by NATHANIEL NELSON
It’s not often that emptiness draws the eye, but local artist Sydney Swanson saw a vacant lot as the perfect canvas for a film on life’s fleeting intimacies. There will be one more chance to catch Swanson’s dance film, “In This Place,” on Thursday when Outpost Winona hosts a final screening of the film to wrap up the summer.
“In This Place” is a site-specific dance film, and Swanson’s first widely shared work, the filmmaker explained. She has done some smaller projects on her own around town focused on site-specific dance. “Site-specific dance is anything that’s not done on a stage space, especially when the work is created for that site,” Swanson said.
According to Swanson, the beginnings of the project trace back to a little over a year ago. The film was shot on the empty lot next to Blooming Grounds, where the former Islamic Center burned down in 2013.
“I’d been drawn to that space — there’s something about that emptiness, and how there was a building at one point but now there’s nothing there,” she explained.
Swanson applied for and was awarded a grant from the Southeast Minnesota Arts Council to produce the film, and from there, she began to work on the choreography. It was then that she realized the emptiness meant more than just the loss of a building — for her, it felt like the loss of a friend.
“I felt there was an emotional component, too. Specifically about relationships, and how we build up relationships with people, romantic or otherwise, and how they can be so solid and present in our life and then, in an instant, be gone,” Swanson explained.
Swanson said she started ruminating about what to do with the space by first spending time in the lot and imagining what could be done and what she felt drawn to do in it.
“Content-wise, I spent some time in the space, kind of feeling out what it was like to be standing there,” she said. “Then I spent some time in the dance studio just trying out different things and different movements.”
Seven other dancers were enlisted to participate, as well as local videographer Jason Frickson, photographer Dahli Durley and musician Noah Short to help produce the final work. Swanson and the other dancers had a few rehearsals before the filming date, but the process was different than her usual stage work.
“The dance was part choreography and part improvisation. I gave verbal cues, but otherwise it was largely based on the dancers all feeling each other and following the energy and building on the structure I had given them,” Swanson explained.
Music was another hurdle for the project. According to Swanson, the group rehearsed to ambient music in the studio while eschewing the music entirely during filming. The only sounds were cars driving by, general street noise and the occasional curious person popping in to ask what the group was working on.
Once the film was shot, Swanson worked with Short to develop a score for the film.
“Noah and I worked together to make the sounds. I gave him conceptual ideas, but then he came back with these drafts of sounds and we worked together to make something new. When I was editing with that, I was surprised how much the sound supported the movement,” Swanson explained.
Dance films, Swanson stated, add a new level of texture to dance performance. She explained that while the dancers are choreographed in front of the lens, the camera itself runs through its own set of motions, changing viewer perception and allowing the director to have a hands-on approach on what to show audiences.
“I also like that it combines both photography and dance in different ways, because those are just the mediums that I’m most drawn to,” Swanson, an established photographer herself, explained.
While the Thursday screening is the last public showing of “In This Place” for the time-being, the dance will be performed live from October 5 to 7 as part of Winona Main Street Program’s Third Space Initiative. The performance times are not set yet, but Swanson said she plans to add audience participation to the piece, inviting onlookers to improvise and experience the space themselves.
“I’m very curious to see how many people will be there and how many people will be interested in participating,” Swanson said.
“In This Place” will be screened at Outpost Winona, 119 East Third Street, in Winona, on Thursday, August 30, at 7 p.m. The screening is free to the public and food will be provided. For more information, contact Outpost Winona via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.