Art into Landscape

“Miniature Fantasies”
Lionel Popkin
Danspace Project
New York, N.Y.
November 16, 2006

by Nancy Dalva
copyright 2006 by Nancy Dalva

On a rain soaked Thursday night, Los Angeles-based choreographer Lionel Popkin debuted his “Miniature Fantasies” in the beautiful white-washed sanctuary of St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, the home of Danspace Project, one of the commissioners of the piece. The space, as its frequenters know, is lofty and open, with pillars around three sides of the church supporting narrow balconies. Along the sides are carpeted risers, usually set with folding chairs. Popkin chose to use the risers along one side as part of his stage space, seating his audience across from him.

This created a wide-screen, cinematic effect, as he and his dancers manipulated projectors to display — on the wall opposite us, on the ceiling, on the altar, and at one point on the front doors–large scale slides of Indian miniature paintings of the variety called — as a postcard hand out explained — “ragamalas.” These paintings, Popkin explains, “take the texture or emotion of a song (raga) and place them in a painting.” In other words, one art responding to another.

This full-length piece does very much the same thing with choreography. Popkin responds to the miniatures by placing them into his dance — or, to be more exact, attempting to locate his dance inside the miniatures. Rather, they loom large, expansive, so that a dancer’s shadow, projected into a scene, seems about the same size as the people in them. The scale is such, then, that you feel you could walk across the floor and into the paintings. This enlargement, or perhaps just the technology, made the images a little blurry, a little, perhaps, impressionist. At any rate, the miniatures — colorful, with their lovely patterns and rich coloration — emerge not as art, but as landscape. Only at the very end, when the dancers sailed the images around the room by moving the projectors was one image focused fairly small on a pillar in front of me, reminding me that the miniatures are very little worlds, not backdrops, and that I had been seeing them transformed from their essential nature.

“Miniature Fantasies” opened in relative darkness — Kathy Kaufmann did the lighting — with Popkin and his two dancers, Jennifer Dignan and the wonderfully creaturely Carolyn Hall, seated facing us, spaced apart from each other. With upright torsos and legs akimbo, they slowly rolled their hips. It looked as if they were giving birth to the idea of the dance. Later, at the end of the work, they repeated the motif, facing away, as if giving the dance back to itself, or back to the paintings. Naoko Nagata provided the richly colored halters and skirts for the women and trousers and a brocade tunic and slim trousers for Popkin. They looked very of the here and now, but also blended easily into the projections, though at one point Popkin draped a white cloth across his tunic, as he stood between the projector and the wall it was aimed towards, the better to make himself a screen.

Of all of the activities of the evening, this urge to merge with the paintings was to me the most touching, as when dancers would stand in front of an image so that part of it was projected onto him, or her — as in, for one example, flowers, on a dancer’s pretty legs. This happened in some solos. There were also, of course, duets and trios, sensual but not sexual, with no overt narrative I could follow, other than the suggestion that, at some points in the dancing, they might be depicting the people in the paintings.

One duet for the women had them tightly pressed together, one behind the other, in almost eerie unison — perhaps the one body, many arms of Shiva? Or perhaps not. Another Asian-seeming moment, quite beautiful, found the dancers lying prone across the floor, kissing the sole of the foot of the dancer ahead, and the laying on it as if on a pillow, perhaps seeking a moment’s rest, or perhaps expressing reverence. (This motif was later repeated by the two women.) Another arresting moment, quite sprightly in contrast to the mostly serious goings on, found the red-headed and plush Dignan — the perfect tourist — riding on Popkin, who turned his lap into a moving cart for her. As she looked at the imagery on the walls, she seemed the perfect outsider, looking in. This of course, is only my version of the scene, which transpired twice. She might just as well have been replicating something I couldn’t perceive that was in one of the slide projections.

Andy Russ’s score really didn’t clue me in. It included “Piano Fantasies” by Robert Schumann and much other varied material, including a lovely sequence of chimes. For this segment, the dancers occupied the carpeted risers,changing their activities each time the bells sounded.

The primary emotion — and indeed vision — transferred to me from this work is one of yearning. Yearning to enter the world of the miniatures; yearning to extract material from them and bring it into the present; wanting to be part of that art, and wanting that art to be part of the dance. (Don’t we sometimes feel this way watching a dance and wishing ourselves into it?) If this felt more like process than finished product — and this after all was a first outing — it nonetheless felt authentic, and urgent. After the performance, someone told me Popkin’s mother is Indian. It didn’t surprise me.

Photos from top:
Lionel Popkin and Carolyn Hall. Photo by Anja Hitzenberger.
Photo by Stephen Schreiber.

Volume 4, No. 41
November 20, 2006

copyright ©2006 Nancy Dalva



©2006 DanceView