Slow Dancing

On display at Lincoln Center through July 29.

It’s such a simple concept: Director David Michalek filmed solo dancers at an incredible one thousand frames per second and then stretched a few seconds’ worth of footage over a full ten minutes. Each dancer appears several stories high, foregrounded against a stark black background, every moment given meaning and weight by the protracted pace.

Striking and rapturously beautiful, Slow Dancing is the kind of display that holds your attention for ages. (I sat outside for more than an hour before I realized how late it had become.) The dancers represent virtually every conceivable style and genre. Some images look like enchanted still photographs, so gradual and incremental are the movements. Dancers in other sequences move too quickly to create that illusion yet still appear other-worldly, the extraordinarily deliberate speed illuminating gestures and details that might otherwise have been lost in the frenzy.

My attention went first to those dancers who use broad strokes, legs and arms and torso moving dramatically in concert. Ballerina Wendy Whelan, for example, seems to fill the entire screen with her elegant extension and limber grace. Youssouf Koumbassa of Les Ballets Bagata is magnetically energetic, his leaps and twists conveying joyful freneticism even at a strikingly slow speed. The pace of the film gives them an eerie sense of unreality because one probably couldn’t perform such acrobatic steps without the impetus of velocity. Some dance is simply impossible so slow, as when Herman Cornejo of the American Ballet Theatre spins, bewitchingly suspended in midair, for nearly half a minute.

But eventually my eyes drifted to the more delicate, contained movements. Shantala Shivalingappa expresses the specific, precise hand gestures of Kuchipudi, a form of classical Indian dance, with charm and agile poise, the decelerated film giving one the opportunity to appreciate every bend of her wrist. The complicated arm movements of dancer-choreographer Shen Wei also reward patient viewing, though I still don’t quite understand how he manages to make his joints work like that.

Part of the appeal of Slow Dancing is watching initially awkward positions melt into something graceful and beautiful. The crouch before a jump can seem hunched, the beginning of a back bend can look like the beginning of a fall, but suddenly, imperceptibly, the movements take shape, transforming an ordinary motion into an extraordinary work of art.

Even some of the clothing adds to the appeal. Dancer Nejla Yatkin’s translucent scarf floats in the air, seemingly defying gravity, and whirling dervish Emine Mira Hunter’s skirt ripples with uncanny deliberation as she spins. (I never stopped to think about what the term whirling dervish, often used as a metaphor, actually means, but it turns out that a dervish is a devotional dancer following an order of Sufism, a mystic tradition within Islam. I feel very ignorant.)

Almost without exception, a thousand frames per second was enough to make the images completely fluid, a stunning effect. Occasionally the wind made the screens flutter, distorting the images, and I wished the work were displayed indoors, rather than projected, not quite opaque, outside Lincoln Center. But it was a beautiful evening, and that same breeze blew away the tension of the day, and it was fun to watch taxi drivers and passers-by stop to appreciate the work, free and available to everyone, a lovely marvel of human ingenuity and artistry.

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Thank you, Jamie, for suggesting this. I might not have gotten around to going otherwise, and I’m very glad I did.

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