Tag Archives: dance

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Change the Way You See

This will be the first in a series of posts about how changing the ways we see as photographers can change the stories in our photos.

The approach on each photo assignment is different. Even travel photo assignments differ even though they are on the same general topic. Shooting dance on four separate occasions, I learned about how I had to change the way I looked at the subject, so I could tell the story of each performance from a different perspective.

The eyes of a tourist

 

I love the way the dancer kicks the bottom of the dress to create movement. Burma, 2010. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

When I shot this set in Burma, the assignment was to show Burmese dance as a traveler would see it: in a staged performance, from a distance. I had little background in the dance forms and the stories behind each one. That limited knowledge produced shots from a spectator’s point of view. Luckily I had brought along a long lens, suitable for isolating the dancers and capturing uncluttered portraits showing off the costume and motion against a simple background.

The eyes of a storyteller

Dance acrobatics are important parts of a dance story. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2010.

I love Hanuman, the character in the Ramayana epic. When I shot this assignment at the Chalermkrung National Theatre in Bangkok, it was a behind the scenes story of the dancers who made Hanuman come alive every night at a national theatre in Thailand. I had to shoot the story as I saw it unfold, embracing its unpredictability, paying attention to detail. So I did a little abstraction and a little action. Framing the story with images of detail helped to give the necessary background for the actual dance shots, and the action shots gave me the necessary storyline. Hanuman is a singularly amazing character, but he’s actually several guys in a specially made papier mache mask, whose acrobatics on stage are remarkably demanding.

Symbol in dance can make for some great surprises. Copyright Aloha Lavina 2010.

The eyes of surprise

No one knew that rain was going to come from the umbrella. The dancer at Patravadi Theatre in Bangkok in a free-form modern dance gave us a few surprises. First, he wore an expressionless mask which contrasted with the bright costume and the even brighter umbrella. His movements were quick and energetic. And when he sprung the confetti on us, streaming from the umbrella, it was the biggest surprise of all. Less than a minute of white confetti catching the dim light in the dinner theatre, plus not being able to move because there was simply no time, gave me a limited window for a shot. I put the camera on burst mode and tried to anticipate the next twirl.

The challenges for photo assignments make for fantastic learning. Whether your goal is to get a travel story or capture how an event makes you feel, it helps to look at each assignment with different eyes. Changing the way you see can change the story.

A suggestion of spring at the Patravadi Theatre, Bangkok.

Lessons from Dance

They shuffle through, blind.
Bending slowly from the waist, their arms held in front like floppy fish dripping water, they stoop low to the floor, then slowly raise their torsos again.
When they straighten up, their eyes are white, rolled back into their heads, their mouths contorted in a silent scream. We can hear their ragged breaths, like the mute tolling of ruined bells.
There are only two of us in the audience, but both of us are crying.
“Butoh challenges the idea of beauty,” their teacher whispers. In the two hours as he works with the students through butoh masks—the facial grimaces that signify emotion in the dance theatre—and butoh walks—the ways the dancers move forward, we are transported into Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. We are at ground zero, watching the survivors, their flesh burnt and peeling off, shuffling through the destruction, gasping for life and meaning.

Theatre students at a butoh workshop, Bangkok.

The art form makes me uncomfortable, raises questions.
Last summer, another dancer poses a question to me at his studio near the Chao Phraya River in old Bangkok. He gives me two sets of cymbals, the small ones we call “Ching” in Thai, its onomatopoeic name. He tells me to clang each together and tell him which one I liked.
I try one, then the other. The second one, more battered-looking, a little heavier in the hands, resonates more. The sound it makes lasts some moment longer, and I tell the dancer, “This is the one I like.”

Manop makes the fabric dance, Patravadi Theatre, Bangkok.

He smiles, takes out a couple of candles from his pocket. He lights them and drips the wax of each on the table where we sit.
Blowing the candles, he takes one puddle of wax off the table. “Look at this one,” he says, holding the sliver of wax between finger and thumb, then breaking it with a fingernail. “It’s brittle. Poor quality paraffin.” The bits of hardened paraffin sprinkle the table like cheap yellow confetti.
Slapping his hands to get rid of the crumbled wax, he takes the beeswax puddle into his hand and begins to roll it between his thumb and forefinger. He kneads it, tells me, “This one I can mold into whatever shape I want.” He smiles, looks away, then seriously pronounces, “Dance is like this candle, and like the cymbals that resonate. The one made of quality matter is the one we like, the one we can mold into something.”
He dances now, at the table, and his eyes hold no emotion. “If I go through the motions of a

A suggestion of spring at the Patravadi Theatre, Bangkok.

dance, but I bring no quality into the motion, the dance fails. But—“ and here I see his face change, he is flirting with his audience and I cough and laugh at the same time, “—if you intend to bring inner quality into the dance, something happens.
“I can tell you something, and you don’t have to know any thing about dance, but you’ll understand.”
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See Khun Manop and Patravadi dancers at the Fringe Festival 2011, held both in Hua Hin and Bangkok from January 29th to March 17th, 2011. Tickets range from 300 Baht for students to 800 Baht for adults.

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