On March 26, StandardVision launched its latest site-specific public art piece, VORTICES, directed by Katherine Helen Fisher with Michael Shedlin, produced by Safety Third Productions. The piece represents another new, innovative and original film in the SV Presents series; an art initiative showcasing the work of creative visual artists working within the community.
VORTICES can be best described as minimalistic movement meets complex patterns in an intricate dance of repetition and variation. The colorfully garbed dancers inhabit the austere desert landscape with impressive athleticism and attack.
We asked Katherine Helen Fisher some questions about the ups and downs of making a choreographed aerial dance film with 12 dancers in the California desert.
Where did the inspiration for the piece come about?
When speaking about inspiration for the films we make, I think it’s important to address practicalities, especially in regards to funding for our projects. It can be so daunting to produce in this medium and most artists I know are flummoxed as to how to actualize their work without going broke personally. So to be completely transparent, what inspired us to create VORTICES was a generous commission!
Our dance film CEILING, which we shot on the Phantom camera in the Angeles Forest, won an award at the San Francisco Dance Film Festival in 2017. I was introduced to a patron at the festival screening who expressed interested in collaborating with Safety Third Productions, the movement-based new media company I run with my husband, creative technologist Shimmy Boyle. I’m always delighted and thankful for opportunities to show the work we make and I think it’s so important to meet and really listen to the feedback of your audience whenever possible. It’s been in meeting people this way that we’ve secured most of the funding for the non-commercial work we’ve produced, far more than through formal grants or “traditional channels”.
Once funding was in place, we reached out to one of our favorite collaborators, photographer and drone cinematographer Sinziana Velicescu. Sinziana’s work has really drawn Safety Third into the elegant minimalism of the Southern California landscape, the desert specifically. The unique perspective Sinziana brings to the screen relies on rigorously composed framing of architectural structure and landscapes with emphasis on color, shape, light and the spatial connection between planes. We thought it’d be really interesting to add choreography into this equation thereby creating a dialectical conversation on forms which could be titled “the human body as framed by landscape”.
Another awesome and fierce lady creative whose work contributed enormously to the mise-en-scene of VORTICES is costume designer Milan DelVecchio. Milan’s personal style was a big inspiration for this movie and greatly contributed to the celebratory feeling of the piece. Her work is just plain cool! We really love the silhouette and the combination of jewel tones she selected for the garments. Her designs amplified the majestic desert landscape in the way they show the effort of the dancers against the wind in a resplendent and voluminous dance of their own!
As a lady director, I’m particularly interested in taking up a new kind of space as women within industries that may have traditionally marginalized female voices in the past. Safety Third as a company is inspired by commissioning the work of lady creators on our productions.
How did your background dancing for Lucinda Childs inform or inspire your approach to choreographing this piece?
For the past ten years I’ve danced in the company of the American postmodern choreographer Lucinda Childs whose compositions are known for their austere minimalistic movements yet complex spatial exploration. In 1973 Lucinda collaborated with experimental filmmaker Babette Mangolte on the film Calico Mingling. Calico Mingling relies heavily on a high overhead shot which has the affect of pulling the ground into the same plane as the dancers within it. In many ways Calico Mingling was our compositional inspiration for the camera work we explored in VORTICES
Because of the elevated vantage points made possible by the drone we shot with in VORTICES, the viewer is free to encounter scenes, encompassing both center and periphery, which are ordinarily beyond reach in a proscenium context. This is what I love about dance for the camera! It’s a medium which allows the audience to visually experience what it is to hurl one’s body though space with a leap or a run! I love it when I watch a dance film and my muscles twitch!
I was also really taken with the shadows of the dancers bodies cast by the sun at mid day onto the ground in Calico Mingling, and we definitely borrowed this visual motif in VORTICES. The shadows serve to multiply the dynamism of the dancers which is really exciting to my eye choreographically. We had ten dancers in the cast but with shadows the cast doubled to 20!
Much of your dance film work keeps bringing you back to the desert, what is it about this environment that you’re drawn to?
I’m totally smitten with the desert! I grew up in inner-city Baltimore and moved to New York city at seventeen to pursue a career in dance. I didn’t even learn to drive until my mid thirties when Safety Third moved from Brooklyn to Downtown Los Angeles, so the experiences I’ve had creating out in the desert since moving to Southern California in 2016 have been some of the most magical of my life! I love the solitude, the heat and the vast, often desolate landscapes. I am particularly enthralled by the industrial vistas you can find out there. It’s a spectacularly vast collision of the man-made and the natural worlds. An enormous power plant sewage pipe will open onto a remote beach of a dying man-made sea, dotted by majestic dead trees holding up enormous abandoned eagle nests. Large bobcat paw prints demarcate the mud roads strewn with black obsidian. Migrant farm workers harvest figs or alfalfa in endless fields. It’s a landscape that is as elegant as it is raw and it puts the drama of our natural world butting up against the man made in high relief.
