I dip in and out of dead-end alleys, cross scenic bridges, and make sharp turns into streets so tiny that it seems impossible to squeeze through to the other side. There’s only a couple of minutes till closing time, but I am determined to see Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Looking for the Dance exhibition in person at the Contini Art Gallery in Venice.
Mikhail Baryshnikov, as one of the greatest dancers in history, never stays still in his career. He moves between performing, choreographing, acting, artistic direction and patronage of emerging artists. This year, he unveiled his second photographic exhibition at the Contini Art Gallery in Venice, and it is more than wonderful.
True to a dancer’s attention to line, detail, and movement, he portrays the dancers in motion rather than freezing them in razor-sharp poses. Dance, as an art form, is notoriously difficult to pin down or put into words. Often, after seeing a performance, we can articulate its emotion more than its form or exact content. Our art form is everchanging and elusive, and much of its beauty is in the ephemerality of the stage’s there and then.
Commenting on his own process, Baryshnikov explains his approach:
“Going through some old books of dance photography – notably Alexey Brodovitch’s Ballet, and Paul Himmel’s 1954 Ballet in Action – I discovered that abandoning the crystalline image in favor of blurred edges and amorphous figures approximates the excitement of dance in performances.”
Looking for the Dance takes him to India and Argentina, where social dance forms reveal new things to the dancer’s eye, and in turn pair nicely with the stage works from 2013’s exhibition Dance This Way and Dominican Moves.
The choice to leave the works untitled makes space for the performers and choreography to take center stage, with Baryshnikov’s process melting into the work. It’s almost ironic that as a photographer, he skilfully introduces beautiful distortion to what the eye would ordinarily see, and yet this interpretation gets closer to the core of what the act of dancing feels like.
The above photo captures the unbound, eager body of a contemporary dancer in rapid motion. It’s a type of snapshot that every dancer would be thrilled to receive after performing on stage – a kinetic memory of an ephemeral sentence.
The carnival rehearsal photo is big, bold, and beautiful. It’s hard to discern the exact partners intertwined on the floor. Instead, the sparkling dresses and blue shirts constantly swap places, and the rigorous dancing reaches a fever pitch.
Clement Crisp, the Financial Times’ dance critic, sheds light on Baryshnikov’s ability to capture the kinetic qualities of dance in this exceprt from the exhibition catalogue:
“A dancer photographing dancers – and the dance – has the extraordinary advantage of knowing how the movement “feels”, of sensing it still in his body, of understanding its effects, its intentions, its shape, both in visual terms and in those of the body and the muscular effort and discipline that is making it.”
I was thrilled to experience the trails left behind by the dancers through the eyes of Baryshnikov, and I hope these inspire other dancers to pick up a camera the same way they did with me.