Seasons of Dance: The Story of Jamaican Dance Theatre, by Monica DaSilva, with a foreword by Rex Nettleford (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 1-4050-7400-0, 240 pp)
There are some things that photography is exceptionally good at. Revealing detail and freezing motion are acknowledged to be among those assets; cataloguing sequences of fine movements is not. In the photography of sports, those specialists talk about the “peak” of the action, the moment, in a particular play, when all the elements come together to tell a decisive story about a particular game. Against that backdrop, then, the photography of dance would seem to be an impossibility. The art of the choreographer does not culminate in a series of friezes, but in a fluent guiding of the human body from one gesture to another, the language of each piece related in the tilt of a head, the swirl of a skirt, the angle of a hip.
Add to the limitations of movements captured in images that last just fractions of a second, the speed of the execution under light which is dramatically contrasty and often inadequate, and you have a challenge that’s simply staggering. Finally, layer into that the judgement of dancers and the intolerance of choreographers for the misinterpretation of their work, and you might begin to understand why there are so very few photographers working in dance.
Against all those odds, Monica DaSilva has produced a body of work that is assembled in an engaging monograph of images spanning two decades of Jamaican dance, under the title Seasons of Dance. All the challenges of dance photography are to be found in its pages, along with many of the triumphs of the companies she has recorded on film in several hundred images; most of them in richly toned black and white. The work is organised around six dance companies in Jamaica, roughly sequenced by time and works, so the best images end up scattered throughout the book.
Because it is so faithful to the work of the artists in front of the lens, the publication includes some images that would not have survived an edit that focused on representing the photographer’s best efforts. The photographer’s work, in what seems to be a monograph, is overruled by its subject. The decision to balance the representation of the six dance companies leads to uneven representation in the photography, unnecessary repetition of very similar sequences, and far too few of the impressive double-page spreads that will stop you for some pleasant moments when you crack open those double-trucks.
There are, in particular, several images which are so contrasty that they void all detail, rendering the dancers as white shapes against a black background, a clever style that entertains once or twice, but is repeated too often throughout the book.
There are few colour images, and that’s not surprising, since even the faster emulsions of the 1980s and 90s were poorly suited to the bold lighting of the theatre, and tended to render colour without subtlety. The best works are captured in black and white, or more accurately, in a rich palette of grayscale hues rendered with the scattered spray of grain typical of push-processed, high-speed film. At their best, these images convey electric performances on many stages in Jamaica and in England, dances frozen at the pinnacle of accomplishment forever.
But the underlying schizophrenia of the book’s design makes appreciating the photography difficult. The sequence of the images encourages an appreciation of the evolution of the dance companies, and there’s good fun to be had examining the social clues in the costuming of the same dance over time, but all the pertinent information about the dance performances is sequestered in an almost unreadable block of text at the end of the book that runs on for five pages in unhelpful alphabetical order.
Seasons of Dance is a remarkable work, an unprecedented collection of beautiful images dedicated to a single, thinly examined subject that is enriched by a Caribbean photographer’s dedication to craft and to art.
The carpings of this review are really about the faith that should have been placed in the work itself, which can stand with creative independence on its own merits without being cajoled into leaning on the artistic and historic values of its subject.