Dancing watercolours

Collaboration brings already elegant paintings into the real world

Silke Otto-Knapp is a watercolourist who paints directly on canvas and creates many layers with washes— veils that put the images at a distance from viewers and entices us into the world of the dancer. Her current exhibition at The Banff Centre Standing anywhere in the space in a relaxed position includes a dozen paintings from easel size to less than half that size all with featureless faces. Many of them are inspired by the ballets of the first female choreographer Russian Bronislava Nijinska’s and the work of Yvonne Rainer who sought a new language in dance. They are depicted in watercolour and gouache in shades of silver with some silver outlining on top of the washes.

Otto-Knapp told a small audience of eavesdroppers at a panel discussion in the Walter Phillips Gallery on July 26 that she works from photos. Whether or not she has experienced the performance live she isolates a moment in the performance in response to the emotions they conjure within her. Any research on the dances is only extensive enough to facilitate her work.

Facilitated by Jan Verwoet a Berlin-based contemporary art critic the panel featured Lindsay Fischer head of The Banff Centre’s dance program and dance master for the National Ballet Frances Stark an assistant professor of painting and drawing at the University of Southern California and Flora Wiegmann a dancer and choreographer.

Wiegmann brings to life what Otto-Knapp cannot by performing in the gallery space bringing live dance to the two-dimensional paintings.

Fischer observes that Otto-Knapp intuitively chooses the “moment that hangs in the memory” and represents what it feels like to experience the performances or rehearsals painted. The complexity of the watercolour layers allows one to walk around the images and view them from a variety of angles. Fischer says it can prompt you “to reconsider the way you see ballet. Silke’s work reanimates ballet dependent on your own response to her work.”

Otto-Knapp says ballet is a discipline that fascinates her but she doesn’t feel a need to know the rules of ballet or to perform it in order to understand it. She sees the abstract art form of ballet as using the human body for expression. She finds that ballet movements often end in a plateau of images and she seeks the less decorative and more emotional moments to paint into the space of a canvas.

Wiegmann’s dance interpretations of the paintings are different every time says Otto-Knapp. Wiegmann describes it as simplifying her movements and “being rough and not finished.” Although not making direct references to each image Wiegmann says: “It is not possible to move without referencing the paintings” even though she aims to be more natural in her movements. Being in the same space on the same level as the viewer adds to the authenticity — being onstage and separated from the audience is more fictional.

Otto-Knapp says she was impressed by seeing the Balanchine twice because she noted different things on the second viewing. The Balanchine is a technique developed by choreographer George Balanchine requiring speed and flexibility. Otto-Knapp reminds us that her images are only one brief second of a ballet.

Yet Otto-Knapp’s capturing Rehearsal for Les Noces first tableau is also powerful in demonstrating a turning point in dance when visual arts’ cubism and constructivism were influencing dance and Nijinska was on the cutting edge of that movement.