Students have likely heard some of the buzz around campus surrounding David Michalek’s “Slow Dancing.” Or rather, they may have seen the gigantic scaffolding-like structures in front of Widener Library projecting larger-than-life images of dancers moving in extremely slow motion. The installation made its debut on Harvard’s campus on Friday, April 20, as part of an Arts First initiative to make art a more visible part of the student experience here at Harvard.
This is not the first time Arts First has brought noted artists or artworks to campus, but it is one of the largest projects there has been in a few years. Often, these projects take months—even years—of planning before they can be put on dispay. Cathy McCormick, Director of Programs for the Office for the Arts says, “It takes time to incubate these kinds of projects. It’s not like artists show up one day and you go, ‘Okay!’ It’s like a research process.” This production differs from other Arts First pieces in that it was not specifically created for Arts First and is primarily focused on dance and movement. “Slow Dancing” was first shown in New York at the Lincoln Center and then toured to London, Venice, Edinburgh, and Paris. The project has come quite a long way from the scribblings in Michalek’s notebooks from 1994.
Michalek worked as a photographer in the fashion industry for clients like Vanity Fair and Calvin Klein. “I had a cushy, bourgeoisie, terrific career that was just chugging along. I started to feel like a fake. There was nothing wrong with it…but it didn’t feel authentic. So I made a decision: I quit. I gave up $20,000 a day, and it was the scariest thing I ever did in my life but of course the best thing I ever did in my life,” he said. This transition was Michalek’s first step in becoming less commercial and more focused on abstract concepts. His recent works have dealt with subjects based on more than just aesthetics. Now a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School, he seeks to answer questions regarding the spiritual connection that people have with art. “Slow Dancing” appeals to a very primal, common human experience in its emphasis on the movement of our bodies.This is reflected in the dancers, who are of many different backgrounds, body types, and ethnicities.
Jack Megan, project director of “Slow Dancing” and Director of the Office for the Arts, maintains that there are deeper levels to the project. “There’s a spiritual quality about it. I’m knocked out by so many not only gifted dancers, but dancers in so many different forms. To me, it feels like this is the Harvard of 2012, not 1940. That led to my wanting to bring “Slow Dancing” to campus,” he says. Megan credits President Drew Faust for being a champion of the arts and for working with the OFA to allow projects like Michalek’s to have a presence on campus. “Here in this iconic Yard, it’s more than a thing of beauty. It’s a statement that yeah, we do art here, too. Who knew?” Megan said.
The goal of those involved with the project was to have students and the public take a pause from their busy lives to encounter art. This does not necessarily mean that the project itself has to be abrasive. “It’s not a loud project. It’s very quiet,” says McCormick. Michalek notes that, caught in the midst of watching the dancers, “People realize they’ve been there for four hours and it’s called them [to stay and watch]. The speed being so slow creates a kind of homogeneity—all seem to have come from a common base. The best portraits teach me to look harder, longer, and deeper at my fellow human beings.”
The coordinators acknowledge the importance of not only slowing down, but also being exposed to art on campus. “If you’re going to [graduate] from a liberal arts college, part of the beauty is that you’re exposed to different subjects,” says McCormick. “There are some students who may not choose directly to take part [in art] but will be exposed to it, and it will make them think in a new way.”
Jill Johnson, one of the dancers featured in the production and director of the OFA Dance Program holds that “Slow Dancing” directly benefits the Harvard community. “It’s mesmerizing in the way that fire and water are mesmerizing; you never tire of it. It reveals the incredibly beautiful practice that dance is. There is a National Endowment for the Arts statistic that only 8% of the American public will ever see a live dance performance. It’s important to expose [undergraduates] to great art,” she says. This project is especially important because of its proximity in undergraduate life, which contributes to student exposure to creative thinking.
“Creativity is a form of knowledge to share information,” says Megan. Indeed, the piece has the potenital to leave a lasting impression on the Harvard community. “I feel so, so lucky and so privileged for the opportunity to do this,” says Michalek. “Anybody would.”