Toronto’s Images Festival turned its gaze toward dance and movement-based works this year, with two visionaries of contemporary dance – Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer – playing important roles. Always a source for challenging, weird and wonderful moving image culture, in its twenty-third year the Images Festival presented film, video, media installations and multimedia performances at almost two dozen venues throughout the city.
While the festival ran from April 1st through 10th, some installations continue much longer, giving dance enthusiasts a chance to still catch these works. For instance, the exhibition “Hypnagogia” by Danish artist Joachim Koester at The Power Plant continues until May 24th. Meaning the threshold between consciousness and sleep, “Hypnagogia” contains three 16mm films that overlap ideas of automatism from the disciplines of dance and experimental film. Koester explores what he calls “the fringes of the body” through unconscious states, hypnotic movements and loss of control. Koester’s “Tarantism” (2007) depicts a group of dancers convulsing and gyrating with the symptoms of a spider’s bite, a riff on the folk tradition of the tarantella. Koester pairs the dance film with “My Frontier is an Endless Wall of Points (after the mescaline drawings of Henri Michaux)” (2007) a mesmerizing loop of hand-drawn animation. Black squiggly lines quiver across the screen, in a graphic reiteration of the dancers’ movements. Unfortunately, I was unable to see the third film, “To navigate, in a genuine way, in the unknown necessitates an attitude of daring, but not one of recklessness (movements generated from the Magical Passes of Carlos Castaneda)” (2009).
At Gallery TPW until April 24th, visitors can witness the last film made with Merce Cunningham shortly before his death in 2009 at the age of ninety. Berlin-based British filmmaker Tacita Dean’s film “Craneway Event” bears witness to three days of rehearsal in an abandoned Ford Motors factory situated in the dockyards of San Francisco. Shot on 16mm anamorphic film stock and saturated with the golden sunlight of California, Dean’s film captures the purity of bodies moving through the factory’s vast glass-box space, as well as more intimate moments between Cunningham and his dancers.
The strength of Cunningham’s pioneering choreographic vision and the respect that his dancers hold for him is undeniable in this film. They sit on the floor, as eager as young children at the foot of their favourite teacher, as Cunningham sits in a wheelchair giving directions on formations and patterns. “Craneway Event” displays many of Cunningham’s influential choreographic techniques including chance procedures, formalism and the abandonment of narrative. In the final sequences, the dancers perform his piece without music, re-animating the industrial history of the building with their mechanical movements and the echoing sounds of their feet banging and squeaking on the floor. A few small sailboats, tugboats and a mammoth tanker ship perform their own choreography in the harbour, visible behind the dancers through the glass walls of the factory.
Yvonne Rainer played her influence on the festival in person, with a keynote address to the Experimental Media Congress, a four-day conference hosted by the Images Festival. Rainer started her career as a dancer but moved into filmmaking and video in the 1970s, and in recent years she has returned to choreography. Through all these creative endeavors she has continued a focus on formal experimentation and the expressive body, and has grappled with identity politics and feminist theory.
Speaking with Canadian filmmaker John Greyson, Rainer focussed her lecture largely on her film career but traced back some of the techniques and themes in the films to ideas first explored in dance. For instance, she credits her technique of “radical juxtaposition” to early dance works, such as a piece she created for herself and Trisha Brown, which contrasted ballet arabesques with strip-tease bump and grinds.
Not many formalist/feminists are known for their sense of humour, but Rainer proved to be rather a funny woman. Her Beckett-like absurdity was evident in her film works and in the lecture, which included several surprise performative interruptions by members of the audience. She claimed, “I can’t take myself very seriously but it goes with having not easy times. Humour is a way to end-run around your worst tendencies like nostalgia or self-pity.” Some of those not easy times include her battles with breast cancer, which she addressed in her last feature film “Murder and Murder” (1996). Rainer presented a scene from “Murder and Murder” wherein two middle-ages lesbians perform a boxing match, which Rainer described as a “literalization of the difficulties in their relationship.” The characters comically spar over domestic issues until Rainer dramatically interrupts the campy scene by turning the camera on herself. Also dressed as a boxer, she bares her post-surgery chest and recounts the diagnosis and treatments she underwent in a direct and emotional address.
Following Rainer’s lecture was a program called “Revenge of the Theory Persons, or Don’t Just Sit There, Gentle Presence” at the Polish Combatants Hall, which included Rainer’s “Hand Movie” (1966). Made when Rainer was recovering from an earlier illness that impacted her mobility, the film shows a hand’s sensuous but minimal movements. Paired with other works by Babette Mangolte (Water Motor), Ursula Mayer (The Lunch in Fur), Rakahiko Iimura (Rose Color Dance), Nancy Garcia (Jugband) and Miranda Pennell (Drum Room) this program was curated by former Artistic Director of the Moving Pictures Festival Kathleen Smith with Toronto-based German artist Oliver Husain.
Not since the conclusion of the Moving Pictures Festival in 2006 has there been such a concentration of experimental dance-on-film and movement based works in Toronto. This year’s Images Festival was a reminder of how well explorations in contemporary dance and experimental cinema can dovetail, producing enriching collaborations.