Courtesy of Crystal Navellier

April 5, 2021

Locally Grown Dance Goes Virtual: The Making of “See You Again” and “the Eclipse (ellipses) … … …”

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Every spring, the Cornell Performing and Media Arts department puts on a production of Locally Grown Dance. More than a typical dance concert, these shows are experiences. The dancing makes you think, and technical elements transform the dancers into another world. However, this year, Locally Grown cannot put on an in-person show. The dancers, choreographers, and technical staff of the show have risen to the challenge of creating performance art during the pandemic. They have created two captivating pieces that use the virtual format of film to transcend beyond what an in-person dance performance is capable of. This is a dance show you don’t want to miss!

This year’s Locally Grown lies at the intersection of many fields of performing and media arts, which sets this year’s show apart from any other. It features some of Cornell’s most talented dancers, performing to music recorded by local artists, including professor Annie Lewandowski’s band Powerdove, pianist Syau-Cheng Lai, and violinist Max Buckholtz. Several different sets and props are used throughout the performance, a feature that would be difficult to execute in the usual circumstances of in-person dance concerts. Additionally, projection mapping and expert lighting are used to enhance the visual effect of dancers’ movement. What truly sets this show apart from previous years is its use of filmography. Each section of dancing was filmed from multiple camera angles, so when the show is edited together, it will be much more than the recordings of dance routines of the past—the film itself will be a work of art. Dancer Maddy Lee ‘21 explains that “when you are performing in person in a normal year and they’re filming it, they’re filming it from one angle, and you see the whole stage.” This year though, we can expect “close, dynamic type shots.” The film format allows the audience to interact with the performers like never before, offering, as director Byron Suber puts it, a “different kind of intimacy that is unavailable in a live theatre.” The pandemic has afforded the dancers and choreographers the opportunity to translate their already stunning dance pieces into compelling films, and to provide the audience with a one-of-a kind dance experience.

The show consists of two pieces, “the Eclipse (ellipses) … … …” and “See You Again,” both of which reflect the collective emotions we all have experienced during the past year. 

“the Eclipse (ellipses) … … …” was directed by professor Byron Suber, who drew inspiration from the confusion of the pandemic. He shares, “The initial inspiration for the title of the piece in development, “the Eclipse”, was in part inspired by the Antonioni film, the Eclipse… a film that ends with 7 minutes of nothing-ness, expressing a feeling of loss and absence. I felt that going through the lockdown of the pandemic felt like an in between time of nothing-ness and the questions of what came before and what would come after were a blur… The lockdown for me because a series of ellipses, a waiting in nothing-ness and a lack of clarity about what was ahead.” The piece utilizes different sets that are meant to illustrate the different feelings of the pandemic from solitude and messiness, to fantasy and escape, to a completely bare set that reflects the feeling of nothing-ness. 

Professor Jumay Chu’s piece, titled “See You Again,” makes use of set pieces and the medium of film to allow us to see the dancers in a whole new light.  A highlight of the piece is its use of large, reflective, yet translucent plexiglass panels that play off the lighting and the dancers’ bodies to create stunning visuals. Chu explains, “the panels framed, hid, elided, or multiplied the moving figures of dancers. The dance is about how we see the dancers, how they create meaning for themselves and for us, what we can see repeated, what we have missed. With the dancers in front of, behind, between the panels, we see and re-see them.” “See You Again” goes beyond the physicality of the theme’s expression through its visuals, as the theme of seeing again has been central to the creation of the piece. Chu says, “Personally, I am re-seeing these dancers I have been working with since last September, but each time I see them dance, I learn something new about them, I understand something different, I learn about what I missed earlier, I discover something more.” In a way, while “the Eclipse (ellipses) … … …” focuses on the struggle of getting through the pandemic, “See You Again” represents the relief of it ending, or at least, finding ways to see each other within the pandemic, like the filming of the show. Dancer Savannah Jeffries ‘24 notes, “It’s reflecting the atmosphere of the world right now,” as vaccines become available and the end of the pandemic is in sight.

Preparation for the show started last fall, with dancers meeting over Zoom to learn choreography and to workshop their own ideas into fully developed dance pieces. Working over Zoom provided a multitude of challenges unique to dance. Unlike content in academic courses, which can easily be conveyed virtually, dance movement carries energy and visual precision that is not accurately captured over a screen. Furthermore, the time lags on Zoom make it difficult to tell whether dancers are synchronized and moving as one and with the choreographer’s intended quality of movement. As Suber puts it, “not having 360 degree access to views of the dancers bodies made the effort of shaping the dancers’ bodies with any exactitude quite difficult.” Despite the challenges of Zoom, the dancers were still grateful to have the opportunity to dance in a studio space at all. Jeffries says, “It was really nice, even though our rehearsals were on Zoom, just to be in the studio first semester. My student run dance groups were not able to do that at all.” 

 Closer to filming, the dancers were able to gather in small groups for in-person rehearsals, and they were finally brought together as a whole group at the beginning of the filming process. Chu emphasized the value of in-person rehearsal for dancers, explaining that “The amount of work that was accomplished in those two hours of [in-person] rehearsal was probably tenfold compared to working over Zoom” when the dancers were finally able to come together. 

The show was filmed in Kiplinger auditorium over the course of a couple weeks, with filming sessions often lasting upwards of 5 hours for dancers, and even longer for film crew and technical staff.  Although the filming hours were long, Madeline Silva ‘22 says it was worth it: “Honestly, some of our filming days felt like the most normal thing I’ve done in a full year!” The entire process took place in a COVID-safe, socially distanced manner, with masks included in dancers’ costumes and choreography preventing dancers from standing closer than six feet apart. As a result, dancers had to navigate the challenge of connecting with each other through their movement, but without contact.

The show couldn’t be more timely. The pandemic has now been a part of our lives for over a year, and now is the beginning of the process of getting back to normal. Silva expressed, “The Locally Grown show last year was the last weekend before campus started shutting down, so this felt very full circle – we aren’t back where we started yet, but this felt like a true step in the right direction.”  In April 2021, with vaccines now available all over New York, it seems like we are one step closer to seeing each other again, and to ending the cycle of ellipses.

Locally Grown Dance promises to be both deeply meaningful and feature Cornell’s finest dancing and filmmaking. To watch the show on April 7th-10th, you can RSVP for free to receive a link on the Performing and Media Arts website.

Lauren Douglass is a freshman in the College of Artand Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].