Adam Roberts

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Hands 1995

5 mins, 35mm, b&w, 1.33:1

“Their film an exquisite jewel: an unexpected, eloquent, seemingly simple yet intensely concentrated dance for a pair of hands....”. Nadine Meisner, Dance Theatre Journal Vol 12 No 3 1995

Choreographer Jonathan Burrows and I wanted to make a film that would treat only one part of the body, ignoring the whole that is the usual subject of dance. While Jonathan was excited by the beauty of a pair of hands and their particular movement possibilities, I had been intrigued by the expressive possibilities of human parts other than the face that so dominates and organises film framings. For both of us hands were important and beautiful. What kind of a film could we make?

There is a concept in mathematics called “mapping”. This says that one set of quantities can be used to perform calculations or manipulations in terms of another set, as long as a mapping has been established. Thus notes on a score could be mapped onto a set of movements. Composition in one domain can be used to structure and organise the other. This seemed a novel idea, enough to build the piece on.

Composer Matteo Fargion produced a score, which in its own terms (rhythm and value) was supple and interesting. Jonathan devised a set of hand movements. Each gesture was mapped onto a note. The piece was “played”. It worked. A conventional musical score was composed to form a superimposed layer (written in “counterpoint” to the gesture score).

The immobility of the camera seemed to decide itself, bar the opening dolly movement that would serve as a curtain raiser. The close had to be a question of stillness sustained beyond any easy count. I was thinking of my approach to the performance, as if passing a roadside stele on which a seated gesturing deceased perosn was memorilaised. The sense of memorial and how we are drawn to try and read, translate and repeat in a kind of resectful murmur is the mood I thougt to capture. We are all repeaters of gestures, and we all love to look for meaning.

The costume and set design had to defy ready interpretation (naturalism would have been plain wrong), yet it needed to provide a vague sense of purpose (if unidentified) to the activity. The cue for the set design was theefore Rachel Whiteread’s negative domestic spaces, or Nauman's Space Under My Chair.

The film was commissioned by BBC TV and The Arts Council as part of the Dance for the Camera strand. We billed it as: “dance reduced to a single pair of hands, cheekily ignoring the usual focus of televisual attention”. It was transmitted in 1996 on BBC 2, and has since been seen all over the world.

performer/choreographer: Jonathan Burrows

production design: Teresa McCann

lighting: Jack Hazan

music: Matteo Fargion

director/camera/editing: Adam Roberts

Commissioned by BBC TV & Arts Council of England

BBC transmission: 24.7.96