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Joanne Savio’s Retrospective on Dance Photography in Abu Dhabi

Pina Bausch

Pina Bausch, Joanne Savio, archival digital print from film negative, 64cm x 64cm. Photograph for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Next Wave Festival, 1994. Image courtesy the artist.

The Art Gallery at NYU Abu Dhabi will open an exhibition on February 9 titled “Grace: A Retrospective of Dance and Performance 1986-2004.” Chronicling the works of renowned American photographer Joanne Savio, the exhibit presents portraits of celebrated dancers that spans a nearly 20-year time period. Speaking to Vogue Arabia about selecting images for the show, Savio shares: “Finding the images was really interesting because I have never been a great record keeper. I spent last summer down in the basement of my New York home looking at negatives with a loop and a magnifier. I realized I wasn’t only selecting images for the exhibit; this was a record of my life. It seemed like the perfect timing to start organizing my work.”

Savio notes that all the images on display are shot entirely on film. “I learned photography using film. Nothing about shooting on film is immediate or predictable. It’s a slow, zen-like process, from loading the film, advancing it, and cocking the shutter, to images coming to life in a chemistry bath.” She donated much of her analog equipment to a Native American reservation in Montana, where a former colleague was teaching photography. “I received images that the kids had taken with my cameras. I remember the scent of that equipment: old leather and metal, worn, soft, precise, and imperfect. You had to understand how to calculate light. I could hear my breathing when my eye was up to the viewfinder. I tell my students now to slow their world down, and take notice of small moments; that’s where the secrets can hide.”

Trisha Brown

Trisha Brown, Joanne Savio, archival digital print from film negative, 156 x 111.8cm. Choreography, If You Couldn’t See Me, 1994. Image courtesy the artist

Having been involved with photography for over 30 years, Savio explains being captivated by the fluid movements of male and female dancers that she had lensed throughout her career. Her first job shooting dance was taking a portrait of one of the greatest choreographers of our time, Merce Cunningham. The late American choreographer was at the forefront of modern dance as the inventor of abstract movements. “I was so in awe of being around him and realizing that I was in the presence of a really iconic figure. Looking through my lens, I would fantasize that I [was] also a dancer, and that I also have grace, which I don’t,” she remarks.

As a child, Savio would be disciplined by her mother for staring. “I love to stare at the human face and I’m also very clumsy. Thinking about this exhibit, much of who I am as an adult woman goes back to who I was as a child. I’m still clumsy and I still love to stare. To be able to witness these incredible beings that can fly through the air and dance with such grace continues to be an amazing experience for me.” In collaboration with the Trisha Brown Dance Company, the exhibition will also play host to a live on-site performance at the university’s campus.

Elizabeth Streb

Elizabeth Streb, Joanne Savio, archival digital print from film negative, 64cm x 64cm. Dance Ink Photographs, 1997. Image courtesy the artist

Of Lebanese descent, Savio’s mother was born in Amioun, Lebanon. Longing to connect with the Middle East, she describes being an oddity where she grew up. “I had curly hair, my skin was more olive, and my mother used to make incredible Arabic food at home,” she says. Savio started teaching in the film and television department at New York University in 1995. When NYU started a discussion about establishing a campus in the Middle East, she jumped at the opportunity to apply to come over. Savio has been teaching as an arts professor in the film and new media program at NYU Abu Dhabi since 2010. “For the first couple of years I taught in New York for a semester and here in Abu Dhabi for a semester. Then I moved here full-time. I’ve never looked back.”

“Grace: A Retrospective of Dance Portraiture and Performance 1986-2004” will open on February 9 and run until February 25, 2017 at The Project Space, NYU Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi.

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