The combat language in Trinity was developed as a fusion of sign language and martial arts. Trinity, by Hetain Patel, 2021. Picture of Hetain Patel

A recent video art display features choreographed caregiving, sign language kung fu, and the flexibility of gender and tradition

At most cases, action-packed movies in art galleries don’t include exciting fight choreography or upbeat music. The Judson Dance Theater’s study of dance in everyday life or 1960s and 1970s mavericks like Bruce Nauman pacing his studio on camera are two examples of historical benchmarks that often have sharp aesthetics and intellectual appeal. Therefore, the vibrant pieces in the forthcoming Whitechapel Gallery show Moving Bodies, Moving Images are attempting something new. The curator Lydia Yee describes the videos that include dazzling drag queens, human-plant hybrids, and girls with superpowers engaging in stylized martial arts as “it’s often very cinematic.”

One notable example is Hetain Patel’s superhero parody Trinity, in which a young British Indian lady absorbs ancestral voices to acquire superhuman abilities using a lost language that combines kathak dance and kung fu. The piece, which was co-written with deaf Louise Stern, was inspired in part by sentiments of misunderstanding, including “having grown up being misjudged by my appearance – realizing my body speaks in ways I have no control over, like the color of my skin,” adds Bolton-born Patel.

In addition to our desire for physical expression and community in a world emerging from lockdown, Moving Bodies… promises to be an exhibition for our time in other ways as well. This is notably true of the films from the Form(s) of Life series by choreographer and artist Éric Minh Cuong Castaing. He worked with two persons who often spend their days receiving treatment indoors: former boxer Kamel Messelleka, who had a stroke, and dancer Élise Argaud, who has Parkinson’s disease.

Another theme is our relationship to nature, as shown in Egl Budvytyt’s eco-science fiction portrayal of young people traversing lichen forests and sand dunes while their bodies sprout fungus and seem to mutate and merge with rocks and trees. There is a feeling that these circumstances shape us as well as us shaping them, according to Yee. Alia Farid’s astonishing work, At the Time of Ebb, which was filmed on the island of Qeshm in the Persian Gulf, a major area for the international oil trade, and created from lyrical footage of Iranian fishermen’s summer solstice festivities, likewise centers on place. Farid’s camera nonetheless manages to capture a society that seems shut off from the contemporary world in bits and pieces that might be both familiar and strange: A young guy performs a sinuous dance as a customary manner to welcome visitors as masked characters wearing tall straw hats dance and parade in animal costumes.

The exhibition’s most exuberant piece, Faz Que Vai by Barbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca, uses dance as a platform to explore the tension between a person’s individuality and larger culture and tradition (Set to Go). The artist pair has produced pictures of their interpretation of frevo, the carnival dance from the Brazilian city of Recife, in close collaboration with gender-fluid dancers. The performers perform their magic in what the artists refer to as “forgotten and left out” metropolitan areas. The once heteronormative dance is altered as stances are created, a sequined behind sways, or an umbrella flies into an extended palm. While the dancers may voguing or samba into frevo to make it their own, the artists point out that the dance also marks them.

“Each generation brings their own knowledge and experience to it,” Wagner and De Burca say. “The beauty of it is that frevo transforms them as much as the other way around.”

Four works from the show…

Hetain Patel’s Trinity (2021), main picture
“The fight language in Trinity was created as a meeting place between martial arts and sign language,” says Hetain Patel, who collaborated with a deaf screenwriter on his film where a young British Indian woman develops powers. “While I’m a fan of kung fu films, I often want them to do more. [In the film] it’s a reawakening of the first human language – a language of empathy, of deep connection between people.”


Alia Farid – At the Time of the Ebb, 2019. Photograph: Courtesy Alia Farid

At the Time of the Ebb by Alia Farid, 2019

The summer solstice celebrations in Alia Farid’s film, which was filmed on an island in the Persian Gulf, appear to exist outside of time, yet there are also startling parallels to events happening all around the world. According to her, she was concerned in “making the porosity between lands, identities, and cultures visible.”


Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca – Faz Que Vai (Set to Go), 2015. Photograph: Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca

Faz Que Vai (Set to Go), by Barbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca, 2015
The four performer profiles in this video show the development of a traditional dance. The creators of this photograph state that Ryan is “a highly regarded traditional frevo dancer from Olinda.” “And Ryan is also Alice, a drag performer in a downtown bar who does the dance from that scene, the bate cabelo. As a method of living as artists, the dancers physically have one foot in modern pop genres and one foot in tradition.


Éric Minh Cuong Castaing – Form(s) of Life, 2021. Photograph: Eric Minh Cuong Castaingt

Forms of Life by Éric Minh Cuong Castaing, 2021

“At the crossroads of caregiving and choreography,” according to artist-choreographer Éric Minh Cuong Castaing, are his films in which dancers help patients with degenerative illnesses reenact moves from their past lives, in this instance as boxers.

Moving Bodies, Moving Images is at Whitechapel Gallery, London, from 12 October to 8 January.

Thanks to The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.