One of my favorite writers, Robert Penn Warren, has a quote that sums up how I feel about getting way out into the Western desert, that feeling of getting lost as your ambitions shrink to a tiny speck against a huge horizon:
“West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire”.
Did you experience any challenges in making the film? Did you find any unexpected moments of harmony in which all of the elements were working in your favor?
Challenges? Oh my yes! We location-scouted for a weekend. We test shot for a weekend and we shot for a weekend. Three weekends total and many hours of desert roads to and from Los Angeles logged in the process. Our locations were many hours apart which may have been foolish from a producer’s perspective, but our 22-person cast and crew were total rockstars and went along with us on the journey. Despite our best efforts to schedule according to weather, the wind kicked up to well over 15 miles per hour, which posed a big issue with the drone on the weekend of our shoot with the full group of ten dancers. At our Obsidian Butte location, the beach had turned to a sort of mud-covered slip and slide. The dancers and Ronin operator with the RED Camera were biffing flat on their faces left and right. Every member of the crew, and especially the dancers, contributed a literally heroic physical effort to bring this piece to fruition. On our lunch break on day one, our shade structure blew clean away and we ate pickles and tofurkey sandwiches huddling in the sand while a rain storm passed through.
I think the greatest moments of harmony between the crew and the environment came on the second day of filming. We arrived after a two hour drive from 29 Palms and Joshua Tree. In order to get to Soggy Lake, you’ve gotta be willing to off-road a bit, and when we finally arrived at the lake bed it was a windy 40 degrees (not an ideal temperature for dancing bodies). After asking the dancers to perform in conditions I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, I saw the cast really beginning to flag and look exhausted and discouraged. I remembered we had a case of beer in the trunk and I made the best directorial decision of the day, which was to invite the dancers to have a beer! The dancers got into it and, warmed by the suds, gave a really spirited last few run-throughs before we wrapped, which made all the difference in our final cut. Dancing out in the open, as opposed to on a stage, requires much more energy and attention. I was so honored that these extremely talented dancers were able to join us and put their bodies on the line for VORTICES and I’m so proud of the performances they gave in this film.
Can you talk about the visual approach to making this film? Is there a reason you chose to utilize aerial photography for this?
I majored dance and minored in film at NYU and I remember one of my film professors saying that making movies is about taking the viewer to places they can’t reach in their normal lives. I think aerial photography is such a compelling tool in this respect. It reminds us of what it would see if our spirts took flight. There’s something extremely satisfying as a choreographer, to play with the changing overhead angles of the drone camera as it relates to the dance.
The final version of the film features music by composer Anna Meredith. How did the music inspire the choreography and what kind of feeling do you aspire to invoke in the making of this piece with this special soundtrack?
I feel like Scottish new music composer Anna Meredith is defining a new genre in this track from her 2016 album Varmints. Pitchfork said of her debut single “Nautilus”, which we secured from Warp Records as the score for this film, as “ drunk on power and spoiling for a fight”. I love the unabashedly gritty almost brash determination of the track. The horns, as they sit up against the electronic mixed meters, are especially challenging and echo the starkness of the desert landscape: the surreal way sound travels in the desert. The ambitiousness of this track reminds me that vulnerability both within ourselves and toward one another is a strength and not a weakness!
I directed lead dancer and associate choreographer, Eloise DeLuca, to tear though the vastness of the desert as a sort of willful assault on the landscape. Eloise’s individual kinetic willfulness triggers the chain reaction of the the entire dance which I think of as an analogy to the creative process. It’s a rewarding struggle to create!
Do you have any future plans for the film? Any new work coming up that we should look out for?
We are submitting VORTICES to festivals and would love for it to be featured on design or culture blogs, as well as to screen further on media facades like the one on which a trailer of the film was shown last month by Standard Vision at The Marriott Media Facade in DTLA. The full-length film premiered May 2, at the Oh So Slo Music and Film Festival in Canggu, Bali. It’s funny because people frequently ask me what audience or platform we are making these dance films for… I’ve come to think of these pieces as a contemporary version of a Fabergé Egg, which is to say: very carefully constructed decorations. We make them to remind ourselves and our peers that it’s possible to pursue beauty and wholeness even within the context of the astounding instability of the world around us. I’m also drawn to working in screen dance because I think video is the most relevant medium for our time. You look around and there are screens everywhere. I’ve dedicated my life to pursuing this visceral and beautiful form of dance, and capturing in this medium helps bring it to a broader audience.
As for future plans, I’ve recently made the difficult decision to retire from my job touring as a professional dancer so that I can spend more time directing and producing this dance on camera work with Safety Third. My hope is that we will keep finding opportunities to make thoughtful films which make people want to fly or dance or make their art or go on an adventure and see the beauty of our world in a way that makes them come alive.
You can catch VORTICES on the SVLA1 screen though May 16 and follow Katherine’s work here.