"Slow Dancing": A meditation on poetry and beauty

by Alicia Anstead

National Poetry Month is winding down but before the month of literary love comes to an end, I'd like to pause for an ekphrastic moment. That is: A moment in which we consider the use of one art form to illuminate another art form. In this case, I'm talking about Slow Dancing, the hyper-slo-mo video public art installation projected onto Jumbotron-like screens on the facade of Widener Library at Harvard University. After spending the last three nights taking in Slow Dancing -- and you do "take it in" as opposed to "watch it" (more on that later) -- I was suddenly struck last night by how much David Michalek's mashup of movement and film is a vehicle for understanding both dance and poetry.

Poetry is the most succinct type of literary art. The condensed format forces readers to slow down, consider every word, take in the mood, the shades, the nuances. You must give in to poetry, give over to it and let it lead you to revelations. For Slow Dancing, which premiered at Lincoln Center in 2007 in New York City and has since traveled the world, Michalek filmed more than 40 dancers for five seconds each and slowed each clip to 1,000 frames a second. The typical ratio for filming is 30 frames per second -- thus the word "slow" in the title. It takes 10 minutes for each "five seconds" to unfold.

By expanding the moment, Michalek forces viewers to slow down, to consider every movement, to witness the vocabulary of each genre of dance and to enter into a mood, shape, tone, image. If I were teaching poetry or any kind of writing, I'd send all my students to Slow Dancing as an exercise in rhythm and form. And I would further suggest they sit in "the scene" for the entire evening.

Why call it a"scene"? Actually, you don't have to spend three hours at Slow Dancing. You can stroll by and something beautiful and meaningful will reveal itself. But as public art, Slow Dancing (again like poetry) can be both art fix and something much, much larger.

For three nights, I observed both the mesmerizing exhibition of portraits and also the crowds that ebbed and flowed from dusk

until the late-night closing. The first night, an older man waited in the gloaming for the portraits on the white screens to emerge. (The brighter the light, the less visible the portraits.) He had been waiting a while and was worried he wouldn't see the images because he had an 8 p.m. concert to attend. I bumped into him again at 8:45. "What about your concert?" I asked. "I decided not to go," he said. "This is beautiful and exciting."

The next night, I heard two women discussing the possibility of holding a vigil onsite at Slow Dancing for a friend who had just died. "It's very contemplative," said one of the women. "I think people would respond to and feel comforted by how sacred it feels here."

And last night in the rain, I huddled under the columned entry to Widener and watched as passersby slowed and stared, peeking out from their umbrellas as the video dancers and choreographers moved and moved and moved. One man stood alone in the rain -- no umbrella and no apparent awareness of the watery torrent around him -- and took it in.

Each night I had -- and will continue to have -- a new community experience of Slow Dancing. One man alone, a family sitting together for an hour while the kids run around, a group of friends tweeting, students ambling by to study halls or watching the event from their dorm windows. They are all part of the Slow Dancing "scene."

As it is with poetry, so it is with Slow Dancing: You see the detail, and through detail you understand the larger world. "In the way that poetry has the power to distill the zeitgeist of a time in the perfect coupling of words, so too can dance be a mechanism for articulating the human spirit," says Jill Johnson, director of Harvard's dance program and one of the dancers in the video.

Slow Dancing isabout dance, but it's also about vigilance to the experience of art itself and of every imaginative expression and reflection and community it inspires -- whether on Facebook or in Harvard Yard. When we stop and breathe together -- when we take the time out under the stars (or in the rain) in the presence of beauty, we become more human, more ourselves. Just as we do when we read poetry.

Slow Dancing runs nightly 7-11 p.m. through Sunday, April 29 on the facade of Widener Library in Harvard Yard. It is free and open to the public. Families with children and leashed dogs are welcome. A number of activities are planned this week, including random giveaways (such as ARTS FIRST t-shirts and tickets to the Boston Ballet). Events are listed below. Giveaway contests will be announced on Twitter @HarvardArts and Facebook the day of the giveaway.

Additional events:

THROUGH APRIL 29, 6-10 p.m. nightly, Dudley House Slow Dancing Cafe: Viewers can make an evening in Harvard Yard by enjoying a meal outdoors at the Slow Dancing Café before or after viewing the installation. The café will operate in the courtyard in front of Dudley House, weather permitting.

TUESDAY, APRIL 24 1-2 p.m. The Callie Crossley Show, WGBH Radio, 89.7 FM: Callie Crossley and cultural contributor Alicia Anstead talk to Harvard Dance Director Jill Johnson about Slow Dancing.

TUESDAY, APRIL 24 7-8:30 p.m. Lowell House JCR: A conversation with artist David Michalek and Dance Director and Slow Dancing dancer Jill Johnson, moderated by Professor Diana Eck.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 25 7:30-9 p.m. Tercentenary Theatre: Slow Down & Make Your Own S'Mores. Take a break on the last day of classes. Hang out with friends. See cool art. Make S'Mores over an open fire.

FRIDAY, APRIL 27 and SUNDAY, APRIL 29 6:45 p.m. on the steps of Widener Library: Harvard students will perform excerpts from RE:RE:RE:, a dance installation choreographed by OFA Dance Director Jill Johnson.

[Caption: "Slow Dancing" on the facade of Widener Library at Harvard University. PHOTOS: ALICIA ANSTEAD]

[Caption: Early in the evening, images of choreographers and dancers, such as Elizabeth Streb and Bill Irwin, slowly emerge on the screens of "Slow Dancing.". ]