Arts review: Human Locomotion – mesmerising dancing spoiled by too much dry and flat dialogue
This drama about pioneering Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge is visually stunning, with sensual dancing, but the narrative doesn’t add much to the piece, except to interrupt the celebration of the beauty of the human form
Laterna magika’s Human Locomotion is a multimedia dance drama about the 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, and the dancers’ tribute to the eccentric innovator’s stop-motion technique is on target, stunning to look at and incredibly sensual. However, too much of the 80-minute production is taken up by flat dialogue about his discovery of his neglected wife’s love affair. Even the murder of his rival was strangely unengaging.
The theatre group from the Czech Republic mixes dance with drama and is widely lauded for its visual wizardry, something which Muybridge devoted his entire life to (rather than to his wife, who is made out to be giggly and childish here).
He made a device called the Zoopraxiscope that he used to create the first motion pictures. The idea is similar to today’s GIF videos which are also made with showing many still images shown in quick succession. His 1887 Dancing, Waltz, Two Models, shows a man and a woman moving together closely, a private moment captured by the a photographer obsessed with capturing fleeting instances. On stage, pairs of dancers perform a series of fluid duets.
In 1878, Muybridge made one of his best-known series of photographs called The Horse in Motion, which set out to prove that a horse has all four legs in the air at some point while it is galloping. It required an elaborate arrangement that made horses set off triggers on a series of cameras lined up along a racecourse that all had shutters that could close for one-thousandth of a second, made possible by an earlier technological breakthrough by Muybridge.
A group of near-nude female dancers wearing white horse heads stretch, prance and nudge each other in the scene set at the racecourse. Later, the same dancers appear with hoop skirts and little else, their lithe bodies a celebration of the beauty of the human form much in the way that beauty is celebrated in Muybridge’s human studies.
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It is evident again when two well-made male dancers fight on an elevated walkway as the actors playing Muybridge and his wife’s lover look on impassively. The fighters strip down and engage in slow-motion, superbly choreographed combat with some headbutting to provide a spot of light relief.
It is worth noting that at no point did any of the dancers appear on stage naked. The projection of Muybridge’s human studies is done at such speed that you can’t really tell the whether they are clothed or not. Yet, the performance came with a stern warning that it “contains nudity scenes and adult contents” and was not suitable for those under the age of 15, which is both unnecessary and censorial, possibly denying the young a chance to see innovative and memorable theatre.
And the three-year-old production is worth seeing, even though the best moments are all too often interrupted by the prosaic narrative of the drama’s all-too mortal characters. It is ironic, perhaps, that a photographer who spent his entire life trying to make the moment eternal would commit murder in real life. But Human Locomotion would have done better by focusing more on the immortality of art, which after all, is the legacy of Muybridge, and not his personal life.
This review is based on the Sept 29 performance of Human Locomotion at the Sai Wan Ho Civic Centre Theatre, 111 Shau Kei Wan Rd, Sai Wan Ho, tel: 3184 5777