Show description: Dance is an art form of touch. Of bodies connecting in space to make shapes, to tell stories, to create feeling. So, what happens when we can't be next to one another? Pones will explore how to feel close, even though, for the moment, we are all so far apart. (Flashing light) 45 minutes
The filmed dance performance Proximity from the group Pones is easily one of the most beautiful pieces of art I've seen in years, and possibly one of the only things I feel like I can actually thank the pandemic for. Given how ungenerous I feel to our current public health disaster and the effect it's had on all of our lives (Virtual Fringe, anyone? Theaters and bars and restaurants all closed, some of them for good, etc.), I'm surprised to be so thankful for something that could only exist because of the state in which we're all currently stuck. Minimum six feet apart, more likely isolated, unsafe to share space and air with anyone. A friend wondered in a text to me while watching the Digital Hub previews on Wednesday night, "Do I really need to see COVID art right now?"
You need to see Proximity.
Because it's not really art about COVID. It's art about what it means to be human. (I guess all art, good and bad, is about being human in some way, but...)
Proximity is art about what it means to be human right now.
It's a complete fluke that it was the first thing I chose to watch, because I was intrigued by the video trailer that was part of the previews the night before, but I'm so glad I watched it as my first Fringe show this year. Proximity made me feel so much better about being alive right now, and pushing on with all the stuff we have to deal with. America is almost impossibly terrible right now. And it feels like we're just waiting, and scared, and frustrated. We need change and progress so desperately, and there just seems to be so much lined up against the possibility of change or progress, despite all the work, and all the voices raised in the fight. A person could be forgiven for being exhausted or despairing.
Proximity actually made me feel hopeful. In spite of ALL of that.
Saying it's required viewing sounds too much like homework, or another thing you have to do.
Be nice to yourself. Sit down and watch Proximity. It will make you feel better. Even if just for a little while.
I honestly want to watch it again. But I want to sit with my memory of it for a couple of days first.
It's almost not fair to line this up against everyone else's last-minute, hastily filmed, jury-rigged performances to fit a new socially distanced online only format.
Pones somehow created this work - choreographed it, rehearsed it, shot it, and edited it together - between the time the pandemic took over our lives, and now.
So, roughly less than four months.
Seeing the end result, that doesn't seem possible. And yet here it is.
First of all, it's gorgeous.
It's a visual love letter to the greater Cincinnati area. Pones is based out of Covington, Kentucky (which I didn't realize until the other day is right on top of Cincinnati, OH) Visually breathtaking locations like the Cincinnati Museum Center, the Music Hall, the art museums, a stunning public park, the exterior of the baseball stadium, all provide countless opportunities for staging. And then there's otherwise mundane residential or business areas (the sides of buildings, parking lots, walking bridges and staircases for commuters, overgrown grassy fields) that provide equally arresting images when juxtaposed against the movement of the dancers, and the equally mobile camerawork. I keep going back and forth on just how much the colors are over-saturated. If that's how it looks every day, I can't imagine how anyone gets any work done, the environment's just so beautiful. You'd be distracted and just keep bumping into things as you walked around.
Huge round of applause for Director of Photography (and Editor) Ian Timothy Forsgren, who's also one of the choreographers and a dancer in the company on this one. Thanks as well to his assistant cinematographers NayNan Duncan, Max Roberts, Ethan Graham Roeder, Dan Scheid, Jackie Smith (also a Production Assistant), and Amy Tuttle (also one of the dancers in the company).
Then there's the choreography and the way the dancers are staged for filming.
They take the limitation of needing to keep dancers at least six feet apart, and turn it into a positive. Do they sometimes seem a little closer every now and then? Yeah. (I was surprised by how nervous that made me.) But distance becomes a part of the staging technique, either to create more solo moments or to make a more expansive picture on the visual canvas of any given location. Also, they've staged things repeatedly on multiple levels, many of them visually present in the same frame. Or, they'll have multiple variations on a similar set of movements set at different intervals, around a corner, up or down a hill, just over a rise, just out of sight, or behind some architectural feature that temporarily obscures someone. The camera shifts, follows someone around a corner, looks down or through a fence, and suddenly there's another layer of the dance pulled back and revealed. It's both simple and complex at the same time, full of little surprises.
Forsgren is also one of the choreographers on the project, alongside Kim Popa (who's the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Pones), and Courtney Duncan, Glenda Figueiredo, Malina Gramata-Jones, Maliyah Gramata-Jones, Jensen O'Dell, and Michael Wright. All the choreographers are also dancers in the company. Other dancers on the project are the previously mentioned Amy Tuttle, plus Tabari Crook, Ernaisja Curry, Zoe Rose Davidson, Montez Jenkins-Copeland, Chantee Jordan, Jamie Kreindler, Julie Locker, Cece Padilla, Donna Rubin, and Amy Siler.
Then there's the editing.
Honestly, it's just things that seem really simple visually but that I found very satisfying - such as, after spending an opening sequence on largely exterior locations, ending with a rising shot at the front of a theater at night, with dancers standing under a lit marquee, the shot continues to rise as it fades into the interior of a theater finding dancers in progress inside, and on we go. Same with traveling up a hill blending into traveling up a staircase. Or taking dancers dancing in the same place at different times and overlapping and cross-fading them in a way that makes it seem like they're dancing together. The attention to detail, shot to shot, and then the visual callbacks later in the film, all help guide the viewer from one sequence, one location, one dancer to the next.
The music by Chihel Hatakeyama and Shawn Elsbernd is a perfect companion to the movement, always understated, never overpowering, working with the movement of the dancers and the camera rather than out of sync or in opposition to them. About halfway in, we finally hear a human voice for the first time - Jyreika Guest, performing a spoken word piece spaced out over several different visual sections, and helping to offer a kind of benediction to the way we're living now, and the future we can make better by
working with one another to get through today. Again, perfect, just enough, not too much.
The wonderful and sad thing is that this film and performance would have been almost impossible to create at any other time. The fact that most public gathering places and most businesses are shut down right now, or operating at a diminished capacity, and that most people are reducing the amount of time they spend in public spaces of any kind - that all presents the deserted canvas on which this dance can take place. Yes, I'm sure they had to stop every now and again for the occasional passerby or burst of vehicle traffic. But I'd be surprised if they had to do it that often. Other people don't even really appear on the edges of this performance until over half way into the run time. If this city had been bustling at full capacity as it was back in January and February of this year, Proximity wouldn't have been possible. But then again, it also wouldn't have been necessary. One sequence, with two people dancing, separate, in a closed up restaurant in the middle of the day, big open windows looking out on empty streets, chairs turned up on tables - the absence of people, and these two filling in for all who aren't there, I found it incredibly moving. And that's just one of many moments in the run time.
It would be hard to ask for a more fitting and beautiful time capsule of this very weird moment, or a more hopeful declaration of the fact that some of us are still here and will make it to the other side of it somehow.
The nicest thing you can do for yourself right now is to take 45 minutes and sit and watch Proximity. The nicest thing you can do for other people is to tell them to watch it, too.
Promixity from Pones is playing on the Digital Hub of the Virtual Fringe for the rest of the festival, available any hour of the day, between now and the end of Fringe on Sunday, August 9, 2020.
5 stars - Very Highly Recommended