"What does it mean to make a dance that is about photography?" asked Elad Lassry this week in his West Hollywood studio, in conversation with A.i.A.. The question posed, by an artist who has made three films using dance, comes days in advance of his first onstage, public dance performance. "I don't make work about dance in the same way that I don't make work about animals when I photograph animals. I don't make work about landscape when I photograph landscapes, and so on," he continues. "What I'm interested in is not dance. What I'm interested in is a practice, and it's outside of the avenues I use. So dance becomes a tool for me."
But don't let this fool you into thinking Lassry isn't really into dance. His films, including Untitled (Ghost), made for last year's Venice Biennale, reference and sample Martha Graham, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and the Israeli-born artist admits to having regularly attended the ballet in his youth, and to studying its histories. His new work incorporates ideas espoused by the renowned dancer/choreographer Doris Humphrey, while he articulates the duality of his interest in "the actual formalism of bodies in space, bodies on stage becoming a frame; and dance as a cultural institution."
Less than five years out of grad school at USC, where he was already showing his piercing color-saturated images of Anthony Perkins, skunks and young men, Lassry has claimed a serious international presence. In addition to the Biennale, he's shown at Kunsthalle Zurich, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Whitney Museum, among other venues. In 2011, he was short-listed for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. Lassry's practice has likewise grown to include sculpture and installation. His current exhibition at Oslo's Kunstnernes Hus includes built-ins that manipulate viewers' sight lines.
Likewise, tonight's staging of his new ballet at L.A.'s Hayworth Theater, Untitled (Presence 2005), which features six members of the New York City Ballet, will also include such framing devices—movable set pieces that are "apertures activated by the dancers." As with all Lassry works, the ballet is meant to reach the viewer on several levels. "The choreography, the dance, is actually something that works against the piece," he says. "It's an obstacle that the viewer has to go through in order to investigate the perceptual questions that I'm introducing, which are: What makes a picture? How much of the picture is based on cultural histories? And how are one's perceptions reestablished?"
Lassry sees the ballet as an extension of his photography: "My work is about finding multiple ways to activate the question of the photograph as a philosophical category. It's really about the proposal, contemplating the possibilities, in a way that seems very fixed. Meaning that I don't make abstractions and say, ‘Let's contemplate.' I revisit the familiar, and I'm asking to reconfigure it. The viewer has to come to it from a very philosophical place."
And if the viewer comes to the ballet from a more prosaic place? "I think that the work has different levels of engagement," says Lassry. "For some people, it could end as simply what it is, which is still plenty I guess. And it could really activate these new territories—of thought as well as experience."
Untitled (Presence 2005) will be performed Friday, Mar. 2, at 8 p.m. The work is part of Elad's upcoming exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery, opening Mar. 23.
Mixed Media, 212 x 66 inches, Courtesy the artist.
Artist Kirstine Roepstorff was born and trained in Denmark, but lives and works in Berli