experience that Michalek compares to that of gazing at clouds. Just as a fluffy white mass in the sky can look like an animal or a person or an object, so too can the minute actions of Slow Dancing’s subjects be analyzed and interpreted. The youngest participant in the project is 12-years old. The oldest is 92. Michalek stresses the importance of incorporating different styles of dance as not simply pluralistic, but also as aesthetically interesting. A ballerina’s split-second pirouette drags out across an agonizing span of time, and each muscle’s contraction gets a starring role in its own few moments of screen time. Meanwhile, on a neighboring screen, a break-dancer’s gravity-defying movements change at a glacial, gorgeous step. Creative imagination, says Michalek, lives in that tension. And the work itself is driven by his desire to create "a little oasis of contemplation—a secular chapel—" in the midst of our daily bustle.

Although Michalek began his career as a photographer—working as an assistant to the famed Herb Ritts—and eventually accruing credits in publications such as The New Yorker, Vogue and Interview, his interest in installation art was born early. In 1998, he gave up commercial photography entirely and began challenging notions of technology and art and points of intersection through his multi-disciplinary projects. Slow Dancing premiered at Lincoln Center in 2007. He has shown his work at the Brooklyn Museum, Sadler's Wells, Trafalgar Square, Opera Bastille, and the Venice Biennale, among others.

The Harvard community is already enjoying the fruits of Michalek’s labors as part of the lead-up to ARTS FIRST weekend April 26-29. Michalek’s multi-disciplined dancers are "performing" nightly on the façade of Widener Library between 7 and 11 p.m. Students, as well as passersby, can drop in and sit for as long as they’d like in the informal seating area that faces the Widener steps. And thanks to Dudley House, which opened the limited-run Slow Dancing Café, patrons can enjoy a spot of al fresco dining nearby, replete with small-plates and sweetly faux-flickering tea lights.