Dance off: Bruce Conner vs Roland Carline

Roland carline
Still from film, Adelaide Celeste, Lauren, Lucy, Maddie, Niha, (2017) copyright Roland Carline with Rachel Gildea

Serendipitous juxtapositions crop up frequently as I trawl around London’s diverse galleries. Yesterday I chanced upon two films showcasing dance performances from 1966 and 2018. This triggered thoughts on how MI artists from different generations treat this source material, a more contentious issue than it initially appears. At Thomas Dane Gallery, Bruce Conner’s (1933-2008)  seminal film BREAKAWAY (1966) focuses on a solo dance by Toni Basil. At South London Gallery, Roland Carline’s film in collaboration with the choreographer, Rachel Gildea, Adelaide, Celeste, Lauren, Lucy, Maddie, Niha, (2017) showcases six exuberant teenage dancers on a pop up stage created on a Folkestone backstreet. For me, this film was the standout moving image artwork among the many 2019 Bloomberg New Contemporary Artists working in this medium.

Bruce Conner. BREAKAWAY, (still), 1966. Courtesy The Conner Family Trust and Thomas Dane Gallery. © The Conner Family Trust.

Both films rely on the talents of their respective performers. Toni Basil, best known as the singer of the iconic 80’s hit Hey Mickey, was already a respected choreographer and dancer in the 1960’s. Carline has recruited talented unknowns whose anonymity is pointedly transformed by their names forming the film’s title. Both films feature a disguised male presence. In Carline’s film a dancer in a cardboard Spongebob costume is subjected to a kind of symbolic castration as his nose is ripped off by the other girls. I discover that that he has an association with misogyny through his appearance in a reputedly dodgy music video so this defiant gesture is well targeted. In contrast, Conner’s all encompassing (misogynistic?) male gaze is hidden behind his 16mm lens.

The solo female dancer performing for the camera against a blank background is open to a range of interpretations: is she the seductive Salome or a free-spirited Isadora Duncan? Like Salome, Basil divests herself of her clothes as the film progresses. Like Isadora Duncan she appears to be dancing with wild abandon in a diaphanous dress. But it is the rhythm of the quick-cut edits that syncopates with the music, not her own movements. In BREAKAWAY the imagery oscillates between these stereotypes. The antithesis of this form of female representation is Gillian Wearing’s captivating performance video, Dancing in Peckham, (1994). Apparently oblivious to the curious bystanders, Wearing dances alone in the middle of a shopping mall in her everyday clothes to a memorised 25 minute soundtrack that includes I Will Survive and Staying Alive. She is dancing for herself and the static camera recording the complete and unadorned performance is entirely within her control.

Still from video Dancing in Peckham (1994) copyright Gillian Wearing

Artists like Roland Carline are highly sensitised to the issue of their subject’s control. I first encountered him at the 2016 RA schools Show which included his performance work, Bossy, devised collaboratively with Francis Majekodunmi, the neurodiverse leader of the dance group BLINK.  Carline, like Jeremy Deller and Mikhail Karikis, offers a platform for the expression of children and teenagers, an inherently political stance. What also impressed me in his latest film is the skilled five minute edit of both the much longer dance performance and the varied pop tunes soundtrack. He does this without jarring discontinuities while preserving the key dramatic highpoints.

Leo Dixon in the Royal Opera production of Death in Venice ©ROH/Catherine Ashmore

A solo male dancer is regarded very differently from a female. In the recent moving production of Britten’s opera Death in Venice at ROH, the teenage boy, Tadzio, who becomes the obsessive love interest of an older man is portrayed by the dancer, Leo Dixon. This non-speaking role is as articulate as the singers. The choreography emphasises youthful muscular athleticism rather than eroticism and ramps up the poignancy of the unrequited love narrative. In a group, female dancers seem to get the chance to highlight their athleticism avoiding the deleterious impact of the male gaze. For a fortuitous example, checkout the cheerleaders in the music video of Hey Mickey on Youtube.

Still from the music video, Hey Mickey

Conner’s film, shot in black and white projects a ghostly and fragmentary image of female identity as if the dancer’s attempts to “breakaway” are futile. The second half of the film consist of the sequence you have just viewed in reverse. The resultant eerie soundtrack adds to the nightmarish desperation but we end on the opening image of Basil smiling to camera in a bodysuit so reminiscent of that quintessential 60’s phenomenon, the caged go-go dancer of the discotheque. By exploring the complexities of the representations of women through dance and by foregrounding the combative song lyrics, Conner and Basil’s collaborative work challenges the the latent misogyny of the film

“I got a 20 pound ball hanging by a chain around my neck
I got to get away run before I become a wreck
I got to break these chains before I go insane”

are the devastating opening lines.

Whether the film enslaves or liberates her is the intriguing question…

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