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Suspended in Dance

Turning point: Extreme slow motion video captures Houston ballet dancer's every move

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Photo by Douglas Newman

“I can slow time down,” I told neuroscientist David Eagleman about my abilities to watch dance. “No, actually, you can't,” he responded. According to Eagleman, my perception of time slows down due to all that I know about what I'm watching. As a dance writer, several decades of dance watching inform my vision.

So maybe I cannot slow time after all. But filmmakers John Carrithers, Douglas Newman, and his savvy team from Mouth Watering Media/CultureMap Digital Services (MWM/CDS) can, especially with a Phantom Flex camera, which has the ability to slow time down to 2500 frames a second. (MouthWatering Media is a partner in CultureMap.)

Floating: Suspended in Dance, featuring Houston Ballet principal Melody Mennite, is the first in a series of videos that examine the unseen world of the performing artist.

 Arms stretched, floating in the airspace in a cloud of white tulle, she seems to take the shape of a beacon, welcoming us into the city. 

Curiously enough, I remember exactly what I was watching when I experienced my super human “I can slow time” moment; it was in fact "Mennite" in Christopher Bruce's Hush, a ballet so rich in stage pictures, my eye seemed to stop at every frame, as if to savor it longer. Later on, I learned from Bruce himself, he created the ballet with that very idea in mind.

Human vision is based on a need to know basis. Much passes through our retinal nerve that we are simply unaware of. To register all that passes through our eyeballs would render life way too complicated. Humans look natural at 500 frames per second. Mennite, at 1,500 frames per second, is a whole other dance experience.

Ballet is one of the most idiosyncratic art forms, with a deeply nuanced aesthetic. To witness the pound of a human foot coming to full pointe, the ethereal lift of jump and the micro movements necessary to achieve the form's iconic shapes is nothing short of a miracle. The technology of the camera makes that possible, yet the team had help.

Mennite's musicality makes her supremely watchable. Her curious personality also infuses all that she does. She's appearing in an upcoming film and also guests with the Seattle boutique rising company, Whim W'him. An incredibly diverse dancer, Mennite is interested in ideas and the world around her. I wasn't surprised that she jumped at the opportunity to work with MWM/CDS on this adventure. Shortly before filming, I ran into Mennite.

“I'm excited, I've always wondered about those in between moments,” she offered. “I bet there are some less than pretty shapes that we go through.”

Despite rain and slippery surfaces, the shoot at Discovery Green went off without a hitch. Mennite exuded her usual super human quality, game for just about everything.

As the editor, Carrithers assumed the role of time keeper, slowing and speeding up time to bring us inside previously unseen ballet experiences, like the ripple of chiffon shirt, and the upward floating motion a jump's spring.

 Carrithers assumed the role of time keeper, slowing and speeding up time to bring us inside previously unseen ballet experiences, like the ripple of chiffon shirt, and the upward floating motion a jump's spring.

 “It was really tricky with that camera,” Carrithers says. “Because of the nature of the high speed technology buffering into its memory, I had to rethink how I shoot while trying to anticipate Melody's movements and keep in rhythm with her. It was really fun once we got the hang of it.”

Finally, the moment of truth arrived when months later, Mennite would join us to preview the footage. I could sense a slight nervousness while she sat down to watch. She would glance at me with a big smile, then quickly turn her head back to the screen. She muttered a few “oohs and ahs” during the more lyrical sections, along with a cringe or two when those technical in-between moments appeared.

“I'd get fired for that,” she joked, about one odd shape on the way to a splendid jete.

Mennite was especially pleased at her glorious glissade, which seems to travel up and sideways at the same time. “It's supposed to,” she added, with a knowing smile.

The ballerina looks at home framed against the lush landscape of discovery and Houston's urban landscape. Arms stretched, floating in the airspace in a cloud of white tulle, she seems to take the shape of a beacon, welcoming us into the city.

It may be the expression in Mennite's face that proves the most alluring. This is the face of artistic engagement, a complete artist doing what she loves. It's compelling at any speed. 

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