Thanks to Sylvia Plath’s dark roman à clef, the bell jar has a rather sinister reputation. But to British-born artist and filmmaker Catherine Bennett, the decorative glass cases have long held a certain aesthetic appeal. “In London we have a lot of taxidermy shops, and you see these huge old Victorian bell jars with red foxes in them,” she explained in a phone interview last week. “I always loved them. I wanted to see a ballerina in one.”
This Saturday, July 21, Bennett will present an immersive evening of dance films inspired by the bell jar — its rounded edges, its sparklingly clear glass, and the way it preserves and presents specimens of great natural beauty. She calls her installation The Bell Jar Project.
Bennett trained originally as a fine artist but began to turn her attention to filmmaking in 2005. “I got interested in how we view film,” she explained. “So many of the objects we look at are square — books, computers, TV screens — yet the camera lens and the eye are round.” When she met Santa Barbara-based choreographer Robin Bisio, who likes to work on outdoor projects, the two forged a creative bond that has led to a number of dance films, including The Last Solitude, which they projected onto a 2,000-pound block of ice as part of the 2010 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
The practice of projecting onto unconventional surfaces continues to fascinate Bennett.
For The Bell Jar Project, her initial idea was to shoot footage of dancers in natural settings — beaches, meadows, and mountains — and then project those films in nature: on tree bark or the rippling surface of water. When the permitting proved difficult, Bennett shifted the project to Fishbon, a creative laboratory in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, where she’ll be presenting her films on everything from glass and paper to wood, water, ice, and even the human body. There will be nine films total, featuring Bisio’s choreography for dancers Monica Meilin Ford, Erika Klouman, and Emily Proctor Meister, as well as footage of performer Patrick Block. Other collaborators include composer James Connolly, who will perform live music incorporating everything from the saw to Mongolian throat singing, and Jonathan Smith, who has created architectural structures for the installation.
“Dance on film is actually very difficult to make interesting,” Bennett acknowledged, explaining that Smith’s three-dimensional creations transform the viewing experience. “I want to entrance people,” Bennett added. “It’s very much like painting — you need a background, a middle, and a foreground.”
Downstairs, viewers will find films of Block performing his interpretation of the highly stylized Japanese art form butoh in a film Bennett describes as “very intense.” Meanwhile, the upstairs space will contain multiple colorful projections of Ford, Klouman, and Meister dancing Bisio’s choreography in outdoor settings: from the seashore to the desert and even underwater. “There will be several things going on at once, yet it’s quite a meditative, slow experience where you can wander around at your own pace,” Bennett explained.
Both Bennett and Bisio started out their lives in bigger cities — London and San Francisco — and Bennett said their shared appreciation of Santa Barbara’s natural beauty combined with their yearning for edgier urban environments is what makes for a rich creative pairing. For Bennett, it’s a constant dance between her love of spending time observing the natural world and the reality of working with digital film — hours in front of her square computer screen, clicking the button of a mouse.
Bisio said she appreciates the unusual way Bennett uses the medium of film to transform a dance into a complete sensory experience for the viewer. “Catherine’s background is installation art, so it’s not just a question of making a short film,” she explained. “From the beginning, she’s picturing it as an immersive environment. A lot of her work reminds me of a Fabergé egg — it’s so exquisite and beautiful and highly wrought.”
Ultimately, Bennett’s goal is to project a dance film onto a glacier to highlight global warming. In the meantime, the structures she’ll use at Fishbon include a five-foot-tall nest, and of course a bell jar, where she’ll finally get to see her ballerina dancing inside the glittering glass structure.
Catherine Bennett will present The Bell Jar Project at Fishbon (101 S. Quarantina St.) on Saturday, July 21, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 and will be available at the door. For more information, call (805) 682-6699 or visit sentient-films.net.