42 Choreographers Perform Chain of Dances in Exquisite Corps
“Exquisite Corpse” is the practice (or game) that finds one artist or writer (or player) picking up where the previous one left off. I write and pass it to you and you have only my last words as a jumping off point, or you draw and fold the paper over and pass it to me and I have to continue the drawing based only on the little bit I can see.
Filmmaker and professor in OSU’s Department of Dance Mitchell Rose’s take on this process is Exquisite Corps, a dance film in which 42 American contemporary choreographers pass a dance along, one to the next. Each choreographer starts his or her movement with the action or position that ended the previous dance. The dances are just a few seconds long and happen in different locations, with the camera seamlessly connecting them.
The short film plays like a who’s who of American contemporary dance of the past forty years. Of course, it’s a who’s who of a pretty rarefied world; these aren’t household names for the average So You Think You Can Dance? watcher, or even for Alvin Ailey and Mark Morris fans. But for the seasoned viewer, it’s a string of tiny delights—Oh, I haven’t seen Sean Curran in so long! Oh, he got Dendy! He got Meredith Monk! Seeing these remarkable artists each make a succinct movement statement, and how they transform the imperative of their assigned beginning into signature dancing in the space of a few seconds, is immensely satisfying.
When I try to assume the eyes of someone for whom all these dance-makers are unfamiliar, the experience shifts. Some of the dancing starts to assume a sameness: a lot of slashing arcs and quirky elbows. In that kinetic landscape, David Dorfman’s exuberance and Elizabeth Streb’s extreme action really stand out. As a hypothetical outsider to the world of contemporary dance, I find myself more engaged with the constantly shifting scene than the movement itself, and with the way that many of the vignettes manage to give full, evocative impressions of character and personality. I think of elegant and wry Bebe Miller and wild Kate Weare, and wonder what has driven Eiko Otake to such a frantic state. I imagine that the interior residential shots are in these choreographers’ homes, and that I’m seeing them in usually private spaces, surrounded by objects they have chosen for themselves.
As with Globe Trot, Rose’s other dance film that follows a movement thread as it is passed from dancer to dancer across disparate locations, this film cares about place. The movie is as much about interesting spaces as it is about interesting people and their movement. Very few of the choreographers are in dance studios, and none are on stage. Instead there are narrow spaces that recede: galley kitchens and corridors, and Stephen Petronio within the confines of a construction zone. There are complicated landscapes, both natural and built, through which the choreographers make their way. There are walls and fences that act as backdrops. Annie-B Parson looks like she’s in my basement and Susan Marshall is seen through a window frame, under a pergola, but the camera treats all of these settings—from the banal to the poetic—lovingly. They all look intriguing.
The exquisite corpse game belongs to the choreographers, but other forces do intervene. The camera is usually neutral, but sometimes steps in and changes the playing field, as when it tips the world ninety degrees, helping Brian Brooks match the horizontal orientation that Daniel Ezralow passed to him. Sound is a player too; the music by Robert Een seems politely ambient early in the film but becomes propulsive and urgent by the end. Finally, the world of the game collides here and there with the world around it, as when oncoming traffic threatens Victoria Marks’s dance, or kids playing in the sand eye Ann Carlson dubiously. With so many elements in play, the choreographers aren’t totally responsible for the net effect of their linked dances, but they are the odd gems in this exquisite dance necklace.