No matter the style, dance involves a paradox: the body’s vital solidity against the dancing’s ephemerality. Jason Akira Somma’s keenly promising Phosphene Variations deploys vaporous films and hallucinatory screen versions of live dancers to home in on this anomaly.
Enclosed in a palm reader’s black curtains – though here they are only cordoning off a section of the interdisciplinary SoHo gallery Location One – a holographic Baryshnikov warps and wobbles on a stream of vapour. With every bend in the projector’s misty light, his white shirt and beige slacks striate into bars of brown and grey. When you dip your hand into the airstream, he devolves into a muddy swirl, out of which another luminary emerges, such as Ailey alum Carmen DeLavallade or Somma’s mentor (under Rolex’s arts mentoring scheme) Jirí Kylián.
We do not need to recognise the artist, however, for these 3D figures to prompt a shiver of dread, however. Baryshnikov’s belovedness and his greying may intensify intimations of mortality, but the film’s ghostly silence and the cloud by which we see it would arouse such sentiments for anyone. The holograph comes so close to simulating life that you feel the gap.
The ensuing show in Location One’s theatre (each week a rotating cast of local performers improvises with their trippy live screen version) might have strayed from this sombre theme – have been a loose end – if not for Frances Wessells. She is 93. The founder of Virginia Commonwealth University’s adventurous dance department, Wessells began seated. On four variously sized video screens, Somma multiplied and stacked her silhouette, outlined in fluorescent hues, until it filled a whole virtual theatre, as if all her selves were watching a movie of her years slide by.
Eventually Somma – lanky, muscular and 32 – handed his camera to a colleague and joined Wessells. Imagine a panther cavorting with a dandelion. Her fragility brought out his virility. He picked her up with disconcerting ease and cradled her with care and a touch of adulation. She responded with a mix of disorientation and playfulness that seemed both scandalous and innocent. The virtual dancers may have primed us for this moment by making us ache for presence, but no amount of film magic – and Somma’s manipulations are wizardly – could compete with this duet’s elemental charge.