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Dance Notes: capturing the invisible moment

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It doesn't look like the kind of place where magic would be done: a dusty, dark, cavernous space barely furnished, except with oddments--a Ping-Pong table so covered with papers it couldn't possibly be used, a lone punching bag. Photographer William Frederking used to share this floor of an old manufacturing building on South Michigan with a demolition company he swears was named Smash. Whenever he'd have dancers in for a shoot, he says, the Smash employees would file past his studio, peering at the folks in their underwear.

Right in the middle of the room is the place where the magic happens, where a backdrop of silvery fabric flows from ceiling to floor like a great sail. "I want to record the moments that don't exist. I mean, they do. But most of these moments nobody ever sees. My camera sees them." Looking at proof sheets, he points out a tap dancer who seems to skid along the floor on the tops of his feet, and though Frederking took the shot, he's as amazed as anyone that dancers can do such things.

A teacher of photography at Columbia College since 1983, Frederking discovered dance at a cocktail party five or six years ago. He was describing his project at the time--portraits of couples--to a Columbia College dance instructor, saying he wanted to define the relationship by the space between the two people, by a gesture, a look, whether they were touching or not. The instructor said that sounded like choreography. Soon Frederking was photographing his first dancer, who showed the results to her Columbia College colleagues. They liked what they saw, and he began shooting various dancers--"on the side"--charging so little he was losing money. Now he's receiving a Ruth Page award for his contribution to the Chicago dance community and still just breaking even. But then, he points out, so are many of his clients.

Frederking's work invites comparison with that of New York photographer Lois Greenfield--the one who shot the dancers in the Bulova watch ads. Frederking too manages to capture the instants when the impossible occurs, not only keeping them in focus but lighting them so lushly the performers look like gods (he's photographed sculpture and uses some of the same lighting with dancers). Greenfield's work is intentionally lower-key, less theatrical; she once even advised Frederking to make his dancers look peaceful and placid. "I tried that for about a month," he says, "and then I gave up. I want a kind of reality, and dancing is an intense thing. Why shouldn't it look like it?"

His dance photography has evolved dramatically even in the short time he's been doing it, from rather stiff posed shots to close-ups of dancers screaming, hair whipping around their faces. But he's had good reflexes from the start. "I love doing the leaps and jumps and the hair flying. I love some of my recent work where the shot is really tight and you don't see the rest of the dancers' bodies." But most recently he's gotten interested in more subtle images. "There's a sense of movement in the way the body's extended and the tension in the body. These are things I'm finally learning--movement issues that translate into visual images."

Documenting dance in the typical way, shooting a particular cast on a particular date at a particular venue, doesn't much interest Frederking. What exactly is he photographing then? "The germ of the shot comes from the dance. Lois Greenfield says in her book that she tells the dancers to leave the choreography at the door. I want to celebrate their choreography. At first I thought I didn't, but now I do. Of course making a photograph of their choreography is different from their choreography. Something that makes a great movement doesn't always make a great photograph."

But he would like to create a midwestern dance archive, including not only the entire Chicago community but dancers in Milwaukee and Minneapolis. The problem is funding. He applied for a grant to document Chicago dancers and made it through several cuts, but was ultimately turned down. "It's the weirdest thing that's happened to me--I can't quite stop photographing dance. But I still haven't figured out how to pay for it. I know how desperately most of the dancers live, and that's a problem. I understand their limitations, but I can't keep giving my photography away."

Frederking and dancers Chia-yu Chang, Sandi J. Cooksey, and Mark Schulze receive their Ruth Page awards for artistic achievement at the Chicago Dance Coalition's tenth-anniversary awards ceremony Sunday, September 10, at 6:30 at the Hotel Nikko, 320 N. Dearborn. Tickets for non-CDC members are $20 in advance, $30 at the door; they're $75-$100 for the ceremony and the dinner at 5:30. All proceeds benefit the Dance Coalition. Call 419-8384.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.

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