Dark Rain

Billy Cowie and Silke Mansholt

By Jenni Davidson

The dancers perform slow, controlled movements as if they are doing yoga or Tai Chi, while a series of spidery, childlike drawings move and flicker eerily across their bodies like living tattoos. The 3D film installation Art of Movement is slightly surreal, but also fully immersive.

Art of Movement is the work of Brighton-based choreographer Billy Cowie with artwork by German visual artist Silke Mansholt. They have known each other for many years, but only started collaborating around three years ago.

Cowie had been experimenting with filmed dance installations where the audience wear red/blue anaglyph 3D glasses, and he used one of Silke’s drawings as a backdrop for a piece called Tango de Soledad. But while the dancers moved the background didn’t, and he came up with the idea of projecting the drawings over the dancers.

Some of the drawings have been selected from Manholt’s existing work, while others were created specifically for the dance installations.

“Certain work I wouldn’t have done without Billy,” explains Mansholt.

They have conversations about what he is looking for: particular inks, colours and elements that will work well with the dancers and the projections. The shadows from the dancers become part of the artwork and allow new forms to be created.

“I want each piece to have its own visual character,” says Cowie. “For me its impact is how it works with the shadow.”

Mansholt is also a dancer and has a very physical relationship with her artworks. “Most of the drawings come out of my centre. I feel with my body when I’m doing the drawing. I try to put onto paper what I feel in my body.”

“It’s a very direct expression of what’s happy or sad in my life.”

Their first collaboration, Jenseits – German for the other side or the afterlife – is a piece about death. It starts off quite light, but by the end it’s so dark you can barely see the dancers and parts of them begin to disappear in the shadow.

Art of Movement is much lighter in subject matter. It is a one hour show based around a fictional choreography manual of the same name.

“It’s completely made up,” says Cowie, although he adds that “some of the ideas maybe normal choreographers would use.”

The dances are punctuated by a series of tongue in cheek introductions, read from the fictional dance manual, such as: “’The greatest dancers can even change the tone and reflective quality of their skin’…but unfortunately we couldn’t afford them for this show.”

“The introductions should be a little bit humorous, but the pieces are serious,” says Cowie. “You’re always going backwards and forwards between ‘is this funny?’ I quite like to have that juxtaposition.”

Art of Movement explores opposites such as bending and rigidity, movement and stillness, and one usual technique Cowie uses is that of ‘dead limbs’, where parts of the body held completely still so that the focus is on one particular area.

“I’m interested in restrictions,” he says. “The dancers are dancing on a box that’s half a square metre and sometimes there’s two of them on it.”

Art of Movement was commissioned for the 2013 Kyoto Experiment festival in Japan. It normally has three live dancers and three 3D projected dancers and you can’t tell which is which.

Video extracts without the live dancers have already been shown in Brighton at last year’s Brighton Digital Festival and alongside Mansholt’s artwork at the Christmas Artists Open Houses. This year the full show is being performed in Cuba, China and Egypt and Cowie hopes to bring it to the UK.