52 Portraits

Lead Author:

Jonathan Burrows


Hugo Glendinning, Matteo Fargion



Unit of Assessment

33: Music, Drama, Dance, Performing Arts, Film and Screen Studies

Output Category:

H - Website content

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52 Portraits

52 Portraits is a collection of short dance films available at 52portraits.co.uk.

Below is a short film version created for the Light Moves Festival, Limerick 2016.


Summary Statement (300 words)

52 Portraits is a practice-based research investigating and reflecting upon the often unacknowledged and complex web of relationships and cross currents of influence that exist within the ecology of dance performance.

The project invited 52 individual dance artists or duos to make a short gestural dance, set or improvised, in response to a minimal formal invitation. Each dance was filmed by Hugo Glendinning and overdubbed by composer Matteo Fargion with songs drawn from verbatim interview, detailing personal autobiographical, artistic, social and philosophical reflections. The diverse participants had all worked in some way before with the curators, situating the conception and mapping of the project within this larger underlying ecology of the dance field.

52 Portraits asks what the choreographic could be and in which ways choreographic knowledge, thinking and embodiment might be shared in common or not, between differing origins and methodologies of practice and performance within dance. It draws upon parallel projects such as Boris Charmatz 20 Dancers for the XX Century, Deborah Hay Solo Commissioning Project, Mitchell Rose Exquisite Corps (42 choreographers, 1 dance), Quarantine Wallflower and Andros Zins-Browne Already Unmade which propose an accumulative archive of choreographic knowledge and enquiry.

The accumulative nature of dance ecology questions notions of the sole genius conceptual leap, echoing thinking by poet/theorist Édouard Glissant1 who writes ‘We no longer reveal totality within ourselves by lighting flashes. We approach it through the accumulation of sediments’. The notion of sediment is present  also in the work of 52 Portraits performer Mette Edvardsen,2 who says of choreographic process ‘The dust that accumulates, accumulates through the working’.

Individual films of each artist(s) were released on a dedicated website, one a week throughout 2016, and have also been presented in both complete and edited form in the context of cinematic screenings.


  1. Glissant, Édouard, The Poetics of Relation, University of Michigan Press, 1990, p. 33.
  2. Edvardsen, Mette, from a public interview as part of her PhD mid-term assessment, Oslo National Academy of the Arts, 11th February 2019.

Contextual Information

Other outcomes

2020 movement portrait project by Royal Birmingham Conservatoire acting students, led by Jonathan Burrows, Matteo Fargion and Hugo Glendinning

From the invitation letter to artists Igor & Moreno:

My suggestion is that the material not be about the imagined new, but rather about the ghosts in the body, the worn out, the too familiar, the traces of patterns which can’t be called old because we live with them every day. And then to map them into the air or onto the table or on the body, and the privilege is that the camera sees the smallest intention. And we’ll work in silence and you won’t hear the music until the film is finished.I offer you the looping pattern of the old classical music form called La Folia, with four phrases A, B, C and D that you could make then learn or read in repeating order ABA CDC AB, which is a structure I lived with for a year while making Body Not Fit For Purpose and I made 51 gestural solos like this, and it’s actually easy and makes nice change and some do it and others don’t, but somehow it does its work anyway and the clue is about rapid shifts. Or you could sing a song or speak something in your head, that perhaps contains a question. Or anything else that makes sense to you, from your practice or from your questions.The table should be somewhere in shot, as a link with the spectator sat with their laptop at their own table, but you can do what you like with it. For the lyrics I ask you a few questions which takes no more than 10 minutes, and I write the answers just as you say them and I only quote verbatim, and there are some questions the same for everyone and I also get restless and ask new ones, and the purpose is not to expose but to shift the usual philosopher’s or journalist’s angel image of the dancer and give the complexity and doubt and fury and intelligence and humility and politics which make our performance world interesting.Then you suggest a piece of music and Matteo uses it as a place to begin, taking pulse, rhythm, harmony, textures and tones, sometimes overtly and sometimes unrecognisably, but there’s always something left that holds close to your choice. And he or his daughter Francesca, or both, sing the lyric that I’ve drawn from our talk, which contains something of your narrative or ideas or questions.The whole project should never feel it exploits or compromises or exposes anyone, and you can watch before it goes out and you can comment and question and change if you need.And it’s not about subjective or objective, but about using the portrait to challenge how the hierarchies of dance and art wish always to place one approach or style above another, and to reclaim what gets marginalised.

The Elders Project

The methodology of 52 Portraits was developed as part of a commission for Sadler’s Wells Theatre, part of the Elixir evening which shared work by and for older dance artists. The Elders Project developed the technique of fragments of verbatim interview, set to music, and overdubbed onto a dance solo choreographed in the classical music form La Folia (ABA CDC AB). Brian Bertscher, Namron Dance, Betsy Gregory and Kenneth Tharpe repeated their solos from The Elders Project within the context of 52 Portraits.

Header image credit

52 Portraits. Filming room. Photograph: © Hugo Glendinning (2016)