Review: A Flash of Light: The Dance Photography of Chris Nash at Victoria & Albert Museum

Performance: 19 March -29 August 2011
Reviewed by Katerina Pantelides - Tuesday 29 March 2011

V & A A Flash of Light: The Dance Photography of Chris Nash, 19 Mar – 29 Aug 2011
Richard Alston Dance Company 'Red Run'

Contemporary dance predominantly exists in the moment of the performance making it difficult to exhibit in a museum environment. Its costumes, unlike those of ballet and other classical dance forms, tend to appear drab and lifeless apart from the dancing body, while its sets, often vast, abstract and dependant on complex lighting are almost impossible to display. As the sole artefacts that can capture the essence of contemporary movement, photographs are precious.

Curated by Jane Pritchard, A Flash of Light: The Dance Photography of Chris Nash at the Victoria and Albert Museum charts the relationship of contemporary dance and photography through the work of pioneering London-based dance photographer Chris Nash. In a speech at the exhibition preview on Friday March 18, John Ashford, former director of The Place, noted that before Nash, contemporary dance was photographed like ballet – monochrome and graceful, with just enough flesh on show to gain those vital column inches. There was a wide disconnect between this bland representation and increasingly radical performance on stage. Working closely with the dance makers themselves and sharing their stark, eclectic vision, Nash changed all of this.

Rather than mounting a chronological survey of Nash’s work, the exhibition adopts a thematic approach, presenting the photographs in terms of documentation of performance, collaboration with eminent dance practitioners including Javier De Frutos, Rambert Dance Company and the Cholmondeleys and Featherstonehaughs, and personal interpretation of dance. The exhibition layout is both inspired and meticulous: works dating from as early as 1980 are positioned alongside recent output – a clever display strategy, which encourages spectators to overlook dated haircuts and costumes and focus instead on Nash’s ability to convey the baroque dynamism of contemporary movement. Motley assortments of black and white and colour photographs on the wall appear fresh and spontaneous, resembling an artist’s scrapbook.

As well as showcasing the sheer visual appeal of dance photography, the exhibition gives visitors insight into its practice. Captions with anecdotes from Nash and participating dancers and choreographers accompany each image, and in a recent video of the photographer at work it becomes clear that Nash has a specialist’s understanding of both his medium and dance itself. He works quickly, paying attention to details such as how a dancer’s weight should be positioned in relation to the floor in order to cast an appropriate shadow. Perhaps his choreographic approach is partially determined by the fact that photocalls often happen in advance of the complete choreography and he has to work with improvised movement.

Pure and dynamic, the images that Nash loads onto his computer after a shoot are wonderfully raw. While a less bold individual might be tempted to leave them as they are Nash in the video adjusts the colours and layers on textures to evoke the atmosphere of the performance, and perhaps his personal interpretation of the choreography. The result is a consciously crafted hothouse creation, the photographic equivalent of an orchid.

Just a week later, the interactive performance by Guerilla Dance Project at the V&A’s recent Friday Late on March 25 signalled that contemporary dance is already making inroads into the Museum.

Exhibtition continues at the V&A until 29 August 2011

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