Susan Morris | Essays

Sundance/Slamdance 2023: Performing Arts

This year the 2023 Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals were rich with performing arts films. “When you don't realize you're in the moment/Until it's a memory” are the opening lyrics to L.A.-based producer Noizu’s song Noizu Summer 91 (Looking Back) written during the pandemic and reflecting on the year 1991 in music. Vienna, Austria-based music video maker Rupert Höller, who “is drawn to slightly off-kilter, quirky and humoristic work framed by symmetry, contrasting color and unique visuals” made this amusing short starring musician Somsamay Raxajack mimicking the dancing rhythms of a car wash mitter curtain, windmills, waving arms of cat toys, blinking traffic lights, plastic bag drifting in the wind, flashing car headlights, a water fountain and a fan. The mirroring movements of each show there’s a soundtrack to the world all around if you watch and listen.

Another approach to the rhythms of daily life are in Slow, where a dancer and sign language translator build a relationship; she’s very sensual and he is asexual but communicates physically as well as verbally.

The pantomime artist Marcel Marceau is profiled in The Art of Silence. Perhaps the best-known practitioner of this art form which answers “the need to free language from words and to restore full expressiveness to gestures” making it a truly universal language across cultures and ages. Having impacted such diverse artists as David Bowie, Anthony Hopkins, Rudolph Nureyev, and Kate Bush, Marceau was originally Marcel Mangel, a Jew whose family was persecuted by the Nazis (his father died at Auschwitz) who joined the French Resistance. One of his students, Rob Mermin, who started Circus Smirkus based in Vermont, developed Parkinson’s disease, and found that mime gave him better control of his motor skills, so adapted techniques of pantomime in the Parkinson’s Pantomime Project for those afflicted with the condition in “mime over matter.” “So mime gave him a new essential meaning…  This is kind of the mystery about being a mime: you have to observe people, you have to imagine a movement, and then you have to reproduce it.”

Charlotte Triebus explores intersections of design and music, art and dance, here in Kin, a performative dance piece exploring the human body and digital technology. Avatars move in augmented space and on mobile devices ”to sense alien intimacy and the fine line between observation and surveillance.” The avatar dancers respond to proximity, movement and even wind.  

Kylie is a Black ballerina in Los Angeles, who dances on the street, in a parking lot, a shopping center, on the beach and in her neighborhood, all in a tutu.

Pioneering Black model turned activist Bethann Hardison (1942-), who along with Beverly Johnson, Iman, and Pat Cleveland broke barriers in the 1970s appearing on top runway shows and magazine covers is profiled in Invisible Beauty. In 1984, she founded Bethann Management Agency (Tyson Beckford, Naomi Campbell, and Veronica Webb were among her roster of models) to diversifying the pool with many ethnicities and colors, then in 1988 the Black Girls Coalition (with Iman) to provide advocacy and support to African American models, and in the 1990s produced television programs to expand the concept. In the last decade, she has been recognized for her leadership.

“A cat’s eye can heal a mourning soul” says the narrator in A Short Story. Told through a black cat’s POV, this is the tale of a feline who asks a scarecrow “what is the most precious thing in the world?”: he cannot answer directly but mentions three “weirdos” who might, and sets off to find them and the answer. The first is Bot, who works in an orphanage (the building looks like it was designed by Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill, 1939-2022) and makes dark candy he gives to departing orphans. But Bot’s battery died so the cat energizes him with sunlight reflected from a mirror shard. The cat then travels on a cable car downhill, to visit the second weirdo, a woman who eats “losing memory noodles” to forget the tragedy of losing her lover. When she opens the door to her room, we realize we are in the caboose of a moving train, a city seen in the distance beyond the tracks. Going past a broken-down building facade in a train yard, we find the last weirdo called Demon, a magician who will not answer your question unless you provide a Note of your Soul. Performing at the Blue Theater, he lies in bed on stage with footlights flashing; clothes fly in and he dons them. But even though the cat gives him a Note, all he receives is a handful of dirt.  We then learn the backstory of what set the cat on his journey: a little girl found the cat and he brought her gifts — dead birds, snakes, rats — which terrified her so she thought he was evil, and, bereft, the cat left. Today is her birthday, and he brings her a single flower, a sign of his love.

Spectacle is at the center of Cassandro, based on the true story of lucha libre wrestler Saúl Armendáriz AKA Cassandro, here profiled by documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, who also chronicled the actual subject. The flamboyant costumes by the openly gay character serves in stark contrast to the macho Mexican culture in which it lives. He starts out as a small wrestler playing the role of El Topo (the mouse) always losing to the large macho wrestlers. Frustrated, he is encouraged to become an “exótico,” or drag wrestler, taking on his new look — inspired by Mexican actress Verónica Castro and his beloved mother’s heavy makeup and animal-print garments, and the moniker Cassandro from a telenovela. Bad Bunny, the Puerto Rican rapper, plays an aid assigned to Cassandro.

All Sundance and Slamdance 2023 Category Reviews
The Built Environment
Visual Arts
Media Arts
Art + Life
Performing Arts
Literary Arts

Films Mentioned
Noiza - Summer 91 (Looking Back). Director Rupert Hoeller. Slamdance
Slow. Director Marija Kavtaradze. Sundance
The Art of Silence. Director Maurizius Staerkle Drux. Slamdance
Kin. Director Charlotte Triebus. Slamdance
Kylie.  Director Sterling Hampton. Sundance
Invisible Beauty. Directors Bethann Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng. Sundance
A Short Story. Director Bi Gan. Sundance
Cassandro. Director Roger Ross Williams. Sundance

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Jobs | July 20