Bodies in Motion

Video, dance, painting and drawing combine at the UA to break down barriers between art forms

Two walls in middle of the Union Gallery at the UA are covered with a grid of charcoal sketches.

The lively little drawings are abstract--they're nothing more than black line against white--but you could swear that the loops and bobs and dives represent dancers. You'd be tipped off, of course, by the dozen video screens around the room running images of dancers at rest and dancing. And by the digital documentary of a dance by UA Prof. Doug Nielsen that repeats in a continuous loop on a screen in a corner.

Still, the drawings construct such accurate chronologies of movement that even without the dance cues, it's easy to see they were inspired by bodies in motion.

The bodies in question belong to a dozen young dancers in training. A year ago, UA fine arts grad student Chris McGinnis asked Nielsen if he could sketch the students in the popular professor's modern-dance classes. Nielsen immediately agreed.

"I invite that," says Nielsen, who prides himself on mixing media. "I always like art and photography students to come (to class)--as long as they don't ask us to stand still."

There's not much chance of that in his fast-paced classes, where dozens of young students rapidly pick up his dance combinations and sail across the floor in his wake. McGinnis' sketches capture their speed, and on his sheets of paper, the dancers literally dissolve into pure line.

Last fall's first casual encounter between art student and choreographer, and between visual artist and dancers, morphed also into an ambitious collaboration. Called Facing Front, it grandly tries to break down barriers between art forms.

The exhibition is tucked into the far northeast corner of the UA Student Union, a poorly designed building that's a maze of dead-end spaces and stairways to nowhere. But it's worth a journey (study the building maps carefully) to see the show's multiple components--McGinnis' dance-inspired paintings and drawings; digital videos capturing fragments of a dance Nielsen premiered last fall; and two improv dance performances in the gallery next week.

During the mini-concerts next Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, the audience will be invited to break the usual protocols of the theater.

"You don't have to sit there and shut up," Nielsen advises. "People can photograph it, or be on the cell phone, or talk or walk around. You don't view a painting from a chair. Why not view a dance standing up?"

During the performances, the dancers will riff off the visual art on the walls. There's much more than the fine sketches. Once McGinnis had those initial drawings, he went back to the art studio to re-create their movement in large-scale paintings that investigate line, layer and color.

Odd as the Union Gallery is, it works for Facing Front. The charcoal drawings are pinned onto a permanent kiosk-like structure in the middle of the space. The nine big mixed-media paintings are hung along the edges of the irregularly shaped room, and the video display monitors are stationed below the paintings. The dancers will be able to move around the kiosk, in a kind of giant circle.

The engaging paintings work even when dancers are not cavorting nearby. Kinetic combinations of oil paint, spray paint, charcoal and Conté crayon, they're energetic abstractions on paper and wood. Like the drawings that inspired them, they're all about movement, with great slashes of color sailing diagonally across space, and semi-circles slicing through layers.

Most of McGinnis' paintings use a disciplined, limited palette. "Abstract Motion in Phthalo Blue" is dominated by the shrill sea blue of the title--a diva among colors--with the more subdued white, ochre, sienna and black taking secondary parts. A giant curve of blue-brown swoops across the top, while wide brush strokes of powder blue sashay down the left side.

"Natural Motion" is a surprising celebration of lawn green, touched by white and gray; its colored lines cavort like snakes in the brush or plants in the wind. "Untitled Motion #1," in white, phthalo and brown, has the added touch of letters stenciled in gold. Not surprisingly, the only word I could make out was "motion."

All the paintings, most of them big at 4 by 6 feet, have an appealing worked surface, with bristle tracks, paint drips and drawing materials--charcoal and oil stick--mixed with the paint. Though all of them are about movement, only one moves into narrative.

"Fiesta Mural" is a 12-foot-long oil on wood, divided up into eight separate panels; a whirl of ruffled skirts, it's an homage to Mexican folklorico dance. A loose figure of a male dancer is at center, hands behind his back; spread across two panels, he's barely visible in the divide between them.

He's the only dancer distinguishable in McGinnis' paintings, but he has ample company in the monitors nearby. The video images, from "The Habit of Facing Front," the Nielsen dance that premiered last fall, alternate between dancers dancing and dancers at rest.

Inspired by Andy Warhol, he says, Nielsen shot "five-minute screen tests" of the students' faces. The blink of their eyes and the changing of their expressions, proved, Nielsen says, that "there's no such thing as nothing." And these subtle gestures are given the same weight as the actual dancing.

Each student was also photographed performing elegant solo movements, with the women each dressed in just a black dance bra and trunks, and the men just in trunks. The piece, he says, is a "study of the body."

It's also a study of art in the age of modern media. Digital artist Dan Howarth manipulated the moving images on a computer, and during the concert last October, the TV monitors showing the dancers competed on stage with the real-life dancers. One dancer even wore a webcam on his back. So the audience had a choice: "They could watch it on TV or watch it live."

Similarly, at the upcoming improv concerts, the audience can watch the video monitors, watch the live dancers or, once again, watch "one dancer with a TV on his back."

The choreographer has had a distinguished dance career, and last year won a national award from the American Dance Festival. But he has never limited himself to dance. On a recent trip to London, he immersed himself in theater, he says. His loft apartment is brimful of his collection of contemporary paintings and photographs.

"I do have a strong interest in fine arts. That's my passion. It was really wonderful to work with Chris." At the university, he adds, "I'm trying to get more people to cross over, from film, from biology, from architecture."

But he's relished the way Facing Front has pointed up the distinctions between visual art and the ephemeral art of dance. Painting may conjure movement, and video may record it, but nothing can ever really capture dance.

As Nielsen says, "It happens once, and it's gone."

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