Striking: Catherine Galasso's "Lightning Never Strikes the Same Place Twice" features dance, theater and projected video. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

Catherine Galasso's 'Lightning Never Strikes the Same Place Twice'

Michael Fox December 7, 2009

Roy Sullivan was inordinately familiar with occupational hazards. The late Shenandoah National Park ranger (and Guinness record-holder) was zapped by lightning seven (!) times. This weirdly tormented figure is the inspiration for Lightning Never Strikes the Same Place Twice, a performance piece by rising choreographer, dancer and video artist Catherine Galasso that integrates live movement with projected images. Attracted by our vibrant dance community (touted by fellow Cornell grad Chris Black) and experimental film scene (ditto, per close friend and filmmaker Sam Green), Galasso began her professional career in San Francisco. Lightning Never Strikes the Same Place Twice plays Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 12 and 13 at SOMArts Cultural Center under the San Francisco Film Society’s cross-platform and new-technology umbrella, Kino-Tek. In honor of her father, award-winning composer Michael Galasso (Séraphine, In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express), who passed away in September. Glasso will perform a new solo dance, Simmer, as the curtain raiser. We caught up with the artist via email in the midst of her intensive rehearsals.

SF360: How did you come to be interested in film and video?

Galasso: Before I began dancing, my training was in visual art and film. I attended an arts high school in Italy where I specialized in painting and art history. At Cornell, I majored in film with a focus on documentary. Avant-garde theater and contemporary dance were always present in my life because I was surrounded by it growing up. My mom was a performance artist in New York in the ‘70s and my father composed music for dance and theater and film for 30 years. I started making dances in college as a visual medium, because it was a very immediate way to make art with bodies moving in space.

SF360: I can see connections between dance and film, especially after just seeing La Danse, Frederick Wiseman’s documentary about the Paris Opera Ballet. How do you as an artist view the relationship?

Galasso: The way I approach dance is very cinematic in that I always compose within a frame. When I make dances, I feel like I’m making live films. There are ‘cuts’ and ‘pans’ and ‘close-ups’ and ‘wide shots,’ all by way of controlling the focus of a scene.

SF360: You’ve made short documentaries, and Lightning has its basis in historical fact. What is the power of nonfiction?

Galasso: Knowing that the main character in Lightning is based on a real person really affects the way the audience relates to the piece. It kind of holds a similar allure to Ripley’s Believe it or Not, freaks, or sideshow performers. If I made up a story about a man who was struck by lightning seven times, it wouldn’t be as interesting. Originally I wanted to make a piece about a character that goes on a quest or journey. Roy Sullivan’s story seemed to fit perfectly. While the main character is based on Sullivan, the world of Lightning is totally separate from reality. We made up new characters that supposedly exist in Sullivan’s psyche. We use video sequences to tell the story of the real Sullivan, and to describe some of the medical consequences of a lightning encounter. The live sequences are an interpretation or Sullivan’s tribulations in a futuristic, almost The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meets Loony Tunes dimension.

Documentary film has always interested me more than fiction. In making dance, I generate the ‘raw material’ using the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the dancers. Then I shape and edit the material according to where I feel the world of the piece is going, similar to how you let raw material speak for itself in a documentary film.

SF360: In your description of Lightning I came across the lovely phrase ‘the illusive permanence of film and video.’ Could you elaborate on what you mean?

Galasso: I’m referring to the idea that film can capture moments of real life and preserve them for eternity. The permanence of film is illusive, because it can’t really replace the sensorial complexity of human experience. In some ways this notion of illusive permanence applies particularly to the new piece that will be on the program with Lightning. I’m making a solo dance to accompany a video of my father performing a solo concert. My father and I talked about collaborating, so this is my way of making that happen.

SF360: I gather that one of your goals is to bring dance to a wider audience. How can film and video help? Does a multimedia approach risk simply tapping into contemporary Americans’ passive and addictive relationship to moving images?

Galasso: I’m interested in using film and video in ways that can help to bring an audience inside of a dance. I agree about Americans having an ‘addictive’ relationship with moving images—but I’m interested in tapping into that addiction and transcending it. I think that film is a form of communication that we’re all very accustomed to and comfortable with. I think integrating this more familiar form of communication into more unfamiliar and abstract vocabularies of movement and visual landscapes helps an audience to experience the work on multiple levels. I’m not necessarily trying to make my work accessible. I want to tap into each person’s way of experiencing things on multiple levels simultaneously.

SF360: That might have been one of the aims of employing moving images in the production of Brief Encounter that opened the fall season at A.C.T. (American Conservatory Rep).

Galasso: I made the Lightning piece in 2006, and since then I’ve been integrating video into my work less and less in order to focus on the more ‘live’ aspects of performance. This is in part because I feel like contemporary dance and theater is a bit oversaturated with multimedia, to the point where it seems to be becoming problematic. That said, I’m really happy to be revisiting this old multimedia piece of mine because I think that it succeeds in striking a balance between the two. The video and live elements are distinctly separate so that they’re not in competition with each other.

SF360: What can you tell us about, Roy Sullivan, the figure at the center of Lightning?

Galasso: There is not a ton of biographical information available about Sullivan, but based on what I’ve read it seems like he had a really hard time being close with the people around him. People supposedly avoided him for fear that they, too, would be struck by lightning. We can’t really know for sure, but according to the media Sullivan did everything he could to avoid the lightning. It somehow always seemed to find him anyway. Even inside his car.

SF360: I understand you recently went and shot in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia for this staging.

Galasso: Appropriately enough, Brandt Adams, who plays Sullivan in the piece, is also from Virginia. I met him there over Thanksgiving and we drove out to the park to get footage, and also as a kind of pilgrimage. The beauty of the valley was quite striking and we hope it looks good in the piece.

SF360: Did your father compose the music for Lightning? I wonder if he shared any insights with you about writing music for film.

Galasso: Actually, the music that I use in Lightning is from a selection of pieces that my father wrote for a play he did with Robert Wilson, Peer Gynt, in 2006. My father was not only a talented musician, he really understood how to use music in the context of theater and film—how to have music play a character in a work. His work has been described as highly visual, and he was very much a visual artist. I learned how to use music from him, and Lightning was his favorite of my pieces.

SF360: In closing, Sullivan didn’t have a local connection, but do you work any San Francisco references into Lightning?

Galaso: There is a bit of site-specific video in the work that captures a bit of San Francisco flavor … but you’ll have to wait and see what that is.

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