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Preview: What’s real and what’s not? Bridgman and Packer will dance with their own images

Bridgman_Packer_Under_the_Skin_Photo_by_Kelly_Gottesman_and_Lisa_Levart
Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer will bring their illusion-filled artistry to the Ferst Center on Saturday.
(Photo by Kelly Gottesman and Lisa Levart)

Ten years ago, choreographer Art Bridgman stepped out of his own image and discovered a new way of making dances. He filmed himself late at night in the studio, projected his moving likeness onto a white wall, and began to improvise. Excited by the result, he called in his longtime partner and collaborator, Myrna Packer.

“I could see him stepping in and out of himself,” she recalled in a telephone interview. “He was confronting himself, and parts of [him] were fragmenting.”

They had worked with differently sized shadow projections of themselves, inspired by Balinese puppetry techniques (similar to Pilobolus’ “Shadowland” work). But Packer had resisted bringing video into their choreography; she wasn’t technologically oriented, and she found video projections in dance more of a distraction than a boon.

But when she saw Bridgman dance with his own life-size image, she saw “a new palette” of possibilities that would allow them to explore more deeply themes of identity, relationship and perception by interacting not only with each other but with each other’s images, multiplied.

The Guggenheim Foundation has since recognized the couple for their collaborative works that integrate live and virtual choreography. This Saturday, the Ferst Center for the Arts will present two works by Bridgman and Packer: “Under the Skin,” made in collaboration with filmmakers Peter Bobrow and Jim Monroe, and “Double Expose,” created with Bobrow and animator Karen Aqua.

Composer Ken Field, who leads the Boston-based brass band Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, will play saxophone over his layered recorded scores for each work. A discussion with the artists will follow the performance.

Packer said that “Double Expose,” which received its premiere at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in 2010, is one of their most technically and psychologically complex works. “We see it all as a big mindscape,” she said.

The piece takes classic, archetypal characters from three American film genres and weaves them together as different aspects of a single identity.

In the first genre, the Hollywood romance, Packer appears in a platinum blond wig, referencing Marilyn Monroe, with Bridgman as “the Dude.” Using a technique they call “technological cubism,” they show more than one perspective at a time. One segment, “Front/Back,” uses a camera to film the back of the dancing couple while a projector casts this image onto the front of their bodies. “For example, if I put my hand behind his back, it appears on his belly,” Packer explained. “It has this illusion that we’re passing through each other, which becomes a metaphor for the relationship.”

As a film noir character, Bridgman dresses like Humphrey Bogart in a trench coat and fedora and pursues Packer, described in this work by Newark Star-Ledger critic Robert Johnson as “an auburn-haired temptress with a taut, knowing look,” through a Manhattan landscape that Johnson calls “an urban labyrinth of bridges, underpasses and crowded streets.”

This section plays on film noir’s atmosphere of fear, deceit and misperception. “The audience sees us, sees our live [projected] image, sees our pre-recorded image,” Packer said. “They never know where we’re going to appear.”

The third section is about a mismatched couple. Packer describes her character as “kind of loose,” someone who doesn’t get close emotionally and just plays with a “nerdy and oblivious” Bridgman. They enter the “visually wild” fantasy world of Aqua’s film animation.

There’s a technologically intense section where the six characters, viewed from multiple perspectives, roll in and out of bed with one another — some are real and others projected images — posing questions about real life and fantasy regarding love and relationships.

In a final section, all six characters wander through long granite corridors and repeating doorways and arches, filmed at Fort Totten in Queens, an unfinished Civil War-era structure that offered extraordinary depth and perspective. “I felt like it was the structure of the brain, the cavities of the brain,” Packer said of the old fort.

At one point Packer dances with all three of her characters under a succession of receding archways. It’s hard to distinguish which dancer is real and which are the projections, but she appears to be dancing with her many selves.

The six characters that she and Bridgman portray are modern-day archetypes, Packer said. The corresponding film genres are part of our collective consciousness, and we identify with them in the way other cultures have identified with their mythologies. “These are characters we identify with — or don’t identify with — and therefore they are important to us. We have all these [movie] scenes in our memories.”

It goes back to the moment when Packer saw Bridgman step out of his image and they discovered tools to explore, in her words, “the whole question of ‘What is real and what is image? What is fantasy? What are dreams?’ It was right there.”

This Thursday at 5 p.m., Bridgman and Packer will discuss their creative process and demonstrate their filming technique in a free public talk at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta.

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