Slow Dancing as Religious Experience

July 26, 2007

Where can you see Elizabeth Streb, in boots and black-rimmed glasses, dancing next to Allegra Kent, in an ethereal gown with flowing sleeves? Where can you see Shen Wei, aiming his arms and legs like calligraphy, next to Trisha Brown bringing her hands to her throat and bursting upward through her hands? Where can you see Mira Hunter, a Turkish dervish, spinning with skirt flaring so far out it seems like it could smack you in the face, next to Kwikstep spinning on his head?

    All these juxtapositions are part of Slow Dancing, a public art project now up at Lincoln Center. Three huge panels cover the façade of NY State Theater, each showing a single great dancer (many cultural traditions are represented) doing a characteristic phrase. Mastermind David Michalek stretched five second of movement into 10 minutes on screen. From 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., 43 figures are projected onto three screen.

    Hundreds of people standing, sitting, lying down on the pavement of Lincoln Center Plaza look upward, as though watching fireworks. The slowness provides the opposite of fireworks in terms of dynamic flow, but something like fireworks in terms of visual stimulation. Every detail of how a hand starts to dip, or how a head starts to whip, is amplified in time and space.

    Maybe it’s the proximity of the fountain below and the night sky above, but these gods and goddesses seem to have their own Mount Olympus. (I am not the first to make this connection. In one of the media interviews, Wendy Whelan, whose own dancing happens to be glorious in slow-mo, said she felt watching the projections was a religious experience.) Every figure seems exalted, and you can watch them in their movement—both the mechanics and the illusion—for hours. Janie Taylor’s leg sweeps into an attitude, and you’re watching it go for miles before her foot almost touches the back of her head.

    Read more about this project in Dance Magazine’s July issue (“How Slow Can You Go”). I have personally helped gather interviews for a book related to Slow Dancing, so my report is surely biased. But I see people gazing up at these glorious figures with ecstatic expressions and following the flow in a way that maybe they wouldn’t in a theater.

    Slow Dancing is a form of meditation. It makes you think about the fundamental nature of people moving. For instance, I noticed that with ballet and modern, you might see one part of the body holding steady while another part moves. Wendy Whelan in relevé is still except for her back leg coming in to join the front leg before she arches back. Desmond Richardson has a still torso as his leg rotates in and out. But West African dancer Youssouf Koumbassa moves all parts of his body at once—a joyful twistfest. Everything seems fascinating about these ghostlike projections. And the best part is, it’s there for everyone. It’s free and you can talk to people without waiting for intermission. In that sense, it’s not religious at all— —    just  people enjoying the warm balmy night. What a beautiful night for a moon dance.

    The worst part its, it’s only up till the end of the Lincoln Center Festival, July 29. So act fast if you want to give a thankful prayer to our goddess Terpsichore in this particular alluring fashion. For more about the project, see