Sarah Best | Interview

Sarah Best: Self-Portrait (detail), 2010

Sarah Best: Self-Portrait (detail), 2010 Photograph: Sarah Best

On March 4, a second-floor studio at the Hyde Park Art Center becomes Dance Films Kino. The bright red room will be filled with vintage design gems loosely themed on Soviet Russia between the world wars and, through March 25, a massive spread of screenings, artist talks, live performances, a vodka tasting and more, all free.

Local visual artist and curator Sarah Best recently spoke with me by phone about the project, who and what’s on the menu and why.

What would you say is the most deeply planted seed of Dance Films Kino?
I wanted to give some of the movies that I’ve shown before in Chicago a more expanded platform, and complement them with films that have been shown in the past few years at the Dance on Camera Festival at Lincoln Center [in New York]. My approach to curating the movies is unique because—for example: With the “Revolutions and Revelations” program, I opted to curate the films following more of a visual thread than anything else. Although the word “revolution” pays tribute to early Soviet films that inspire me, it also is a pun related to the physical revolution of a body around an axis. So a lot of the movies in that program either feature spinning bodies or, in terms of the “revelations” part, are set in classrooms, or show how humorous the process of trying to learn something and communicate that to someone else can be. There are a lot of chalkboards in these films, chalk and writing. It’s all really informed by me being a visual artist.

Ah, like the chalk in Erica Mott’s Revised and Revisited piece, of which you’re screening a film version.
Yeah. There are also chalkboards in Lucy Cash’s Daynightly [They re-school you The Bears Polka], and Magali Charrier just does a ton with animated drawings. [Charrier’s film Tralala] is basically white writing on a black background with [people moving. Charrier’s] Minou is more about personally examining your space and has some funny spinning in it.

What do the five “Women and Men” films have in common?
That program looks at the roles of womanhood and manhood that people perform. [Playing family members of both genders] is a really interesting way for Nora [Chipaumire] to choose to tell her own story [in Nora]. And then you have Clara Van Gool, a woman, creating these fascinating films about what it means to be a man and [to be] masculine, [about] how men interact with each other in tense situations. [DV8 Physical Theatre’s film] The Cost of Living looks at what it means to be a man from a lot of perspectives. For example: a man who doesn’t have full use of his legs: What does that mean, in terms of his masculinity? How do others perceive his masculinity? It also just has a lot of different types of male characters and relationships, and looks at how some of [these types] are better at relationships than others, with a lot of humor. [Marianne M. Kim and Cheng-Chieh Yu’s] Good Person is a play on [Bertoldt Brecht’s] theatrical play The Good Person of Szechuan set in China and in Los Angeles. It uses split-screen to propose the dualism of people, essentially. [Kim] is thinking about how women wrestle with the roles of victim and criminal, or perpetrator of a crime, in the play, alongside this tension between the two locations.

So, more about using “women and men” as a jumping-off point for looking at all kinds of binaries, or dichotomies?
I wouldn’t say “dichotomies” as much as “pluralities.” And then the “Utopias and Dystopias” films are examples of those things that are fascinating to me, one example being the pastoral. Merce Cunningham [and Elliot Caplan’s] Beach Birds for Camera is not only an example of [Cunningham’s] nature studies but it’s also just really warm and tender. Some dance films are set outside but this one is all set inside, in a pretty minimal environment. After the Water the Clouds [by Carmen Rozestraten] is more about surreal landscapes, about creating your own idyllic landscape. Reines d’un Jour is set in a real Swiss village, so landscape plays an important part in that as well. I was also looking at films, including Reines d’un Jour, which encapsulate situations where the light and darkness coexist. [Reines] is like a fairytale, all of which have a light and dark side to them. Butoh dance, [represented by Danièle Wilmouth’s] Curtain of Eyes film, can also encapsulate these opposites. That film in particular: It’s beautiful, peaceful and serene but it’s also being threatened by a kind of darkness.

