When Robin Bisio goes for a walk at the Douglas Family Preserve or strolls through the rose garden on a sunny afternoon, she sees sprites and fairies. It’s not that the choreographer and filmmaker is hallucinating; she’s just sensitive to the spirit of natural places.

For more than twenty-five years, Bisio’s been making site-specific dances and dance films that capture her ethereal visions. She’s put ballerinas in tutus on the beach barefoot and let them frolic in the waves, given her dancers palm fronds to carry as they twirl across lawns, placed them in the branches of oak trees, and festooned their hair with wildflowers. Her dance film The Last Solitude, featured at the 2010 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, incorporated underwater imagery and was projected onto a giant block of ice in the outdoor archway of the County Courthouse.

Perhaps because her artistic vision is so unique and so specific, Bisio has tended to work independently. Yet as her interest in film has grown, she has begun to experiment with new artistic partnerships. This Friday at the Contemporary Arts Forum, Bisio will premiere Nymphaea, a dance film installation created in collaboration with artists from a variety of disciplines. Independent filmmaker Ted Mills, cinematographer Nik Blaskovich, dancer Erika Kloumann, and structural art guru Jon Smith have all contributed to the installation, while visual artist Ethan Turpin is creating related work to be shown concurrently in a side gallery.

This time, the film site Bisio has chosen is Lotusland, the 37-acre Montecito estate that the eccentric Madame Ganna Walska purchased in 1941 and transformed into a botanic wonderland. Bisio has titled the new work in honor of the property’s namesake species; Nymphaea is the Latin name for the water lily genus, to which lotuses belong. Bisio’s choreography for solo dancer casts Kloumann as a garden nymph, and Mills, who acts as film director, has chosen four main regions of the garden where the action takes place. Mills, who teaches film production at SBCC and will be familiar to CAF regulars as the guy who curates evenings of animated music videos, says capturing dance on film is one of the greatest challenges he has faced as a filmmaker. “It’s a question that haunts every director: how to achieve something between a straight filmed stage performance and hyper MTV-style cutting,” he said. Mills says he has aimed to replicate the way the eye perceives dance when it’s performed live, which is a combination of the close-up and the wide-angle view. Among his inspirations Mills cites Maya Deren, the American avant-garde filmmaker of the 1940s and ’50s who was fascinated with capturing dance on camera.

For Bisio, who’s become accustomed to directing her own films, it was a privilege to have Mills’s directorial eye. “He gave it more of a narrative arc,” she noted. “It was fascinating to see him treat the dance so reverentially, almost like a script.” According to Bisio, the final product is “totemic and tribal,” casting Kloumann as an ethereal spirit who dances through various outdoor ‘rooms’ with athletic abandon. The beauty of the female body, always a theme in Bisio’s work, is certainly central here, as is the relationship of the body to its surroundings, be they grassy lawn, bed of reeds, or lily pond. In a midriff-baring vest and deconstructed mini-tutu, Kloumann appears like a vaguely naughty nymph of the underworld come to cavort among the lotuses. Kloumann, who first began collaborating with Bisio over fifteen years ago, says the movement vocabulary of Nymphaea is deeply familiar to her and in keeping with Bisio’s signature style, but the new setting made the production of this film especially fun. “Lotusland is really magical,” she said, citing the property’s abalone pool among her favorite spots.

When the film is projected as an installation at CAF, it will appear on multiple screens on slightly staggered loops. Ambient sound will accompany the images, and visitors will be encouraged to wander through the gallery space much as visitors to Lotusland must stroll from one region of the garden to the next in order to absorb its lush complexity.

Opening night promises to be a social affair, but the film’s creators encourage those who are interested to return when there’s less of a crowd and immerse themselves in the installation’s layered subtleties.


The opening reception for Nymphaea will be held at the Contemporary Arts Forum this Friday, January 28 from 5-8pm. The installation will run through Wednesday, February 2, and is free to the public. For more information, visit sbcaf.org or call 966-5373.


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