Watching dance on film throughout this pandemic has mostly been a frustrating experience. We are desperately seeking a return to seeing dance live, on a stage, with humans moving in front of us; hopefully, to the sound of music also being played live. But given that this has not been possible – albeit for painfully fleetingly exceptions between national lockdowns – we have generally had to put up with film that is either a poor substitute for the lived-in experience or was never intended for public consumption, leaving us with an unvaried, single camera, mid-distance view. Rarely have we had the opportunity to see dance on film in ways that could only be uniquely delivered on our screens.

A Simple Piece
© Daniel Senzek

Congratulations are therefore due to Demis Volpi and Ralph Goertz for this intimate and revealing experience of being up close and personal, literally onstage and amongst these sixteen admirable dancers of the Ballett am Rhein (Deutsche Oper am Rhein's ballet company that alternates between Düsseldorf and Duisburg, of which Volpi is both artistic director and chief choreographer).

Beginning with a close-up of a back wall, the camera moved back slowly through a group of dancers before focusing on one in particular, viewed initially from the back, her shoulders rolling as she stepped hurriedly from leg to leg. Although this is a group piece the camera seems to flirt frequently with this particular dancer (Marié Shimada) who is often front-and-centre in the group choreography.

Carola Volles’ unisex uniforms gave a sense of simple group identity and purpose for the ensemble: tight white tops with half-sleeves and strings of material hanging down from shoulders, arms and backs, above baggy dungaree-style trousers, tightly fitted around the hip and flaring out to accommodate several pockets from which sawdust or other similar material regularly escapes to create a dusty surface on the dance floor.

A Simple Piece
© Daniel Senzek

Volpi’s movement is closely co-ordinated and almost invariably performed in tight unison, with sequences of eye-popping (not to mention hip-popping) leg rotations, led by Norma Magalhães, swinging up into high arabesques; or steadfast balances in arabesque penché; fast shuffling steps from foot-to-foot; rhythmic tapping of their thighs; lying and rolling on the floor; in deep pliés with each dancer’s hands grasping their own ankles; or the whole group making sequences of rapid hand gestures around their lower torsos in sharp synchronisation. Volpi's choreography is inventive and diverse.

Caroline Shaw’s fascinating a cappella Partita for 8 voices frames the work with a sense of joyful and elegant simplicity. Each of Shaw’s four movements is named by a form of Baroque dance (Allemande, Sarabande, Courante and Passacaglia) and the vocal techniques are so rich and diverse that it is hard to imagine that the voice is the only instrument we are hearing. The movements are topped and tailed by spoken text drawn from the late minimalist artist, Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing 305, in a series of instructions for lines to be drawn to connect points in a central vertical axis. Partita for 8 voices won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2013 and, aged just 30, it made Shaw the youngest-ever recipient (she won the award six months’ prior to the composition’s full premiere). As an exercise in conjoined purity in music and dance this was a striking and uplifting experience.

A Simple Piece
© Daniel Senzek

A clever device employed throughout Goertz’’s adventurous film is that the performers’ entrances or exits are never revealed. The camera’s gentle and seamless perambulations always keep the changing permutations of the dancers on stage as a mystery so that, for example, several dancers appear in a pyramid pattern, like a fresh set of snooker balls ready for the break, before the camera moves to reveal a female trio and then morphs again to show a male solo, with the other fifteen dancers magically disappeared.

It is not until almost the end of the 30-minute work that the viewer realises that the performance is taking place on a stage and not a studio and in a poignant finale the camera moves front and back through the performers to focus on the last woman standing before rotating 360° to reveal the theatrical condition of our times: an empty stage facing an empty auditorium as the house lights fade to black.


This performance was reviewed from OperaVision's video stream

Watch the video here
****1