Which is similar to what Adam Rose does, right? You’re screening his and Glen Jennings’s elena (or the misfortunes of the virtual) on that same program.
Right, and [David Roussève’s] Bittersweet is the same as well, about experiencing great love but also great tragedy at the same time. elena, I feel, is an interesting examination of a dystopia. Cyborgism is something that can be considered either Utopian or dystopian. I’m really fascinated by the way [Rose] is looking so specifically, through bondage culture, at how the body can be mangled, how it can experience pain but also how, through that process, you can transcend your body, and how that relates to gender issues and being able to be a man, or a woman or something else entirely.

Twenty films on three programs sounds to me like plenty for a first-time festival, and yet DFK will also host all of these other types of events. How do things like the artist talks and bring-your-own-short-dance-film slams relate?
As a curator, I feel that there’s room within a three-week festival to showcase multiple perspectives, which meant both inviting some guest curators to show their favorite work or, in Mark Jeffery’s case, work that is informed more by performance art. [Dance Film Slam] opens up a forum for emerging dance filmmakers to showcase their work and get feedback on it. In some cases, it takes a very long time for a film to go from being shot to being edited. I want to give people a platform for support during that process and, plus, I’m just really interested in seeing who these emerging filmmakers are, so I can snatch them up, basically. [Laughs]

Have submissions already started coming in?
Oh, yeah, there’s already at least a dozen submissions and it is two nights, so there’s room to accommodate quite a few more people.

Tell me why you chose to call it a “Kino.”

The Kino originated in the early days of Soviet cinema, when films were either censored for political reasons or just [because they were] experimental. [Filmmakers] were still testing out what the medium could do. I’ve taken that idea and used it to create a space dedicated to—and when I say space I mean “a community”—showing experimental work, and work that doesn’t always come to light, in an environment that’s not intimidating to people who haven’t experienced it before. The goal is that people have a good experience regardless of whether or not they know anything about the art that is going to be shown or discussed.

Some of the festival’s days have something called “Open Studio with Sarah Best.” What are those?
I’m going to be creating visual artworks about movement, some of which are based on drawings I did in dance rehearsals with Synapse Arts. I do a lot of blind contour drawings, which is a technique people usually dismiss as a beginner’s drawing exercise, but it’s a record of how the eye moves and, when you’re trying to capture a body in motion, I think it’s an effective technique for capturing the moving body. You have to omit things, [and those] decisions are similar to the ones dance filmmakers have to make when they think about how to adapt a dance piece for film.

Is that similar to what painter Danielle Klinenberg’s talk on March 11 will be about?
Danielle makes abstract work. She’s made backdrops for dance performances before but just considers her work to be informed by movement. I would say our work is both informed by movement but in different ways. Molly Shanahan’s talk will be interesting as the opposite: [It’s about] how drawing informs her process as a choreographer. I’m also going to have a long-exposure photograph on display that captures me at different points on a staircase. [All of us are] thinking about strategies for capturing movement.

The Dance Films Kino Pinterest page features some choice finds. What object are you most excited about, among the things you collected to decorate the space?
I’m really excited about the black globe from the late ‘40s that I got, with all of its out-of-date boundaries. It still says “Soviet Union” and “French West Africa” on it. And I have a Bakelite phone, which is actually a switchboard from an executive office, that a very kind woman in Russia helped rush-ship to the United States. [Laughs] I’m trying to create an environment that’s really engaging, that invites you to imagine.

What’s the Emissary Sipping School and how is it involved?
They’re doing a vodka pour and education session [on March 8] about the importance of vodka in Russian culture. And, of course, you get to sip the vodka as you learn about the traditions associated with it. [Laughs]

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but sometimes DFK sounds like a festival, and sometimes it sounds more like an art installation that just happens to be a venue. Who’s in charge here: Sarah Best the artist or Sarah Best the curator?
For me, it’s always about trying to marry the facts that I’m a curator and an artist. I’ve been doing film curation for a long time. I’ve been making art for a long time. This is a way for me to do both at the same time. I’m a strong believer in creating environments and the pull that that can have on people, in the same way people like to fantasize about traveling to places that they haven’t been. It’s an effective tool for opening people to new experiences. And I’m kind of experimenting with all of that, so it’ll be interesting to see how it all comes together.

Dance Films Kino runs March 4–25 at the Hyde Park Art Center.

Disclosures: Best is an occasional freelance writer for Time Out Chicago, and I participated in some early-stage brainstorming sessions for Dance Films Kino in late 2010.—ZW

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