AgeingMark

Dr Mark Edward as Moira in ‘What’s the Pointe?’

Excerpt from Exhibition Pamphlet:

Research Imperative

‘Dying Swans and Dragged Up Dames’ advances Newall’s project ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, a photographic exploration of the disruptions between performance photo-documentation and the performance itself. Sontag has stated that performance simultaneously exists and annihilates itself. Newall proposes that the photograph edits and resituates performance by distilling its ephemeral flow into a series of split second moments that the ‘innocent’ viewer (i.e. someone who has not witnessed the performance) then expands out into an imagined performance. There is myth making in this disruption that creates a sort of scar tissue, re-skinning performance: the photographs thus become a false metonym for a performance that never existed. A photograph idealises the heroic dance legend even as the performance itself is past its dance-by-date by freezing one iconic moment: in this moment, inability and fading technique falls away. The capacity of Photoshop to smooth away age is already well known: here its facility to correct technique and to combine several images to create poses that did not exist outside of the digital darkroom is also explored with a view to examining how photography documents nothing but performance myths.

Objective

The documentation and archiving of live performance is an area of contention and growing debate. Newall is a member of the TaPRA Documentation Working Group. Performance photography is an area in which, to date, a small amount of work has been conducted. Newall notes that Dr Joel Anderson at CSSD continues to research relationships between theatre and the photographic image. She explores practically Andrew Haydon’s assertion that stage photography is a poor representation of the shows it purports to represent (Guardian, 26/11/09).

Research Questions:

What if an ageing drag artist were a ballet dancer?
What if ballet dancers continued dancing, and being photographed, well past their dance-by date?
How does photography fail to ‘save’ ephemeral performance?
How does photographic representation foreground presence/absence of dance performance ability?
How does photographic representation of performance deconstruct and reconstruct (fading) ability and body shape?

Equipment:

Personnel
One dancer
One make up artist
One photographer

Costume
1 meter red satin
20 meters white stiff tulle
2 meters sequin printed tulle
White chiffon
White feathers
2 x white swan wings
2 x diamante tiaras
Vintage diamante brooch
Red feathers
2 pairs salmon block shoes
Red dye
Pink satin shoe ribbon
Red satin shoe ribbon
3 meters purple stretch jersey
White vest
White chiffon skirt
White tights
1 x green dress
3 x savoy cabbages
2 x iceberg lettuces
White maribou feather boas
Boots
Kneepads
False eyelashes
Make up
2 x black wigs
2 x short retro highlighted wigs
1 x long blonde wig
1 x red wig
Glue gun
Stapler
Clothes pegs
Gaffa tape
Safety pins
Trampolene

Photographic Equipment
Canon EOS 5D MkII
Manfrotto Tripod
Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8 L IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8L II USM Lens
Canon 580EX II Speedlite Flash Unit
Canon Speedlite 430EX II Flash Unit
2 x Rogue Flashbender Light Flags
2 x PocketWizard 433MHz Plus II
1 x PocketWizard 433MHz Plus III
2 x lighting stands
3 x Gary Fong Light spheres
MacBook Pro
Wacom Intuos4 Graphics Tablet
Lightroom 5
Photoshop CC
Color Efex Pro 3.0

Method:

Iconic performance images were sourced via the internet; film stills; dance performance texts. Assessment was made of what was needed to reenact images, in terms of costume, make-up, camera equipment. Each shoot took place in either the Rose Theatre, the Studio Theatre, or the black box studios in the Arts Centre rehearsal rooms. Choices of location depended on such considerations as the requirement for natural light, or lack of it; or height for leaping on the trampette. Costumes were constructed in the shoot with lengths of unstitched satin, feathers, cabbage leaves, lengths of gathered tulle, and lots of pins. On one shoot, the make-up artist also held cloth out of shot to produce the desired effect. Images were lit using Canon Strobe lights, although on one occasion natural light streaming in from a window was also used. On another occasion, theatre lighting was used in addition to the Stobes. Reflectors – white cloths, white card – were sometimes used to bounce light. For some images, several different shots were required to construct the finished picture in Photoshop: for example; the image of Moira in What’s the Pointe? consists of five different shots taken in the studio, with a background, dance floor and shadows created and composited entirely in Photoshop.

Digital Process

Raw images were downloaded, selected for editing, and then taken through Lightroom 5 before being composited and re-edited in Photoshop CC. Some images have up to 40 layers to achieve the final image on display here. Certain images were taken into further a editing suite, Color Efex Pro 3.0. Images were then printed and mounted by Moorfields Photographic, Liverpool.

