Intimacy from a Distance
Mark Mann captures the complexity of dancers in photos comprising the book Movement at the Still Point: An Ode to Dance.
Movement at the Still Point: An Ode to Dance
Apart from myriad horrors, COVID-19 enabled big shifts in life and work, shutting so many doors but opening others. One example is Mark Mann’s book Movement at the Still Point: An Ode to Dance, a collection of portraits of 142 dancers taken since 2021. Mann is a renowned photographer who has shot innumerable super-bold names, from Barack Obama to Rihanna. Even if his name doesn’t ring bells, you’ve likely seen one of his photographs on a magazine cover; his best-known style is the extreme facial close-up. Mann’s work dried up with the onset of the pandemic, but in an outdoor conversation, his sister-in-law and choreographer Loni Landon suggested photographing dancers, who were missing creative and human connections. Landon compiled a list of subjects, beginning with Rena Butler, and Mann began to shoot.
The title, Movement at the Still Point, quotes T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” from Four Quartets:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
Catching the essence of movement on the static medium of film seems at odds. Dancers have the remarkable ability to shape the body into often unnatural positions at precise moments, acquiring superb control achieved through years of rigorous physical and mental training. Mann met this challenge by shooting each dancer improvising movement, and also in portrait. Some dancers are represented in both formats; others in full-body compositions. A number of photos feature “money shots” that show off an individual’s skills, whether it’s a split leap or a gravity-free backbend, like the cover shot of Quaba Venza Ernest. But in a surprising number of full-frame portraits, the dancer focuses inward, aware of the body’s internal dialogue while navigating a specific move or emotional state.
The back cover shot of Catherine Hurlin exemplifies this—she is mid-pirouette, face turned away, and yet we sense her joy in executing this essential move with skill. We also see her sculpted legs, impressively muscular compared to how slender she appears on stage. The photo captures one of Hurlin’s signatures—spinning (her nickname is “Hurricane”), a still photo somehow suffused with motion. In contrast, the photo of ballerina Skylar Brandt pictures her standing perfectly still, bare feet planted in a relaxed fourth position, gaze piercing the lens. It’s ironic given that Brandt is one of the most quicksilver allegro movers in the art, feet often blurring with speed. Given her particular skills and her petite size, she is often cast in lighthearted roles to match the levity and swiftness of the movement. But in Mann’s portrait, she possesses the gravity and depth of focus needed to perform as she does.
Alonso Guzman and Dardo Galletto appear immersed in the push/pull of a tango in their photograph. Guzman’s weight is balanced on his right metatarsal as his left leg twists behind his right knee. Galletto’s left palm spreads like a gecko’s foot on Guzman’s back as he stares intently at his partner. Perhaps Mann’s distance from his subjects permitted them to truly feel alone together; he captures their synchronization perfectly.
Mann discovered a warehouse space where he and his son flew a remote-controlled pigeon, catalyzing the project. On the Hudson River, the space boasts ceiling heights of 50 feet or more. Using a medium format Leica S (which he has nicknamed “Gretta”) Mann chose to work with existing light, a technique new to him, placing dancers in front of a variegated canvas backdrop. Due to the distancing mandated by the pandemic, 30 feet separated him from his subject. The resulting photos are richly textured shades on the grayscale, with soft light that models and caresses the dancers’ bodies and skin rather than reflecting harshly. The effect evokes an inner sanctum, peaceful and isolated from external distractions.
Short texts accompany some of the dancers’ portraits, who received open-ended prompts. Hustle dancer Abdiel describes what they feel when dancing: “Each time I begin to move, I experience a flow of energy coursing through my entire body. Sometimes it can feel like a surge of water rushing down my back like a waterfall, a light breeze of air brushing across my face, a fierce heatwave of energy burning deep in my core, or grains of soil grounding my feet in the earth.”
Jessica Amber Pinkett says, “I feel grand and vast and full when I am dancing. Imagine you are dropped in the middle of the ocean, and you ride the waves without fear of sinking or being swept away in the tides.… To be full of power and courage. I want to feel that way all the time.” Mann’s portraits bottle that lightning by allowing the dancers’ inner drive and controlled emotion to emerge, alongside their more obvious physical skills. The book also serves as a time capsule of the wide range of dancers (primarily in New York) working during the pandemic, facing isolation and the absence of public performance.