IMPRESSIONS: “Order in the Eye of the Beholder,” an Interactive Dance Film by Belinda McGuire Dance Projects
Online March 15-April 30, 2021
Producer, Director, Editor, Co-Director of Photography, Choreographer, Dancer, Costume and Spatial Designer: Belinda McGuire
Co-Director of Photography: Derrick Belcham
If you are like me, you loved Choose Your Own Adventure books as a child. Being part of the action through decision-making was compelling and unusual. So, when I heard choreographer Belinda McGuire was attempting this in a dance film, I had to see it. Order in the Eye of the Beholder gives viewers an experience more akin to live theater than any I have seen so far during this pandemic. Audiences cannot pause, rewind, or see the time remaining, and there is a clear sense of the correlation between action and audience. Here, without the audience’s participation, there would be no performance.
From the beginning, McGuire sets us up for engagement. Beneath the video lays viewing recommendations: surround yourself with a quality sound system; watch on a screen larger than a phone; minimize distractions. The first choice comes as soon as I click “play.” “Ready to begin?” I press “enter,” and McGuire melts into movement, the close-up camera angle only allowing glimpses of a snaking arm or bent knee. It takes several minutes to realize she is moving between fishing twine that zig-zags across an acropolis in a Brooklyn park she is dancing within. Caged by nearly invisible gossamer threads, McGuire flows between them with spider-like ease. Sometimes, she makes contact, and sometimes she barely avoids their touch.
As more choices appear on-screen — “raw” or “cooked,” “interrupt less” or “interrupt more”— McGuire’s dynamics shift. In “raw,” she alters her speed and direction with urgency. In “cooked,” her image is distorted, pulsing in trails like an acid trip, and she stays trapped within the wires. Quick cuts between the park and a Brooklyn apartment give the film a sense of autobiography.
Order in the Eye of the Beholder plays out like a cross between a video game and the Rorschach test. According to McGuire’s viewing notes, some choices wait for the participant to pick, and others are selected automatically if the viewer is idle for more than 10 seconds. This built-in exigency creates a thrilling, single-pointed concentration much like the focus needed for a video game. At the same time, the on-screen order of the images is seen only by the viewer. What we make of this seemingly random order indicates our individual personalities and our unique ways of projecting meaning onto our experiences.
Engaged with my choices in my initial experience, time passes quickly. Outside the barrier of twine, McGuire’s movements become more connected as the camera pulls back to show more of the park: people jogging, couples walking, cars driving. As her image gets smaller, her movements pick up speed, like she is squeezing the maximum possibility from each passing moment. Music occasionally sounds while, other times, car horns, sneakers scuffing on pavement, and birds chirping provide the sonic backdrop.
During my second experience, my choices lead to discordant images. McGuire’s dancing speeds up and plays backward, and the night-time city flies by with dizzying velocity as if it were filmed from a car window. The bouncing of the camera and the speed of the shots feel like an assault. Time drags even as the shifting images come more swiftly: overhead scenes of a march demanding justice for George Floyd, rain on a windowpane, the Brooklyn Bridge, her drawing in a dark room. While round one has the feeling of expansion, creative problem solving, and making beauty from struggle, round two overwhelms with the need to escape and isolate. McGuire remains the constant even when the scenes are disconnected and ordered through viewer choice. She is a lusciously multi-dimensional mover, managing to be in a constant state of asymmetry as she shifts on and off her center of gravity moment by moment. The effect is like smoke rising from a candle.
It is fitting that the release of Order in the Eye of the Beholder marks the one-year anniversary of the pandemic and the many social, political, and personal upheavals that came with it. The use of almost undiscernible invisible wires and McGuire’s sculpting of herself within their confines, finding endlessly inventive and graceful ways to contort and persevere, are a metaphor for the collective experience of 2020.