Coping with crisisCarolina Performing Arts, located on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill, is reemerging as a dynamic and intriguing presenter. One week after giving music lovers a world-class classical recital by the violinist Joshua Bell, they offered a presentation of three works in the evolving genre of screendance.

The American College Dance Association (ACDA) defines screendance as “dance created discretely for the digital screen combining the arts and crafts of cinematography and choreography focused on the dancing body as the primary subject of creative expression.” It is an expanding hybrid art form, having been around for a good couple of decades and being the subject now of festivals, competitions, and even a scholarly journal. Creators continue to explore and develop its potential. In the use of changing camera angles, close-ups, and fine detail of observation of the figures, lovers of opera will find in screendance a great deal of similarity with how HD broadcasts have changed seeing that art form. Live opera and dance are surely not replaced by these new formats, but now there is literally a whole new way to experience them.

These dancers were featured in the program: Shamel Pitts, Hope Boykin, and Bobbi Jene Smith. All of the films were autobiographical, in fact connecting with changes happening in each artist’s life. For Pitts it is his “independent artistic journey” unfolding since his return from Tel Aviv to Brooklyn, New York. Born in Brooklyn, Pitts is a performance artist, choreographer, and dancer. He holds a B.A. from Juilliard and in 2020 had the immense distinction of becoming a Guggenheim Fellow. He danced for seven years with the Israeli company Bat Sheva – one of the leading contemporary dance companies in the world – and with them took part in performances in many countries. After leaving Bat Sheva in 2016, and back home in Brooklyn, he formed his own collective called Tribe.

“Touch of Red: Overture” was his piece, a 5½-minute creation and the nucleus of a bigger work to come. It begins with a fearsome figure in a bathtub, almost like a grotesque chrysalis; the dancer emerges and begins to present himself – perhaps akin to the personal evolution of Pitts himself – to eerie electronic sounds which pervade the entire film. Red, as suggested by the title, is a near-constant presence in some form. It may be somewhere in the scene, it may move like a rising red rocket, or it may create atmosphere as suffused light. Much of the scene is dingy, a run-down building you do not want to be in. There are slow, tai-chi type movements, shown both in the figure and in his shadow; then energized movement with pounding music. An interesting moment is dancing seen on several screens and mirrored in some form by the live figure: electronic outlets inside an electronic medium. Interestingly, red is completely absent in this segment. In the last 45 seconds, a second male dancer appears out of nowhere, emerging from the shadowy light; this is the first sense of connection, when the solitary dancer relates to someone else. First the two revolve around one another; then they come face-to-face, then they touch, first hands, then cheeks, inside a polyhedron of red which abruptly cuts to black.

In the extensive discussion which followed the film, Pitts related that it has to do with strangers who become partners. The overture begins to dig into the relationship of two men of color. Eventually the story will come to be about camaraderie, spirituality, friendship – and no less, a dance relationship.

Boykin is a performer and creator who recently retired after dancing for 20 years with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, another of the world’s great companies which is seen in cities around the globe. Now developing new directions in her career, she makes her home in New York, but Durham remains the place where her journey began.

Her 5½-minute film was titled “Another Lesson.” It featured an element which in traditional dance is non-existent: speech. The words, in her own voice, come from her answers to questions in an interview she gave before her last tour with the Ailey company. Her movement accompanies periodic self-unfolding monologues. There is an intensity in her gestures, in her face, powered also by the music. One can believe, as she said after the film, that she was in pain at that time.

After the first few seconds she comes on to the stage and is briefly seen sitting in a chair. Then sometimes she will dance on the empty stage with geometric backdrop, which adds visual energy. Short segments are in black and white, otherwise in color, at times with some red. Parts are danced in full light and other parts have a more enigmatic quality, with her seen in silhouette. She talks about faith, about finding herself. She is telling us and showing us what beauty is. There is nostalgic music, then fuller strings, part of that beauty. The latter part is focused more on movement. Multiple figures of herself are overlaid, almost the like the different aspects of herself meant to unfold in her life, merging, and emerging from one another. It fades from one picturing of her to another, perhaps different aspects of herself and her evolving version or vision of herself. The last minute and a half are accompanied with spare, almost desolate single piano notes with her speech on a black screen, summarizing an aspect of her life experience.

Smith is a dancer, choreographer, and director. She studied at the North Carolina School of the Arts and at Juilliard. Like Pitts, she joined the Bat Sheva company in Tel Aviv, Israel, where she danced for ten years. A documentary film about her, Bobbi Jene, chronicles her difficult decision to leave Bat Sheva and strike out on her own artistic mission. She mentioned in the discussion that she considers Bat Sheva’s artistic director, Ohad Naharin (o-HOD [as in hot] na-ha-REEN) to be a large influence on her own work. Naharin – who danced with Martha Graham after attending Juilliard – is of international stature, widely known for his “gaga” language of dance; he has had works performed in numerous countries.

Smith’s film was called “Part 3.” It is a touching family portrait of her, her husband Or Schraiber – who was a fellow dancer with her in Bat Sheva; the tribulations of their becoming a couple were profiled in the film Bobbi Jene – and their toddler-aged daughter, Dea Lou. For Smith, the film is partly a response to significant life changes following her departure from Israel and return to the United States.

The film is in black and white, which Smith in the discussion called “timeless.” It is the most traditional of the three, with one simple stage set, Baroque music accompanying throughout, and a largely stationary camera. Yet the inclusion of their young child gave it something fresh and different – as did the phonograph, which had an appealing retro quality. The 9-minute film has three scenes. In the first, The Wife (Bobbi Jene) turns on the music and briefly watches her husband dance with their child before taking over the dance herself. She recounted that following a surgery she had to change how she moves. Regardless, her movements had a strong, sinewy quality which was highly expressive.

In the second scene, the Child turns on the phonograph. She is then in and out of the foreground while the Wife and Husband move together. Eventually she joins them and is incorporated into the dance by the Husband in what looked like a beautiful improvisation. It was entertaining to see the family dancing with the child on her father’s back. The main element of the scene was the interaction between Husband and Wife, in which they were very connected and at times frankly sensual with each other. At the end it was the Child who took the needle off the record. In the third scene the Husband dances to meditative music, seen from behind the Wife who is holding the child. The look is hazier here, giving it a different and evocative visual atmosphere.

The discussion woven around the films gave valuable points for understanding them more deeply. But it needed editing and tightening. Seventy minutes of talking overweighed the experience of twenty minutes of film. The discussion was led by Carolina Performing Arts’ associate director of engagement, Amanda Graham. She offered worthwhile insights. However, as a moderator who spoke a good deal, she was too often halting or mechanical. This detracted from the presentation. There were also some very specific dance references in the question period. Without definition of terms, it started to resemble a semi-closed circle of dance acquaintances rather than a public event.

That said, these three films, all different and all successful, showed some of the range that the screendance medium can embody. It was artistically successful, even thought-provoking in presenting an emerging art form. Carolina Performing Arts is doing a cultural service by presenting these creators, and free to the public as well. This is an organization to continue to watch.

Note: These films are available on-demand for all ticketholders for 72 hours, beginning on May 21, 2021 at 7:30 PM EDT.