Why not a spiral?

We’re done with rectangles. Aren’t we?
Unless of course they are twisted into Möbius strips.

Spirals give us the sensation of continuous motion. Photo from Sam Woolfe

All spatial jests side, a new paradigm might propel us forward to a healthier mindset. In every corner of the globe during covid, anxiety, despair, panic were rampant. When we panic, we freeze, until a little voice within says…”don’t just sit there, do something!”

Doing something requires movement. Who understands motion, intuitively and scientifically, better than dancers? Imagine the world recovering by moving with grace and ingenuity.

“Thinking out of the box” an expression inspired by John Adair’s nine-dot puzzle is 50 years old already. We need something fresh to pop the boil of our narcissistic abuse of the planet and each other! Perhaps baseball wizards could enable us to hit all these nasty, curve balls coming at us so fast and furiously.

Consider dance films as a metaphor for the marriage of art and technology, a catalyst to embrace a balance between the ephemeral and the tangible, pairing an ageless expression with one that changes daily, and threatens to consume our every moment. Dance on film rides the border between fact — the body moving with a particular energy, time and space and fiction — the mind that manipulated those facts. The collaborators can conjure the physical dance with its psychic orientation. Honoring the spiral between body, mind and spirit is integral to dance on camera.

That same binary dance in journalism has been catastrophic over the last four years. Alternate realities, altered states, parallel worlds are something Americans became all too familiar with as we discovered that the “facts” were quite different depending on your chosen media. A story reported in the New York Times often had a different spin on Fox News. This brought up a violent dance between the police and young people. Better to celebrate spirals openly as art, as a key to growing — thriving, than as a form of trickery.

M. C. Esher’s Night & Day 1938

The mystique of spirals is old news of course. 2321 years old — more or less. In the 3rd-century BC, Greek mathematician Archimedes explained them. Fast forward to 1914, T. A. Cook wrote a book titled “The curves of life, an account of spiral formations and their application to growth in nature, to science and art.” Mae West, that siren, that comedian said with a little bounce, “Curve, the loveliest thing between two points.” She recommended: “Cultivate your curves — they may be dangerous, but they won’t be avoided.”

Spirals are woven into dance, through the technique of Martha Graham and Lester Horton, who studied the undulation of snakes. Sufis move with their right arm up to God and their left pointing to earth as they spin counter-clockwise to spiral into their subconscious.

There’s always a flip side…

Every arts presenter is fretting over the unknown future of audience attendance. Covid forced even the most film-phobic artists and administrators to stream works shot on stage, in bedrooms, & on rooftops. The protests over racism and police violence pushed everyone to re-examine their approach. Martha Graham Dance Co.’s Artistic Director Janet Eilber said,

This past year required us to embrace — if not celebrate — uncertainty and change. Our physical survival has depended on distancing; our artistic and spiritual survival depend on discovering new ways to connect.

We are being forced to re-think what and how we communicate and to whom, to what end?

In all this turmoil, how fares the audience? Do they want a cross between entertainment, shock therapy, and a spa, a fix to chase away stress and blues? Maybe they just ache to touch and enjoy a slow dance.

Joanna Ney & Shinbone Alley Band Stilt Band

Art and politics — can these two intersect to propel us all to a better life? Joanna Sherman from Bond Street Theatre founded in 1976 can attest after working for the benefit of women, children and others in over 40 countries, peacebuilding in post-war and disadvantaged communities. She is an ageless, tireless inspiration. She and her partner Michael McGuigan enter every refugee camp in their own particular Trojan horse — disarming everyone as stilt dancing clowns, making every kid laugh, sometimes for the first time in a long time. Joanna Sherman is a brave, bold leader who uses creativity to bring about change through communication.

And still that query lingers. “There must be some way out of here said the joker to the thief” to borrow from All along the Watchtower.

Consider the charms of getting the audience out of their chairs, into an adventure. Anna Librada’s Hudson Valley Flamenco Festival 2021 will be outdoors in various locations. Librada says, “Living and thinking in a spiral brought me back to the intimacy and heart of flamenco — returning me to the flexibility and roots of the authentic art form to find the essence of what we need.”

Rorschach Theatre in Washington, DC, created a subscription series called Distance Frequencies, in which audiences disperse to specific locations to take in a narrative revealed over a period of months.

Bell 8 aspires to similarly move the audience out of cities into the country with an installation in fire towers. Every wild life lover is as fretful as the arts presenter, terrified about climate change and the demise of species every day. Arts presenters and nature conservators together could finagle ways to present the symbiosis in nature, nature and art, and all of us. Close to 2,000 fire towers built often a hundred years ago are scattered across the country. A tower in Mt Tremper, New York we filmed has seven platform that could be a stage, smack within nature.

Upper Esopus Fire Tower, Mt. Tremper, NY. Photo by Nan Melville

Could we summon the chutzpah (& genius) of Christo, who died May, 2020 to partially wrap a fire tower with a soft screen? The visitor could get some exercise climbing the tower, take a breather to gaze at the view and then some indie films inspired by water, fire, earth, air.

Dance films are often created on paths less traveled, from the lava fields of Iceland, the salt dunes of Chile, to deserted buildings. I always jump at the chance to show films where one least expects them. The National Endowment for the Arts sponsored Dance on Camera’s Portals: Floating Cinema, our event on Prospect Park lake. On a moonlit night, we rear-projected dance films on a screen, shaped like an eye, attached to the end of a swimming raft.

Halloween in NYC Photo by Joe Bulewicz

Everybody dance now should be NYC’s motto for re-vitalization. Scratch that. Biden & Harris motto for recovery. Not long ago, you could dance any hour of the day and night in NYC. Time to give restaurants and clubs a tax break to present live music and dance across the country; offer period dancing in the parks (every period — 1980s, 1880s, 1780s…). Bring back recess to let kids jump and run!

Ralph Lee knew how to jostle minds and hearts. The imaginative puppet maker brought an inclusive, organic mindset to his Halloween parade in the 1970–80s. Recall his giant spider climbing the tower of Jefferson Market Library. Assigned to a fire escape to dance with my friends in his demon-vowel costumes, I know first-hand that his Ralph’s parade transported us into a magical/mystical pagan ritual.

Anna Halprin, who just died at age 100, explored dance’s power to put Nature back in human Nature. She immersed herself in trees, and lay naked in mud to absorb its energy. Trisha Brown asked her dancers to walk, parallel to the ground, down a skyscraper in her 1971 happening “Walking On The Wall.” Philippe Petit tiptoed on high wires between towers in NYC and Paris. Shocking, awe-inspiring, daring us all to re-set our ideas of propriety and logic.

Author & Paul Jared Newman enjoying the roof of Daniel Bates glass boathouse. Photo by Nan Melville

How could we take the re-set concept from technology and make it work in our daily life, as well as for our artists? A reset on a computer clears any pending errors and brings the system back to its initial state. Taking twist on the maxim “When and if you don’t succeed, erase the evidence.” Lets make a fresh start. Return to home and move out and up…

This article was written in preparation for a chat/panel/screening hosted by the National Arts Club on May 10, 2021, as invited by Dawn Lille.

Writer/Choreographer produced LA CHANA, the award-winning documentary, the Dance on Camera Festival (1994–2012), and Bell 8 Installations.