Stretching seconds into minutes in ‘Slow Dancing’

Boston Globe

By Jeffrey Gantz

‘Slow dancing” conjures images of steamy tangos in sultry, smoky nightclubs — or maybe just nostalgic recollections of your high school prom. But what photographer and installation artist David Michalek is bringing to Harvard Yard is more like “really slow dancing.” Using a camera that shoots 1,000 frames per second, Michalek filmed five-second dance sequences and stretched them out to 10 minutes. Kicking off the annual Harvard Arts First Festival, “Slow Dancing” will be projected on three screens spread across the facade of Widener Library for the next 10 nights. Michalek estimates that the screens will be 30 to 35 feet tall, so the dancing will be really big as well as really slow.

The installation includes a remarkable roster of filmed performers. Michalek is married to New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan, so that was his entree into the ballet world. And he knew Jill Johnson, a former William Forsythe dancer who’s director of Harvard’s dance program. She spoke to Forsythe about the project, he spoke to friends, and word spread.

By the time “Slow Dancing” was ready to be unveiled, at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2007, 45 dancers had been filmed; the number has since climbed to 52. The ballet component ranges from former Paris Opera Ballet étoile Isabelle Guérin to former NYCB principal Allegra Kent. There are dancers from the companies of Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, and Twyla Tharp. The distinguished choreographers include Karole Armitage, Trisha Brown, Forsythe, Judith Jamison, Bill T. Jones, Angelin Preljocaj, Alexei Ratmansky, Elizabeth Streb, and Christopher Wheeldon. Flamenco is represented by Omayra Amaya; there’s butoh (Eiko and Koma), tap (Roxane Butterfly), hip-hop (Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio), a sufi whirling dervish (Emine Mira Hunter) — everything from Balinese (Wayan Dibia, among others) to Angeleno krumping (Christopher “Lil’ C” Toler).

Michalek’s own reputation didn’t hurt when he set about assembling this star-studded lineup. He was an assistant to Herb Ritts at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1980s, and went on to become a successful photographer himself, working for Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Vogue. Now he’s a noted installation artist whose projects have been shown at the Venice Biennale and the Paris Opera Bastille and in Trafalgar Square; he’s also a visiting faculty member at Yale Divinity School, lecturing on religion and the arts. Parts of “Slow Dancing” were shown at Jacob’s Pillow in 2008, and the Harvard dance program screened a small-scale version in October 2011. But the Harvard Yard presentation is the project’s full-blown Boston-area premiere.

It all started, Michalek explains over the phone from New York, with some notebook sketches from the mid-1990s. “I’ve always been interested in the motion stills that were produced in the mid-1890s by Eadweard Muybridge,” he says. “It was an early idea that I could take those motion stills and record them at high speed.”

He was inspired by Bill Viola’s “The Greeting,” which he describes as “a work in which three women come together and have an interaction over the course of a minute, and that minute is filmed at about 250 frames per second, or maybe 300, and that minute’s worth of interaction extends out to a 10-minute film.” He soon discovered, however, “that the degree of slowness I was looking for was something far slower than that. I wanted something that moved at the rate of clouds shifting and changing overhead. I wanted something exceedingly slow, something that was right on the edge of even being comfortable to watch.”

Eventually he discovered a camera that could shoot 1,000 frames per second. But it wasn’t yet on the market, and the firm that had developed it was reluctant to let him use the prototype. “They were telling me it was not ready,” he recalls, “and I said, ‘What’s not ready about it?’ And they said, ‘The cooling system. The camera overheats.’ And after a little begging, they agreed to let me use the camera with an engineer present, but on condition that I had a freezer full of ice packs. So that’s how we shot ‘Slow Dancing.’ ”

As for the substance of the filming, he says, “I asked every person who came to the studio to bring three five-second sequences that had a beginning, a middle, and an end. I asked that the sequences begin with the feet together, arms at the sides, face forward to the camera, so that there was this very brief moment where they were presenting themselves as just a person and a kind of blank slate.”

He became intrigued by where each dancer would enter into a given sequence. “Does it begin with the hips? Does it begin with the movement of one of the extremities? And then there would be a kind of an arc of development, with something at the end that felt like a period.”

Harvard’s Johnson was one of those performers. “I stood standing facing the camera,” she remembers, “and David would say, ‘One, two, three, four, five,’ and that was it. And looking at the playback was incredibly helpful, because you’d notice, ‘Oh gosh, my thumb is sticking out there,’ and where in real time that was a millisecond, on the film it lasted for two minutes.”

So there was more than one take? “I’m sure there were at least 25. He’d say, ‘Oh, let me try that at a slightly sharper angle, or a different expression.’ It was one of the challenges to be aware of all the details you were noticing and still feel free.”

She also recalls who else was in the studio. “I had the great fortune of being after Allegra Kent, and to be in the presence of such a legend and an icon and an important artist in American dance — it was extraordinary to be around her and watch her move. The amount of knowledge and history in her body. And she moved with incredible grace.”

Johnson talks about “Slow Dancing” as a kind of “break from the panic of our lives. There’s such a torrent of information pummeling us every day, and I think this could bring a pause to that and really call attention to part of what the arts and what dance can do, which is to give us space in order to think for ourselves. That’s different from entertainment and escape, which are great, too. But I think the piece is exemplifying a new technology, a reframing of dance.”

Michalek adds that “Slow Dancing” is not just about dance. “I was also very interested in the possibilities of an extremely slow-moving image coupled with the right kind of image content to grab people’s attention and to affect them cognitively in ways that would really slow them down. I wanted to see if I could challenge the speed of a public square with an image that would allow people to enter into a zone of contemplation. The way the hand is moving or the hair is flowing or the congruence of different images creates an intensely personal experience once people enter that zone.”