03/01/2008

A Civilised Clash

In Progress – A Civilised Clash, 18 min. – a 16 screen drama-dance production, with Prof. Lizbeth Goodman and Bobby Byrne as the Dancers. Music by arrangement with Kila, Dublin.

The Production of A Civilised Clash

When writing the script for this production, I had some priorities in mind. I wanted a scene with two dancers, a man and a woman, and for both to move constantly between the two screens I originally planned for. Each new scene will start with the dancers changing screens in a clockwise fashion, creating some circularity and a cycle of action. The dancers were not to meet each other throughout the piece, and their only meeting is the cataclysm at the very end of the film. Halfway through planning, I decided to experiment with working on 16 screens, something I have not done before, and find out more about the potential of such work. This interest was fired by a wish to undermine the single image and its authority, and build a visual and sound structure which was ‘polyphonic’, breaking the dictate of the mater narrative, and suggesting a larger role for the viewer, who will have to decide on a continuous basis where to direct their gaze.The production was to be carried out using the new facilities of the Matrix East Research Lab, at the Docklands campus of the University of East London. The Lab is a unique facility, allowing artists to edit and display up to 36 video tracks in synchronism, and this was the first time the Lab was going to be used. I decided to use 16 tracks for this production, to be shot in the MERL Studio. This would allow me to project and display the 16 tracks in a surround mode, which is what I wanted – the audience would be totally surrounded by images and sounds, and able to make choices about their focus of viewing. Due to the enormity of the topic, I was looking for a configuration which will offer a totality of experience, and show the action from many points of view. The material for the 16 tracks was to be supplied by using at least five HDV cameras, shooting every single take of the seven scenes which I have written for the dancers. The 16 tracks will be created through editing the various takes on each of the cameras.

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The studio ready for shooting

The MERL Studio

The MERL studio is a medium size production space with a floor space of 100 m2. I was planning to both shoot and present the final product within this space, on a screen configuration outlined below, with 14 flat-panel large LCD monitors suspended from the overhead grid, and two very large projection screens onto which high-quality video projectors will project a 12 M2 image. As the screens emit quite a lot of light, I decided on images which will be lit harshly, with jet black background, so as to keep the ‘spilled’ light to a minimum, and allow the images optimum effect in a studio which is basically a black hole.From the start, I wanted two of the cameras to be static, and take the wide picture of the scene without a break, while the other two cameras were to be handheld, and allowed close-up and fluid movement with the dancers; this was necessary in order to create a tension between the two types of materials, adding to the tension between the two large screens, which would include the key images of the male and female dancers, as they move from screen to screenPresentation screen arrangement for A Civilised Clashbetween scenes. The fifth camera, to be operated by me, was to get the overall image of the production, taking in not just the dancers, but also the studio, the cameras and camera-persons. This was necessary for the self-reflexive ending I had in mind.

The dancers, music and work on movement

I had wanted to select two dancers who have worked with each other beforehand, as they would be more likely to easily adapt to the necessary moves and will know how their partner moved even if they did not continuously see them. I was lucky enough to speak with Prof. Lizbeth Goodman about this, and she offered that Bobby Byrne and herself could do this, and performed together many times before. I have already seen Bobby perform before, and very much liked his energy and intensity.

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Lizbeth Goodman and Bobby Byrne

