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In Motion Picture, dancers drive a cinematic story onstage

Lucy Guerin has grown to be a prominent mentor and consistently inspirational dance artist. Arts House/Lucy Guerin.

Lucy Guerin’s Motion Picture, performed as part of Melbourne’s Dance Massive festival, was an anticipated work from one of the city’s most respected choreographers.

With her permanent studio space in the city, a rarity in Melbourne, Guerin has provided a consistent creative and experimental point of contact for many young dancers and choreographers. Developing many of her skills as a young choreographer/dancer (and Bessie Award Winner) in New York, Guerin has grown to be a prominent mentor and consistently inspirational dance artist.

Interdisciplinary challenges

Guerin’s recent work crosses disciplines and explores the potential of dance to communicate as a multifaceted art form. In Conversation Piece (2012) actors as well as dancers share text and movement, while in Untrained (2009) two professional dancers are pitted against two uninhibited non-trained movers.

Each work challenges the viewer to re-examine their expectations of dance and challenges the art form of dance as a means of expression. In this latest work, Motion Picture, Guerin ventures into an exploration of film and dance.

Conventionally the dance/film genre is concerned to translate dance onto the screen. Guerin was curious to invert the relationship, to experiment with how dance could translate film: “how would the audience respond to the dance without seeing the film?”.

The dramaturgical structure exhibits a voyage that takes us from the interpretation of the film through dance, to the transformation of the film into a choreography, in which the dancers become the personalities that drive the cinematic story and theatrical tension.

Photo: Sarah Walker. Arts House/Lucy Guerin

To start, we hear the film score live, and realise the footage is being played on a screen directly behind us. The dancers enter to enact movie motion; shuffling their feet downstage, they come close while not perceptibly moving – they dance a slow close-up.

As the dialogue begins, five dancers depart leaving only the versatile Alasdair Macindoe, who begins to lip-sync the voice of the main character: “I want to report a murder” he tells a policeman. “Who’s been murdered?” asks the agent, “I have”, responds Macindoe capturing the nuance and drama of the moment in his face and his body.

The mystery, or rather, the two mysteries of the performance begin to play out here. The narrative of the movie plot – a mystery for those that haven’t seen the 1950 classic film noir DOA (directed by Rudolph Maté) – the other, the mystery as to what the dancers do with the information that they see on the screen.

Is this a reconstruction of what is on the screen? It seems that way as the dancers stare intently at the film playing on the wall behind the audience, lip-syncing the text and coordinating their movement to imitate the editing decisions, camera angles and details on screen.

Or are they perhaps misrepresenting what they see? Guerin manipulates the live and the mediated, throwing into question how we use our senses to construct a reading.


Not being able to look simultaneously at the screen and the stage space, the audience is left guessing as to what the dancers are seeing and what they are exhibiting.

Do they really present what is on the screen or a complete distortion of the action? How does the character in the film deliver this text, what is the setting, does the girlfriend “Paula” look and act like the dancer Stephanie Lake, self-assured and haughty or like Lillian Steiner, sensual and teasing.

I resisted turning around, until the man next to me did so some 15 minutes into the piece.

The image I saw fleetingly was striking in its intensity and contrast: film noir, deep blacks, whites and sharp angles in which characters hide and lurk. By contrast the corresponding dance scenography was in shades on grey. A white dance floor and a large white screen showed different elements of film language and original footage: an expanding and contracting square within a square, film static and blurred film footage of a white line on a highway.

Photo: Sarah Walker. Arts House/Lucy Guerin

As the performance builds, the dance takes distance from its representation of the “real” movie action. It develops a more abstract and classically familiar dance language in which there are group formations and unison dancing. The literal interpretation becomes an emotional one as the dancers translate their perception of the inner life of the characters on screen.

The contorted movements that freeze the body of Lake, the love interest of the main character, depict the emotional struggle of a woman coming to terms with the immanent death of her partner. Is this detachment from the external to the internal potentially what dance can provide that the film cannot – to expose us to a different way of communicating and empathising?

While the intention in the second half of the work is to gear the viewer toward the transformation of film character into dancer, I was less convinced by the development of this section and found myself still searching for connections. Why this film DOA, made some 65 years ago. Was the performance to present a contemporary version of film-noir?

In this digital age, the work seemed only partially modernised. The costumes are a refined, neat version of fifties casual. The set design is not over-digitalised but nevertheless abstracts real “film” footage to provide a constant moving and undefined backdrop. The dance material draws on movement language beginning with reference to fifties swing and rock and roll, but rarely reaches further than postmodern American dance language. Is this a nostalgic reminder that theatre works best as manipulation, but without challenge?

In this symmetrical constellation between dance; the live bodies on stage and the film; the mediated and ghostly presence of an old movie bores a hole in my imagination. I long for blacks and whites, action and drama.

At the end I felt somewhat stuck in the grey area between dance and film, nostalgia and modernity; not really fully immersed in either the dance or the film but nevertheless, curiously intrigued by both.

Motion Picture played at Arts House until March 22. It will tour internationally in 2015. Details here.

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