Sunday, January 27, 2013

Inspired Flight: Cylla von Tiedemann's What Dances in Between

Fire Bird, by Cylla von Tiedemann (Ink Jet Print, 2012, 22” X 33” Dancer’s name: Anastasia Shivrina)

What Dances in Between, the title given to Toronto-based photographer Cylla von Tiedemann’s exhibition of dance images at the Al Green Gallery through February 9, captures the essence of the quasi-retrospective as having no strict beginning or end: a creative journey that, like the dancers in her kinetically charged photographs, is caught in mid-flight.

In this presentation of both old and new images – 55 in total dating from the mid-1980s to the present day – the German-born von Tiedemann, a recipient of a Canada Council-issued Jacqueline Lemieux Prize for her contribution to dance in Canada, appears herself as an artist in flux. The work ranges from photography created from film and assiduously applied dark room techniques to imaginative experiments with digital photography and image manipulation using collage. One wall of the show which opened January 10 shows the now 59-year old photographer more recently pirouetting back to her roots, shooting dancers again with film in the outdoors. The energetic Fire Bird, a 2012 ink jet print showing the dancer Anastasia Shivrina looking as if she is leaping into the branches of a tree, is one of the most recent photographs in the show – a dancer, befitting the context of this show, captured between earth and sky.

Photographer Cylla von Tiedemann
Shooting dancers beyond the artificial setting of a theatre or studio is challenging because the backdrop itself becomes a moving target, changing focus and direction depending on shifting weather patterns and the transition of day into night. The resulting images represent a balancing act combining inspiration and a mastery of technique, two distinct prongs of the artistic process which this show, in its entirety, has brought to together in the work of a particular artist.

As curated by gallery director Lindy Green who handpicked the images from von Tiedemann’s own growing body of work, What Dances in Between creates its own dynamic as a result of the juxtaposition of black and film photography and colour digital work. There’s also thematic unity as a result of von Tiedmann, whether shooting a dancer in a contemplative portrait or in sharply defined motion, presenting the body as a portal for altered states of consciousness. As seen through her lens, dance is an act of both physical and spiritual transformation, a departure point for the body seeking transcendence. “That’s what attracts me to dance,” von Tiedemann said during a post-premiere conversation. “The dancers are always portraying life beyond the body – that invisible world of fantasy and the human spirit.”

  Yseault (Archival Silver Print,, 1996, 20” x16”)
This suggestion of a soul behind the flesh, the presence of personality inside what ostensibly is an image of a moment of muscular dance, is what has marked von Tiedemann’s work throughout a 30-year long career (20 years of which spent as the official photographer of the National Ballet of Canada), and marks it still. Movement is never just the thing for von Tiedemann. It is a metaphor of life as a never ending journey for higher meaning. This underlying philosophical approach is apparent even in images of dancers standing still. Her portrait of a young Margie Gillis, for instance, a Canadian modern dance icon whom von Tiedemann shot in the 1980s, presents the lion-maned dancer in profile, peering with fierce independence into the distance as if measuring how far her imagination – as linked to a no-holds barred body – will soar. In Yseult, former ballerina Yseult Lendvai is also captured in repose in 1996 portrait of her lying amid the billowing tulle of her tutu, her dark hair and eyes contrasting dramatically with the whiteness of her skin and costume: a gothic heroine of the stage. Dancers by nature of their profession are wordless, but these intimate and highly respectful photographs give them a palpable identity, a visual voice so to speak.

These early black and white photographs, among others, helped launch von Tiedemann around 1984 as a photographer coveted by dancers and dance companies wanting to enliven their press kits and billboard ad campaigns with her blazing imagery. Dance artists later sought her out in the 1990s to form artistic collaborations, commissioning her to create still photography which the likes of Lata Pada, Marie-Josée Chartier and Peter Chin integrated into their choreography for the stage. Von Tiedemann’s association with Chin is represented by the 1998 image entitled Empowerment of the award-winning indie artist holding up a boulder more than twice his size with one hand. It’s an illusion of course. But it underscores von Tiedemann’s interest in dance photography as being always more than just what meets the eye. It is way of documenting human potential.

CoastLine by Cylla von Tiedemann ( collaged Ink Jet Print, 2008, 20” X 30”)

This belief in the body as a conduit for self-actualization through an exercising of the spirit is apparent in a series of six collages in which the dancers appear within imaginary landscapes, symbolically representing the nakedness of the spiritual seeker on a quest back to innocence. In conversation, von Tiedmann explains that images like CoastLine and Illfusion, both dating to 2008, are her own interior landscapes exposed to the public. She created them straight from the camera, she said, using digital manipulation to approximate what it is she sees when she sees dance: an energy field. Dance is usually a partnership, involving an exchange of energies to make it move forward. Von Tiedmann maintains that her own work is also a dance in that sense, a collaboration involving photographer and the dancers who continue to inspire. That relationship was keenly felt on the night of the show’s opening. There were dancers on the walls in all manner of exquisitely executed poses – crouched low, reaching high, leaping and spinning into ecstasy. And there were dancers in the gallery itself, out to support a photographer who has long championed their uniqueness. Among them were students of the School of Toronto Dance Theatre, some of whom who were shot by von Tiedemann recently for a series of graduation photographs showcased as part of What Dances in Between. Dressed in their street clothes and perhaps inspired by seeing themselves so gorgeously represented, a few of the dancers entwined themselves into improvised group dance before the photographs, smack dab in the middle of the astonished spectators who scampered to make room for them. It was a case of photography seeming to come alive. The film made flesh made film again, a never-ending circle of mutual inspiration

– Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, has just been published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out for more book updates

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