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Spellbinding: Hong Kong is in for a visual feast with Laterna magika and Company Zimmermann & de Perrot shows

Czech and Swiss theatre groups are inspired by pioneering English photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s work in photographic studies of motion, and early work in motion-picture projection

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 August, 2017, 9:42am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 August, 2017, 9:44am

In 1872, an American railroad millionaire had a bet with his friends. When horses trotted and galloped, were all their hooves ever in the air at the same time, or did one foot always stay on the ground?

They spent some time watching their own thoroughbred horses, but somehow it was all too quick to work out.

So Leland Stanford, who would later with his wife Jane found Stanford University, decided to see if photography could solve the question.

He brought in English-born photographer Eadweard Muybridge, born Edward Muggeridge, to help him, commissioning portraits of his champion racehorse Occident on the move at the Union Park racetrack in Sacramento.

Photography was in its infancy, and Muybridge was more used to the slow exposures of Yosemite landscapes and the stationary lighthouses of the Pacific coast. However, he experimented, and produced some rather blurry pictures of Occident.

These proved, fuzzily, and for the first time in history, that horses do “fly” as they trot and gallop, with at least one of the shots showing all four feet off the ground.

Muybridge and Stanford were hooked on the pursuit to capture motion using a camera.

Over the next few years, with the help of Stanford’s Central Pacific Railroad engineers, Muybridge developed a camera with a high speed mechanical shutter, and suddenly it was possible to see motion – not just trotting but galloping, and “the [apparently] impossible positions that the horse assumes in his different gaits”.

One of his most famous series was of “The Horse in Motion” in 1878, featuring Stanford’s mare Sallie Gardner, who flies through the air in a sequence that even today, when we are used to images, still seems marvellous. Muybridge made them by rigging up a bank of cameras, triggered by the horse as she galloped past.

By working out how to project these still pictures through a device he invented, Muybridge with Stanford’s money behind him, could be said to have created the first movie projector. He called it a “zoopraxiscope” rather than a movie projector, and the name didn’t catch on at all.

When he turned to the human figure, he could take pictures – sequences of still, sharp, pictures, of people dancing and running, which influenced the artist Edgar Degas who used them later to prepare to paint some of his famous pictures of dancers.

This year, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the extraordinary images Muybridge created, a Czech theatre group is touring with a multimedia show based on his work – and on Muybridge’s colourful and troubled life.

This included shooting and killing his wife’s lover, although in the trial it was judged to be justifiable homicide, and he was allowed to keep his liberty.

Laterna magika was formed almost 60 years ago when the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (now Czech Republic and Slovakia) wanted something wonderful to feature at the Brussels Expo of 1958.

It took its name from the magic lantern, which was an early way to project images, with bright light shone through sequences of scenes painted (and later photographed) on sheets of glass … and became known for its atmospheric, almost magical use of black light, film projection and live action.

Since Prague holds one of Muybridge’s original collections of images, and since Muybridge was so important in the development of the technology Laterna magika has explored so innovatively, it is inevitable that they created a show based on him.

Human Locomotion will have its Hong Kong premier at the Sai Wan Ho Civic Centre on September 29, and runs for three performances.

The set is designed to be the inside of the camera itself, a box lined with purple, and the movements of the actors are projected on a theatrical version of the zoopraxiscope, using multiple cameras to show the skirts like tents, and the dancers with magical white horses’ heads. Behind the word Helios, meaning Sun, is written on the wall.

This is a tiny step – hardly a human locomotion at all – from another innovative multimedia show coming to Hong Kong City Hall in September (from 8-10) which has its title Hallo written on the set wall.

That show is by acclaimed Swiss choreographer and physical actor Martin Zimmermann. And, while it is not about Muybridge explicitly, it is very much about the mechanics (often the comic mechanics) of locomotion.

In the deliciously mad Hallo, actor-dancer-clown Martin Zimmermann climbs through chairs and boxes, making them somehow plastic and unlikely.

He trained in circus juggling but, in this show, what he is juggling is the set itself, which moves comically into parallelograms so you’re not sure quite what shape anything is any more.

What would Muybridge have made of either of these shows? No doubt he would have had his camera out, and started shooting. Each has a moment when you almost wonder if the actors can fly.

Hallo by Zimmermann & de Perrot, at Hong Kong City Hall, Sept 8-10.

Human Locomotion by Laterna magika, at Sai Wan Ho Civic Centre, Sept 29-Oct 1.