Isaac Julien’s “Cast No Shadow” at BAM

Last night I saw Isaac Julien’s Cast No Shadow, created in collaboration with choreographer Russell Maliphant, at BAM as part of the Next Wave Festival and PERFORMA07. Like Claudia La Rocco’s review in the New York Times from Nov 8th, I was ecstactically overwhelmed by Julien’s films, and frustratingly underwhelmed by Maliphant’s choreography.

Presented as a trilogy that Julien has been working on for several years, the evening started out with “True North” a three channel film depicting gorgeous images of the Artic, many shot in Iceland and Greenland.


“True North” by Isaac Julien

Actress Vanessa Myrie, is a striking presence in all three works as a mysterious voyager passing through different worlds. In “True North” she abstractly represents Matthew Henson, the African American explorer who quite possibly was the first person to reach the North Pole. Julien depicts the icy other-worldly landscape as a land of huge contrasts: still and vacant vistas with giant crashing waterfalls, liquid water with brittle ice. The only problem with the work was Russell Maliphant’s live choreographed dance on stage and sometimes shadow-cast upon the screens. While Julien’s films were gorgeous studies in contrasting states of being (specifically through the metaphor of water), Maliphant was only liquid, in a way that spread mediocrity across the work and melted away the striking edges of the film.

The second piece, “Fantome Afrique” was a journey through Burkina
Faso’s colorful capital city Ouagadougou known as a filmmaking center
for Africa. This section was presented just as a film installation, and
as a videodance-maker, obviously this was my favorite part of the
evening. Again presented on three panels with three different channels
of film, the work blew me away from an editing perspective. Not only
were each of the three screens engaging to watch just on their own, but
they were masterfully choreographed together to create juxtapositions
of images that gave many more layers of meanings. To me it seemed to
raise the concept of montage to the 3rd degree (montage cubed). Vanessa
Myrie passes through the film again, as an omnipresent observer of all
faces of humanity. Also, a much better dance/film collaboration is
apparent with choreographer Stephen Galloway, who appears in the film
as a dynamic force who seems to ride and stir the winds of change. I
loved the way Julien shot Galloway’s movement. Sometimes in extreme
close-ups of just his hands framing an object in the distance, other
times as a flickering, stuttering life made of dust, or a haunting face
illuminated in the dark.

The third piece, “Small Boats” is the
most recent film in the trilogy and was made in collaboration with
Russell Maliphant and dancers from the start. This time we are taken to
Sicily where the story of countless African immigrants sailing across
the Mediterranean to a “better life” is depicted. This was the only
single channel film of the evening, and it was projected onto a scrim
at the front of the stage while the live dancing was intermittently
revealed behind it. I thought the use of the scrim was really
effective. At times black holes would materialize in the film to reveal
the dancers behind the scrim, the most striking of these was a shot of
a marble staircase from above with a dancer rolling down the stairs.
Slowly the stairs between the banisters dissolved away, and the camera
zoomed into the darkness with a body of a dancer illuminated behind the
scrim. All this was cool, except when the live dancers actually danced.

problem with Maliphant’s choreography is that he has a movement
vocabularly of about 10 words, and one of these words (the drop and
roll on the floor move), is used more than a Valley girl says “like”. I
swore if I saw another drop and roll I was going to scream! I tried to
distract myself by watching the film, but they were too good at making
space in the film for the dance (which is often what I want to see more
of in these kinds of interdisciplinary performances).

Sadly, we
can’t always get what we want, but from a filmmaking perspective my
cuppeth overfloweth with inspiration from Isaac Julien’s work. Luckily,
just the film version of “Small Boats” is playing for free through Nov.
20th at Metro Pictures Gallery,
and now I want to see all his older works, like the film he made with
Bebe Miller and Ralph Lemon “Three.” Anybody know where or how one can
see this?

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One Response to Isaac Julien’s “Cast No Shadow” at BAM

  1. Eva Yaa Asantewaa says:

    You’re absolutely on target about the woeful deficiency in Maliphant’s choreography. Julien’s film work is so eye-popping good, so poetic, you wonder what this work could have been with dance that could hold its own.

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