Art Seen: National

DARA FRIEDMAN // MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART DETROIT

by Alexandra Kadlec

At the beginning of Kanye West’s music video Runaway (2010), an unexpectedly poetic scene takes place. West, dapper in a suit and bowtie, starts to tap the keys of a white piano. Slowly, resolutely, the somber notes are sent out, piercing the air one at a time. Within seconds, a troupe of ballet dancers in black leotards rushes onto the screen—a concrete floor, their stage. The piano keys punctuate the light scratching of the dancers’ steps as they assemble themselves into a huddle, their slender, sculpted bodies curved into various poses.

And then, suddenly, the tempo picks up. Beats join the melody, and Kanye’s voice, a smooth croon interspersed with nimble rapping, comes through. One by one, the dancers awaken. Every part of their bodies responds to the tempo—but in tight, composed, ballet-dancer-like fashion. It’s an extraordinary merging of seemingly discordant worlds. The lyrics are at once crude, and the movement refined – sexy, and sophisticated, tough, and graceful, blatant, yet demure. Somehow, it works beautifully.

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Dara Friedman Projecting, Images courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and the Artist. Image detail from Dancer, 2011.

Something akin to this feeling—a thrilling discovery, in this moment—is the same intriguing synthesis of grit and beauty that occurs throughout Dara Friedman’s film, Dancer (2011). Shown as part of the exhibition Dara Friedman: Projecting, currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), Dancer takes viewers on an expressive tour of Miami’s urban landscape through music and bodies in motion.

The film is an ode to a city and a celebration of self-expression. Multicultural men and women of all ages cut through the air, bound along sidewalks, spin in courtyards, and even suspend themselves from fabric woven around tree limbs. They tap dance and belly dance. They break dance and ballet dance. The soundtrack evolves from classical, to feel-good, to exotic. The ensuing scene is always unpredictable, but when it arrives, it feels right. Yet this seeming spontaneity is underpinned by a deliberation, determination, and poetic choreography.

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Dara Friedman Projecting, Images courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and the Artist. Image detail from Dancer, 2011.

Friedman, an artist who explores performance, urban space, and the individual in her work, began the process of creating Dancer by sending out a casting call to Miami-based artists. She placed advertisements in The Miami New Times, on Craigslist, and on the Miami Art Museum’s website. After holding auditions, she decided upon over sixty artists from a diverse array of dance backgrounds and genres.

Over the span of two months, Dancer came to life. The film was shot in Super 16mm black and white, at shifting angles (even upside-down), sometimes with a blurred-edge lens, or with spotlights on the dancers—all from the back of a moving van. These dramatic elements, combined with a low-budget feel, provoke the viewer to interpret each scene up-close, curiously, just as Friedman does: to “feel” the work, to make the connection between mind and body, to discover the moment when it all comes together.

And indeed, the film comes together, again and again. The relationship between the city we observe—its lively and mundane parts—and the dancers that occupy it is dynamic, always deeply and personally intertwined. Bursts of improvised expression find a stage on the concrete, an audience is formed in the unsuspecting crowds. Sometimes we bear witness to romantic innuendo, two bodies seducing one another through tangos and tangles. At other times the individual is glorified, one singular body given free reign.

Amidst the shifting rhythms and diverse performances, there is a certain unity to Dancer. It can be read in one sense as a tribute to the universal language, the bonding power, of creative performance—alone and with others, in a populous or deserted space. The title speaks volumes, silently; it is singular, yet all-encompassing. Every one of us is, and can be, a dancer.


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Dara Friedman: Projecting will be on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit through July 27.

Alexandra Kadlec is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Time Out New York, Chicago Art Magazine, Chicago DIY Film Magazine, and Revue Magazine. She currently works for Reagan Marketing + Design.

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