The fact that both dancers were differently disabled was also very important, as I was interested in contrasting the role and the dancer, and this offered very exciting potential. This also helped to choose the music, as both have performed before with the Irish Kila band, and an approach to the lead, Colm, has secured the use of their music which I already knew, and which was ideal for this kind of performance. Some of their pieces have clear Eastern references, such as Arabic, North African and Far Eastern musical character, and this served my purposes especially well.With experienced dancers of this calibre, working on the choreography, something I had little experience in, was relatively easy and most enjoyable. Each of the scenes had to be blocked first in terms of special relationship, and then the specific dance movements would be worked out with the music. The main choices in terms of dramatic developments were made at the pre-production stage, by the script and choice of musical section chosen for each scene, by editing quite a few of the Kila tracks. The movement overall is from birth in the first scene to death and destruction in the last two, so we needed to find the right moves and tempo for each scene, and also weave in some interludes, so that the movement from beginning to end became more elusive and complex, and less pre-destined. I have decided that the final conflict between the militarised west and Islam will be a conflict between a male and female, so as to move away from the standard male body of the Muslim ‘terrorist’, and to complicate the conflict by projecting it onto the gendered set of relationships developed in the scenes before, as man and woman play both their standard, stereotypical roles, as well as their opposites. By making the female body the site of Muslim resistance, I hoped to do away with some of the normalised meanings of the conflict, and give it a depth that it well deserves. This also allowed us to work on some ‘eastern’ elements in the movement, such as ‘arabesque’ hand movements, and belly-dancing movements which were woven in to gradually build the Arab and Islamic ‘other’ against the western style of movement in the other scenes.

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Preparations for a shoot

The work with intense and focussed lighting on HDV video was a very interesting experience, crucial for building the intensity of the scenes, and the relationship between the dancers, which, as they never meet on the screen, depended on the audience, which is placed between them, along the line of sight/gaze. The high contrast created by this type of lighting assisted the conflictual build-up and heightened the tension in all scenes.

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Bobby Byrne in the Objects scene

Because of the lighting angles, movement of the camera-persons with handheld cameras was prescribed and especially difficult, and in need of choreographing together with the dancers, so as not to limit their movement, but still follow it very closely.

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Deveril filming the dancers with handheld camera

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Robin Faure filming the dancers with handheld camera

The short time that each scene lasts – between 80 seconds and 140 seconds – meant that the choice of clothing for each scene was the main and immediate way of signifying change. The changes also signify the developmental and historic aspects of the conflict, and help us to move swiftly through eons, and bring us to the present in the last two scenes. Dance moves are dictated or limited by the clothing, but I found this was a positive quality rather than a limitation, as it coloured the various scenes appropriately. I also wanted to avoid dialogue at all costs, partly due to the fact that there is never any meaningful dialogue between the two adversaries, so meaning was dependent mainly on gestus, rather than spoken words.

The use of nine-screen division

[photopress:multiscreen4.jpg,full,alignleft]The use of dividing the screen area into smaller images is offering a kaleidoscopic effect, somewhat like that in a hall of mirrors, and this was used extensively in one scene, Prayers. The mixture in the presentation space of single and multiple images created what I consider to be a self-reflexive, visual diegetic space, a critical space for the viewer, building new relationships from the picture elements around them, combining them on one single screen,Now that the A Civilised Clash project was shown a number of times in the Lab space, it will be edited into a single screen, as well as a two-screen version, for wider distribution purposes. The work done on the multi-screen version has a pioneering value, and will be presented in the Lab space, until other facilities with similar capabilities become available. Together with Sony Research engineers we are now designing the next stage of the project, which will allow us to travel with production through a lighter, mobile version of the system, so we will be able to show it at other venues of different natures. The experience collected through working on this and seven other multi-screen projects in the Lab space, has clearly shown that it is suitable not only for epic proportion projects, but also to the more intimate type. This knowledge is now used on the new productions currently in preparation.

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Bobby Byrne in the last scene

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Lizbeth Goodman in the last scene

The use of this ground breaking, cutting edge technology for what is a low technology performance piece has created a new, powerful hybrid, capable of dealing with the mythological and the political together, as it were. By projecting a multitude of moving images around the audience, we are enabling and activating them, forcing a Brechtian attitude, and requiring a more active, performative and participatory process of receiving and working out the images and sounds, rather than a passive consumption – a process more akin to this type of material. It is hoped that by further study of this new form/format of media presentation (what are we to call it?…) we may be able to develop the cinematic language which makes full use of the amazing potential of the technology and the setup described here, and bring it to larger and more mixed audiences.

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