Outcomes

Paper: ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: Interim Symposium, Documentation Working Group, University of Kent, 2011.
Conference paper: ‘The Beautiful Failure of Photography’, TaPRA, University of Kent, 2012.
Poster Presentation: ‘Dying Swans and Dragged Up Dames: a Photographic Exploration of the Ageing Body’, international congress, Tanz in Der Zweitenlebenshalfte, Düsseldorf, 2013.
Conference paper ‘Dying Swans and Dragged Up Dames’:, TaPRA, Scottish Conservatoire, University of Glasgow, 2013.
Exhibition and presentation ‘Dying Swans and Dragged Up Dames’:, TaPRA, Scottish Conservatoire, University of Glasgow, 2013.
Article: Animated: The Community Dance Magazine: Autumn 2013; ‘Dying Swans and Dragged Up Dames’. Available online: http://www.communitydance.org.uk/DB/animated-library/dying-swans-and-dragged-up-dames.html?ed=31348
Exhibitions: The Arts Centre, Edge Hill University, October – November 2013; Bank Street Gallery, Sheffield, spring, 2014

Conclusion/Reflections/Findings:

This project set out to answer certain questions. But as we worked, others inevitably arose. This attempts to address the initial questions and offer others.

So what if an ageing drag artiste were a ballet dancer? And what if ballet dancers continued dancing, and being photographed, well past their dance-by date? The answers/findings are in the images on the wall. This is where, in the methodology of Practice as Research, the outcomes are embedded into the process and product of the project in art and/or performance. I could write an exegesis of each image, but this I think would lessen the impact. I prefer to ask: what do you see rather than tell you what I think you ought to see. And the next question has to be: is it so very terrible to look at images of a less than perfect body performing and dancing? The body fascism – of dance, performance, photography, the media – in recent years means that these are the people we do not see. Where are the normal people? Where are the older dancers? Body fascism is alive and well on Twitter and the internet: in 2013, fat women and gays were barred from taking part in the ‘discussion’. This did not deter them (see Andri Antoniades: ‘”Fat Shaming Week” is horrible but the responses to it are genius’ [accessed: 16/10/13]).

I noted more and more, as I sourced potential images for this project, how theatre performance photography closes in on faces, preferably ones that are emoting, signifying performance: the performer in the wider, full stage context of scenography (lighting, costume, set, space) is featured less frequently. If photography is a documentation of performance, then this information is lost when selection choices are made by:

photographers as they shoot
directors/actors selecting portfolio shots
marketing departments

Perhaps there is an awareness that the human face draws the viewer in. Anecdotal evidence suggests that theatre marketing using images of people is more successful than marketing using abstract or people-free images, but more work would definitely be needed to support this fully!

Dance performance photography, however, tends to feature the architecture of the body, either in solo performance or with a partner or ensemble. Emotion here is embedded in the structure of the body rather than in the face (although this does feature too). It is this repeated capture of the pinnacle of a dance structure that has enabled Elena Daprati, from The University of Rome, to examine  over time the increasing leg extensions of different ballerinas performing in The Sleeping Beauty at The Royal Opera House, London, thus showing that ballet is not the rigid codified system we are led to believe it is, but a form that shifts over time according to taste, increasing dancer fitness, and perhaps audience preference (2009: online).

Watching and looking; hours of staring at pixels in Photoshop; selecting portions of a shot to composite it with another, led me to ponder on the watching and looking dichotomy. In an unpublished thesis, Joel Anderson cites Diderot:

Theatre is a picture; but it is a moving picture whose details one has not the time to examine (Diderot [1758] cited in Anderson, 2008: 12).

Susan Sontag however cites Cartier-Bresson’s notion of photography as “fast seeing” and him moving away from the fast photography of seeing to a slower way of seeing in painting (Sontag in Wells 2003: 64). Certainly when people shoot at sites, on holidays, at concerts, I wonder if this is a kind of future insurance about existence and ‘being there’: they can prove they were there, but they can also look for longer at leisure later. For now they need only hold up their cameras or increasingly their phones… I am reminded of a section in Don De Lillo’s novel White Noise concerning The Most Photographed Barn in America (2008: 12).

Diderot also notes the elimination of rhythm and silence that accompanies the photograph. Silence interests me. We see the image minus the score or soundscape. The absence of a narrative of sound allows other connections. What photography enables us to do is to stop the flow of the performance and see images that were not choreographed for looking but for watching… With the performance stopped, and the score killed, the brain stops watching and starts looking. (I like the play on the word stop and shoot as well: I am stopping up and down with my camera in manual as I shoot performers, stopping them in their tracks; killing the flow of their movement: pinning them down like butterflies into glass Photoshop cases…). When we start looking and stop watching, we are open to speculation, as Anderson notes, which exists outside of the frame of the original performance.

