Jonathan Stone
Portrait from the “FaceDance” exhibit.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/1/2006 1:46:38 PM ET 2006-06-01T17:46:38

It began with the purchase of a Sony digital video camera more than two years ago. 

Jonathan Stone, a performance artist from London, was learning how to use the camera when the idea for “facedancing” came to him.

“I was pointing this camera at people’s faces and playing music to relax them,” said the soft-spoken Englishman. "I realized the videos were rich portraits of people and their musical tastes.” And the idea of facedancing was born.

By inviting people to use their faces to “dance” to a favorite piece of music of their choice, Stone said he was tapping into his own desire to create a work of public art for a wide-ranging and diverse audience. It “seemed like a good way to build a cultural map — of people, of music tastes,” said Stone. 

Students to senior citizens
Stone initially filmed some friends listening to music they would bring along to the shoot, but it was at Metal, an artists’ laboratory in northwest London, where his idea for the facedance project crystallized.

“Over the course of two to three weeks at Metal, I filmed 60 to 70 people,” said Stone. They were a mixture of young and old who drifted in and out of the artists’ lab — friends, students, performers, non-performers, to senior citizens.

“We found a class of line-dancing elderly people, mostly widows, at a community center in west Hampstead,” said Stone. “They were very enthusiastic.”  It was all part of an effort to get as mixed a group as possible.

Since then, the 47-year old artist has taken his show around London and collected hundreds of little video portraits. 

From Bowie to Bach
The music selections have been as varied as the participants.  Apart from pop music choices (David Bowie to Tupac), there is classical music (Bach is popular, and there’s the occasional Pavarotti opera) and jazz (Charles Mingus).  Performers use every part of their face to dance or none at all.  Everyone expresses a mood.

“It’s an exciting song,” said Colin Carmichael, referring to “Bon Ton Roulet,” a zippy Cajun R&B song by Clarence Garlow.  Carmichael, an actor, chose the song when he took part in “The FaceDance Show,” a combination of installation work and live performance of facedancing, at The Place last week in London.

"They started [the music] and then — I don't know — I moved my face," laughed Carmichael as he tried to recall the performance.  "It's infectious.  By that time, I was leaping up and down, and gyrating all over the place. I was trying to stick to my face, but you can't help the spine coming into it, can you.  I was jumping up and down."

Lynnette Moran, a veteran facedance volunteer who also participated in "The FaceDance Show," said she was interested in exploring physical reactions to music. 

“When I thought about doing the facedance, I was thinking about … how you can lock off the rest of your body and use your facial muscles,” she said, using the song “Ramalama Bang Bang” by Roisin Murphy. “Rather than interpreting the song or reflecting on the lyrics, I tried to physically react to the song using facial expressions.”

Always surprising
Stone continues to be surprised by his subjects, both in their choice of music and by their performances to the music.

“People do the opposite of what you expect,” he mused. “We had a librarian come in, whom everyone had said would be very funny, but she’d chosen something from Wagner and her facedance was very moody, very serious.”

Stone said he is also surprised by “how keen people are to make a statement about themselves through their music.” As a result, the artist refrains from directing anyone, allowing people to improvise.

One intriguing example of unexpected improvisation involved Stone’s accountant, whom he had invited to participate. “He asked me, do you mind if my dog joins me?” recalled Stone.

The accountant whipped a pug-nosed terrier from underneath his desk and held him in his arms while a double mandolin concerto by Vivaldi played. 

“It was a very, very still image, with the dog licking him,” said Stone, laughing. “You couldn’t write something like that!”

Most of the performances run three to four minutes. “That’s a very long time to sit in front of a camera,” said Stone. “Many people start with an attitude, perform for twenty or thirty seconds, and then, Omigod, they’re only a third into the song.”  But that is when, Stone continued, “the performance becomes interesting and genuine.”

Facedancing across borders
The artist will bring his facedance project to Manchester next.  Filming of some 150 faces in the northern English city will take place during the last week of June, with the results posted on screens around central Manchester two to three weeks later.

Arts organizers in Holland and Tokyo have also expressed interest in hosting the performance, but Stone says he “would really love to do the facedance in the United States, especially New Orleans.”  The artist says he spent a good deal of time during the early 1990s in the southern city and found it fascinating. 

“You could go into a place [like New Orleans] and do something like this, and it could be the wrong idea,” he says, referring to the rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Katrina.  “Or it could be a great, self-defining statement.”

Adrienne Mong is an NBC News producer based out of London. Click here for more information about the Facedance project.    

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