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A Touch of Stardust: Dance in Space and Time

By Francesca Horsley

Alana Ng (RNZB) in AXIS: Anatomy of Space

In Daniel Belton’s mesmeric art dance films, dancers may find themselves traversing a fine line in space, framed within a line of an ancient boulder or suspended on a magical web of intersecting lines. Often miniaturised, sometimes clad in fanciful costumes, they are there almost as messengers from the past – or the future; inhabitants in cosmic worlds or comic figures in a whimsical narrative. Always there is a sense of poetic mystery, a spiritual dimension or earthly magic as both mathematics, physics, sophisticated digital wizardry transport us to other realms that serve as metaphors realised through a unique dance vision.

For over 17 years Daniel has built a formidable reputation and his projects have been presented in a variety of platforms including theatres, art galleries, museums, media facades and city architecture. Often made in collaboration with New Zealand and international artists, many of his films have won numerous awards at festivals throughout the world. Since being made a New Zealand Arts Laureate in 2015, his work is now reaching a wider audience.

His latest work, Axis - anatomy of space, is a 360-degree dome cinema dance premiered in The Arts House, Singapore and in the Planetarium at the Otago Museum, and will be performed at Auckland’s Stardome Observatory and Planetarium as part of Matariki celebrations. It is described “as an experience exploring the cosmic energies of Aotearoa, a kaleidoscopic journey full of movement, charting space with planetary cartography”. For this work, Daniel has collaborated with Singapore composers Joyce Beetuan Koh and PerMagnus Lindborg, Tanya Carlson for the costumes, dancers from the Royal New Zealand Ballet and Jim Murphy’s kinetic sculptures.

When we spoke, Daniel was about to travel to Wellington from his home in Dunedin to create a new work with his alma mater, the New Zealand School of Dance, as part of their 50-year celebrations. He relishes being back in the studio, and while graduating some 30 years ago has returned many times to make works or run workshops.

Daniel and his partner, Donnine Harrison, also a School of Dance graduate and recognised choreographer, both danced here and internationally before returning to establish Good Company Arts 20 years ago. Daniel is the artistic director, Donnine the producer, and the company became a charitable trust in 1999.

Despite the digital wizardry, Daniel is essentially a story teller and the works have a strong narrative. The process begins with the dancers. “I like work that involves objects, touch-based and non-touch patterning where I lead the dancers through a kind of ‘plastic’ training, that takes its roots from Meyerhold's Biomechanics, brought forward into this timeframe.”

“In the old days, I used to impose more steps on my dancers but now it is very much a dialogue. I invite them into the space and we have a conversation.” This ensures storytelling that builds and supports the overall structure.

Then there is a huge post production journey, where he works with his team of motion graphic people and composers. “I relook at the captured material of the dance and analyse what has been recorded, and then a subtractive composition process happens. I always shoot far too much material and whittle it down and find those threads of the stories I was looking for.”

“Sometimes if those threads are not there or not strong enough, we might go back and reshoot something. If all the dancers have gone then Donnine and I have to do that, so sometimes we end up in these works by default. You can see this very blurred, slightly older looking guy who can’t kick very high or Donnine – but she is so elegant it is great when she chooses to be part of projects.”

Jacob Chown with Tonia Looker (RNZB) in AXIS Anatomy of Space)

After he has captured the dancer in motion, he then puts on effects – sometimes it is an analogue process and other times purely digital. “It is like putting a work into the digital kiln. It might be just a sequence, a phrase from one dancer that I have multiplied and layered by using the black space like a transparency. I will come back in the morning and have a look at maybe five or six renders of various scenes. Perhaps half of them aren’t what I was looking for but then there is some really great material and I can open that up and start working with it.”

He says there is an element of chance as well. “I am often altering the look of the human figure, pushing the presence in the digital space. Often, I will have one figure multiplied a few times so there is a sense of that person in the future and past, and it can appear as if they are projecting themselves forward in space.”

Daniel says a key to his successful collaboration is his relationship between artists, designers, performers, musicians and technical people that sometimes goes back years. “With Donnine, it is very rewarding because we have such a rapport that goes back decades and we understand each other very well. Also, Jac Grenfell, a motion graphics artist based in Dunedin whom I have worked with since 2003 – he is absolutely brilliant and was very much a key player in master-minding the translation of the 2D material into the multi D dome space in AXIS."

“I often bring the same people back because we enjoy working together and can arrive at those moments of story-telling magic.”

Daniel’s dance interest began with ballet lessons as a 10-year old, but his artistic background in visual arts started much earlier. “I have always painted, drawn and made puppets. I come from a visual arts family; my father is an art historian, painter and painting lecturer and my mother is a children’s book illustrator and a puppeteer. So right from a very small age, I was telling stories, translating books into mini stage puppet events. These kinetic, miniature spaces are so dynamic, so much can happen, and as a child it is just wonderful seeing these stories translated, morphed or expanded and pushed. It is a malleable environment and you have music, the human voice and all these things going on.”

These essential elements still hold true. “One of the reasons I particularly enjoy working with new media is that essentially it is light. Human beings are essentially light as well; if you really get down to it we are complex, harmonic and electrical beings. Of course, we are biological beings but we live on a water planet and the percentage of our bodies made up of water is very high. We are conductors and receivers, and we project and affect space and time – we build our own world within worlds.”

“For me it’s important that the work comes through me and through the collaborators I work with – that it is positive. The work is often posing questions around why we are here and reminding us we are custodians of the planet – we don’t own it, we are just visiting and need to look after this beautiful place and each other."

Download the article: A Touch of Star Dust: Dance in Time and Space

Read the DANZ review of Axis (Hahna Briggs) 

A Touch of Stardust: Dance in Space and Time

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