It occurred to me that the formal poses of ballet always show the apotheosis of a leap or a phrase, rarely the ‘getting into’ or the ‘landing and recovery’ of a leap or arabesque. While this information is available in film and video footage, I have already suggested (as have several other commentators) that we watch dance and we look at photographs. This fundamental difference means that we encode in images what dance ‘looks like’ in terms of its micro-moments rather than preparation and recovery. There is a further binary here of absence/presence in the necessary things dancers do to achieve a leap (which is photographed) and the landings they make (which are not). Does this imply that there are things we ‘see’ in a performance and things which we subliminally ignore? Or is dance better at hiding what we see more explicitly in performances of skill – circus, sport – where the performer preparing to balance/leap/fall is most often not hidden but part of the build up to a demonstration/celebration of skill.

I began to think of the process of asking Mark to repeat certain moves (over and over again) as micro-performances: there was a pose we needed; it was iterated and re-iterated. He performed or iterated a move rather than posing it, although in itself, as a re-enactment, it was already a re-iteration. I also began to note, staring into the LED screen of the camera and at the shots in Lightroom while selecting the ones to edit, that the poses where Mark moved into position and out of it were more authentic than ones posed with the body frozen. Perhaps this is because in the still, posed body there is no before and no after in the muscles. Or perhaps this is a displacement between what the dancer thinks is happening at certain points in a dance phrase, and what subconsciously and somatically happens in the body as it moves through these points: the body remembers more than the mind. It occurred to me also, however, as I took pictures of Mark, how his mind remembered what the body should be doing, and he could isolate actions in limbs for the camera to capture; but age, and weight militated against the combination of these things in action. And here Photoshop could recreate his ability from years past. These are recreations, reenactments of other performers; but also reenactments of what Mark could once do. Does this make these images inauthentic?

The displacement between frozen posing and images taken in action might make it difficult to truly assess what is happening in older images of dance performers, such as Nijinksy and Pavlova, where contemporary camera technology required them to hold poses for focus rather than ‘dance’ into them as we were doing.

Like fiction, Photoshop can therefore lie to tell a kind of truth. I begin, more and more, to think in terms of Auslander’s notions of photographs that show what happened – he cites “Shoot”, Chris Burden – and theatrical ones which offer something which happened but only in the mind of the viewer – he cites Yves Klein “Leap into the Void” (Auslander, in Jones, 2012: 47). (See also Jonathan Jones, 15/10/13 ‘The Tony Blair ‘selfie’ Photo Op will have a place in history’, The Guardian.)

In any case, Frederick Jameson is suspicious of all photography as a form of what really happened:

One is also tempted to say that in another sense there is no photographic realism as such – all photography is already “modernist” insofar as it necessarily draws attention (by way of framing and composition) to the act by which its contents are “endowed with form,” as we used to say in the modernist period (2007: 263).

Bibliography

Anderson, J. (2008) Theatre Performance Photography: Documentation and the ‘Unlive’, Unpublished Thesis: Queen Mary.University of London, available: The British Library.

Antoniades A. (2013) ‘”Fat Shaming Week” is horrible but the responses to it are genius’
http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/10/12/womens-rights-fat-shaming-week?cmpid=tp-ptnr-upworthy, [accessed: 16/10/13].

Auslander, P. ‘The Performativity of Performance Documentation” in Jones, A. & A. Heathfield. (eds.) (2012) Perform, Repeat, Record, Bristol: Intellect.

Bland, A. (2010) ‘Point Omega by Don DeLillo’, The Independent online,
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/point-omega-by-don-delillo-1915547.html [accessed 16/10/13].

Daprati, E., Iosa, M., & Haggard, P. (2009). A Dance to the Music of Time: Aesthetically-Relevant Changes in Body Posture in Performing Art PLoS ONE, 4 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005023.

De Lillo, D. (2008) White Noise, London: Picador.

Jameson, F. (2007) Signatures of the Visible, London: Routledge.

Jones, J. (2013) ‘The Tony Blair ‘selfie’ Photo Op will have a place in history’, The Guardian online,
http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/oct/15/tony-blair-selfie-photo-op-imperial-war-museum?CMP=twt_gu [accessed: 16/10/13].

Sontag, S. in Wells, L. (ed.) (2003) The Photography Reader, London: Routledge.

Don DeLillo: White Noise Excerpt
Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.
A long silence followed.
“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.
We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”
Another silence ensued.
“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.
He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?”