52 Portraits is a medley of filmed thumbnail portraits of people who dance. Some of them (like Crystal Pite) are high profile and dance on famous stages while others dance only for themselves, in their sitting rooms. What all those studied have in common, however, is that movement, in one way or another, is transforming in their life.
The physical format of each portrait is more or less the same. The subject (occasionally subjects), are highlighted in a dark boxed space, while their faces and the upper half of their bodies (usually) are observed moving in relation to a horizontal table. An insightful word portrait of each is set to music ( usually).
This format is engaging and fascinating at first, perhaps for the first twenty portraits, as all that unites and separates these dancers is explored. What dance can mean in life and memory is described. As are the sacrifices made by artists of different ages and physical ability. That dance is a political act is a refrain that works here.
Before the screening started in the Lilian Bayliss Theatre one of the producers came out to remind the audience that this was going to be an open viewing, with the auditorium doors (and the bar) staying open throughout. He told us this was because we would probably need the occasional break and asked us to be accommodating to those moving about.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure the audience believed him. We’re all used to two-hour films, no problem, No one in my row moved throughout. It’s hard to break ranks when sitting in serried rows at Sadler’s Wells. It’s not polite. But I suspect he was right and, probably if you do as he suggests, the subject matter and format stays fresh enough. Staying still throughout however the repetition of format becomes monotonous. There is not enough variation in tone. There is no climax, though there is humour. A longing arrives to see the movement of legs, pushing the body into space and, eventually, a sense of limitation descends.
The rest of the audience liked it though and so did I, well enough. Just do what you’re told, buy a drink and make your own custom made interval.
Review by Marian Kennedy
52 Portraits is an online project created by choreographer Jonathan Burrows, composer Matteo Fargion and video maker Hugo Glendinning, in which a short gestural portrait of a different artist was released each week throughout 2016. On Wednesday 25th January 2017 there was an opportunity to see them together for the first time on a large screen at Sadler’s Wells’ Lilian Baylis Studio.
The videos topple the cliché of the perfect dancer, exposing the human stories beneath the surface and questioning what a dancer might be and why they want to dance. The subjects of the portraits are drawn from the vibrant UK dance scene, and each portrait is a very personal dance, filmed sitting at a table and accompanied by a sung autobiography. They capture the profound, funny and surprising power of their subjects, revealing the stories, thoughts and struggles of dancers in an unprecedented way. 52 Portraits is an epic love song written to an art form, supported and produced by Sadler’s Wells.