I’ll admit it. Sometimes I have a hard time watching dance on film. It’s so often the liveness of dance that draws us to it, its presence in the flesh. But if the exception proves the rule, it’s Peggy Piacenza’s Sweet Rotten Sweet, an ongoing dance film installation at BONFIRE Gallery in the International District. In its final weekend, the 36-minute loop is well worth your time, and a lesson in the versatility and potency of film installation.
There’s something cocoon-like, entering the gallery. Closed off from natural light, it seems a place outside of time and space. Carefully mapped projections on the walls and floors act like windows into other dimensions, surrounding and disarming. The four performers featured in the films move across the projections in Escher-like relation to one another—an impossible slipping away of physics that subtly adds to the disorientation.
For those who saw Piacenza’s 2017 work, The Event, the dance material and performers (Wade Madsen, Kim Lusk, Amelia Reeber, Ezra Dickinson) will look familiar. After completing that initial performance at Base, which dealt with the passage of her mother, Piacenza wasn’t quite done exploring the world she had created. This second iteration as a film experience/installation takes on a life of its own, however, achieving a deep sense of intimacy that surpasses even that initial live performance.
Sweet Rotten Sweet takes full advantage of film’s unbound and unearthly potential. Madsen’s character speaks anxiously about his own mortality, and later his image slowly fades away, disappearing into the white abyss. Scale is another fracturing of realities. The biggest screen shows a close up of Lusk and Reeber’s faces as they lie on the floor, larger than life, blowing a piece of fluff back and forth. The high quality video revealing minutia that would be unobservable from the normal viewing distance at a performance. Meanwhile, a tiny screen across the room, situated only a foot above the floor, reveals Lusk blindfolded and upsidedown, navigating her feet tentatively along a wall. Like looking through a keyhole, it too draws me into the minutia.
Perhaps the most delightful screen is a circular one on the floor, surrounded by pink candy fluff. A projected image of Lusk asleep in a bed of the fluff seamlessly integrates with the tangible installation, blending the two realities. At another time, Madsen climbs up a ladder towards the eye of the camera, and it appears like a tiny Madsen might just emerge out of the fluffy pink portal. I am more than halfway through the loop when I realize there’s yet another screen. A TV set up through a door in a small, black closet plays a loop from Piacenza’s 2014 solo work Touch Me Here. Bathed in dim red light (a marked difference from the airy quality of the main space) Piacenza’s body perpetually rolls away from view, peeling back her shirt to reveal a bare shoulder. I am touched by this image—closeted, revealing, stuck, ongoing—what an apropos representation of the artist’s relation to their own work. An acknowledgment that we can never, truly get away from ourselves.
While Piacenza has used the specific abilities of film and projection with keen choreographic sense, the quality of the dancers’ performances is no small part of what keeps the films so alive. Each performer is distinct and highly animated. Reeber is abrupt and commanding. Dickinson’s body rocks and shakes as he attempts to spit words out. Each moment is unpredictable, specific, and committed.
The characterization and shifting states of the performers is integrated with the changing images on the all projection surfaces, as well as localized sound cues. A tinkling bell or gradually growing voice alerts my attention to a different screen or part of the room. Rather than the passiveness I expected being inside a film installation, I experienced a carefully orchestrated entity, whispering to me from some other dimension.
While the film installation is a complete work in its own right, there are also several live performances happening this weekend in the space with the cast of the film. Those are Friday at 8:00pm, and Saturday at 6:00pm and 8:00pm. Limited tickets available at peggypiacenza.com. The free film installation just a few more days—Thursday, March 28 through Sunday, March 31 from 11:00am-5:00pm. Don’t miss this exquisite and intimate use of dance, film, and environment.