Slo-mo video of dancers brings Big Apple cachet to the Hop

by Joseph Debonis | 6/24/08 2:24am

Students stopped in their tracks, cars passing on Wheelock Street slowed to a hesitant and curious crawl and impressed local residents retrieved their lawn chairs to gaze at "Dancing" as it debuted Sunday night. Following a discussion with Michalek regarding the creation of his well-known and highly regarded installation, three colossal screens were switched on, flooding Hanover with free art from 8:30 p.m. to midnight.

What those three, 15-foot screens depicted -- and will continue to depict every night of this week through Saturday -- were 43 video-portraits of renowned dancers and choreographers, aged 14 to 90 and hailing from all corners of the globe. Each dancer filmed a five-second clip that Michalek then slowed to create a video lasting eight-12 minutes. As it appears to the viewer, each dancer is moving at less than one one-hundredth of his or her original speed.

This type of hyper-slow-motion on such an immense scale was achieved using state-of-the-art, high-speed and high-definition cameras that shoot at 1000 frames per second -- as opposed to standard video, which records at 30 frames per second. The technology, still in its infancy, had previously been used for military ballistics tests and crash simulations, among other less artistic endeavors.

The three towering screens display what is, for Michalek, the ideal amalgamation of dance and portraiture -- the former being one of his passions and the livelihood of his wife, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet who is also featured in "Dancing." Michalek is a photographer by trade, having worked as an assistant to Herb Ritts throughout college before serving regularly as a portrait artist for publications including the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Vogue.

Michalek premiered "Dancing" on the facade of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center in July 2007. As he told The New York Times at its premiere, "I wanted to create a project that could be an advertisement for the idea of dance, rather than any one kind of dance ... Something that could ultimately be shown anywhere and everywhere." The exhibited arrived in Hanover for its New England premiere after traveling to Los Angeles in September 2007 and being shown at festivals in Toronto, Canada and Venice, Italy this past month.

The use of three screens allows for a dynamic comparison between different dance styles, and Michalek gathered dancers from a variety of backgrounds and types to emphasize the comparison. Everything from ballet and breakdancing to Brazilian capoeira and Javanese court dance is interpreted by Michalek's dancers, who themselves are an eclectic bunch.

Since its debut, "Slow Dancing" has won praise for its innovation. The International Herald Tribune noted that a slow-motion perspective highlights "the way a muscle contracts or expands ... a breakdancer's head spin, the progression of an arabesque, the flutter of an airborne foot, the opening and closing of each dancer's eyes."

Michalek's work isn't just appealing to artsy intellectuals; as he told the TheTimes, "What I've always marveled at is how every human being has the ability to read a face, to read a body. And I think what the dancers' being slowed down does is to reveal all of these beautiful, subtle changes in faces and bodies. This camera allows us to read moments that pass by so quickly they don't register."

With streams of long hair moving as if underwater, colorful fabrics rippling dramatically, fingers curling slowly into determined fists and muscles contracting in ways unfathomable, the moving portraits examine and dissect movement in an almost scientific fashion. The effect is mesmerizing, as evidenced by the transformation of gazing passersby into audience members parked in lawn chairs all night long.

"Slow Dancing" will be featured from 8:30 p.m. to midnight each night of this week through Saturday, June 28. A free interpretive exhibition tour by a Hopkins Center expert takes place tonight at 9 p.m. at the Hopkins Center Outdoor Plaza.