“Can we try that once more?” That phrase, called out frequently by choreographer Merce Cunningham to his troupe of dancers, is some of the only dialogue that appears in British artist Tacita Dean’s feature-length film Craneway Event, currently on view at Gallery TPW. Following Cunningham’s company as it spends three days rehearsing for a November 2008 performance in an abandoned Ford factory in northern California, Dean’s film is a quiet but enthralling meditation on the sometimes accidental connections between human and architectural bodies; in it, intended and chance choreographies overlap with disarming synchronicity.
Much like the first collaboration between Dean and Cunningham (Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS, which was recently on view at Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain, featured Cunningham’s painfully quiet interpretations of John Cage’s iconic 4’33”), Craneway Event rewards patient viewers. Shown in a miniature cinema constructed within the gallery at set daily screenings, Dean’s film favours static shots and fixed positions over pans of the huge, light-filled rehearsal space and seems to intentionally truncate dancers’ bodies, obscuring and compartmentalizing our views of the dance. Though the dancers’ costuming never changes, the three days of rehearsal are clearly demarcated by the setting of the sun and the shifting quality of light coming in through the warehouse’s panoramic windows. Craneway’s activity is set against the backdrop of the glittering San Francisco Bay, where sailboats float past and the occasional container ship lurches into the harbour; its soundtrack records both the subtle slaps of dancers’ feet on mats and the sharp squeal of Cunningham’s whistle signalling the beginning of the rehearsal. In these and other ways, Craneway Event manages to artfully contrast the materiality and labour of performance with the ephemeral movement of bodies and the transient but powerful effects of atmospheric light.
This tension between tangible and immaterial forces in Dean’s film operates as a metaphor for Cunningham’s project as a whole. Directing from his wheelchair with remarkable precision, Cunningham’s short, polite instructions to his company evince a personality that was obsessed with detail, yet open to improvisation and change: an unusual combination that results, in the last day of rehearsals, with a final run-through that seems to move organically across the camera’s lens. The most remarkable moments in Craneway Event, however, are those that could not have been planned—a bewildered pigeon wandering across the stage, Cunningham asleep in his wheelchair on the last day, or a hapless boater who walks into his own safety line—all of which Dean’s camera seems to surreptitiously capture and transform into the perfect accompaniment to one of Cunningham’s final projects. (Screenings Tuesday to Saturday 12:30pm and 3pm, Thursdays 7pm; 56 Ossington Ave, Toronto ON)