Released on March 15 (almost a year to the day of the first pandemic-era lockdowns), Order in the Eye of the Beholder is a new interactive dancefilm comprising a myriad of videotaped sequences that flow (or not) according to how the viewer responds to a series of onscreen prompts.
User control is a constitutive feature of electronic gaming but foreign to contemporary dance, making this project by the Canadian-born, New York-based indie dance artist Belinda McGuire genuinely innovative.
This is an all or nothing project that presents a way to advance the art form now that all the theatres are closed and opportunities to perform have all but dried up. McGuire has given it her all.
Save for Derrick Belcham serving as director of photography, she is credited with having done everything herself — the choreography, the dancing, the costumes, the cat’s cradle-like set design consisting of a web of string tied round stone pillars in an open-air colonnade. She even did the editing.
To ensure all parts of her project are thoroughly appreciated, McGuire provides a detailed list of instructions as part of the viewing experience: Watch in widescreen format; wear headphones to fully appreciate the soundscape combining the romance of Beethoven, the electronica of Nils Frahm and the long stretches of silence punctuated by ambient street noises. And, crucially, stay put — no exiting or re-entering once the performance has started.
But technology only works when it works.
It’s anyone’s guess as to why this (re)viewer’s interaction with the film was bedevilled by flickers, freezes and other onscreen glitches that threatened to upend McGuire’s stated goal of a seamlessly immersive online experience. After wrestling for more than an hour with a hard drive that refused to dance (Lord, give me patience), out went the rules and in came the iPhone, ever at the ready. The good news? Even on a small screen, McGuire’s film mesmerizes, making it well worth the bother.
The surfeit of filmic techniques aside (varied camera angles, crosscuts, non-linear editing and more), what succeeds in making this digital dance compelling is not the technology but the eloquent body at the centre of the montaging action. Whether onstage or onscreen, McGuire is one to watch.
A consummate dance artist, she embodies bright intensity and mystery, appearing much like a constellation of stars seen at night, to reference one of the film’s more suggestive images. Her gently reaching arms, open palms, rolling shoulders, torquing torso and bare knees that bend suddenly up and descend quietly down, nothing rushed, nothing fussed, are among the hallmarks of a signature dancing style as languidly sensual as it is sharply inquisitive.
McGuire is the film’s star — its raison d’être — but often she performs with her back to the camera, as if wary of revealing too much. Whether glancing up at the sky or an invisible perspective point far in the distance, her gaze is both inward-looking and outward-seeking. Meaning, if that’s the quest, is located not in externals but in the body itself. The feet (clad in running shoes) step forward and back, creating passages of non-momentum suggestive of hesitancy, a reluctance to be anywhere but in the moment. Paradoxically, this ethereality is the film’s mainstay. It is the elusive something now fixed in time. This is its triumph. But there’s more to it than that.
Order in the Eye of the Beholder highlights how shifting perspectives can affect outcomes and create a sense of never knowing the whole story. The title draws attention to how meaning is subjective, often wholly dependent on point of view. In an interactive film like this, where content is fluid if not entirely random, what might be counted as significant or noteworthy ultimately is the result of a momentary gesture, a chance encounter, glimpsed in the blink of an eye without being fully understood. That feeling of uncertainty permeates the film as a whole.
Scenes take place outdoors in a summery park and also indoors in what looks to be a vacant 19th-century Edith Wharton-esque mansion complete with floral wallpaper and a carpeted stairwell allowing for dancing between the bannisters. There are juxtaposing day shots and night shots, bright lights and darkness, visuals that serve deliberately to discombobulate and blur any attempts at logic. Reality itself threatens to become a figment of the imagination. Dancing with her shadow and evoking the Wilis, those white-skirted spirits of the dead who populate the second act of Giselle, McGuire weaves an atmosphere where ghosts and other remembrances of things past continually haunt the present, beguiling perceptions.
That spectral imagery, suggestive of loss, solidifies in a behind-the-scenes sequence that opens up at the end of the film to the viewer who answers “Yes” to the prompt “Are you still here?” which appears after the credits have rolled. The setting is the dance studio where McGuire, not realizing that the camera is still rolling, vents her frustration at having just made a film she doubts anyone will see. Her language is sprinkled with F-bombs and caustic irony as she ponders how she has likely just pulled off the ultimate in a solo dance performance — a dance for one. Her lamentation is poignantly real (where are all the audiences right now?), compelling an unnamed interlocutor to approach from the sidelines to give her a hug. Obviously, she needn’t have worried.
But why does she include this unscripted candid moment of self-doubt in her otherwise intrepid film? The answer just might lie in what she does next. Storming off the rehearsal stage, McGuire gives the finger to the digital eye observing her every move. It’s a gesture of defiance and in a way, it symbolizes the irrepressible creative impulse behind this project, which artfully circumvents the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, breathing new life into a challenged art form.