Credit: Joana Stillwell

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Spectators are lining up around the block in Georgetown to view a live dance performance and art installation through a peephole.

The installation, “Filament,” is one of 11 light-based artworks showcased in Georgetown GLOW, a free outdoor public exhibition now in its sixth year, which runs to Jan. 5. While GLOW features national and international artists, local art can be found there, too. The collaborative dance and art piece “Filament” is presented byExtreme Lengths Productions and its producing director Ben Levine in partnership withDance Place. And the illuminated poem “every day” comes courtesy of visual artist Joana Stillwell.

Levine, a native Washingtonian, says he conceived of the idea for “Filament” about two and a half years ago. The dance installation features varying light patterns and contemporary choreography, which includes dancers shimmying back and forth, rotating in circles, bobbing their heads, swaying with the light patterns, and positioning their bodies so that they are at staggered heights. While viewers can watch the dance through a peephole set in a large panel of wood, designed so they can see the space-based choreography from the exact spot where the light grid lines up, the dancers can’t directly see them.

“It was originally not viewed through a peephole, and after I constructed the whole thing and showed it for the first time around I discovered that the idea really only works from one extremely specific vantage point,” Levine explains. “Then I was really intrigued by how that affected the performer-audience relationship.”

GLOW draws from the area’s crowds of holiday shoppers and visitors. Installations start at Book Hill Park, then run along Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW, down to Georgetown Park. Reactions from passersby have ranged from confusion to amazement, according to Levine, “which is exactly the range of experiences, responses that I would hope for. That we can be exposing specifically contemporary dance to a whole group of many, many thousands of people that would not have otherwise seen it.”

Levine notes that viewers sometimes interpret the peephole as a nod to sex shops and sexuality. Though that is not the primary intention of it, Levine says it’s something the choreography plays with in the abstract.

“Another aspect of the festival that I really enjoy are the accidental audience members,” says “Filament” dancer and associate producer Annie Peterson. “They’re not aware that this festival is happening but they see these lights, they see an arrow that is made of light bulbs that is pointing down an alley… then they’re able to experience something they didn’t know existed.”

It is demanding work to create “Filament.” Four casts consisting of three dancers split up performances throughout the five-week festival. Each cast dances for two and a half hours every night during their two-and-a-half-week segment. The construction is also complex. The installation is made of a relay modules system (which switches the lights on and off in programmed patterns), custom circuit boards, 144 light fixtures and an Arduino (a small computer that controls the lights). It consists entirely of fluorescent light bulbs, so its name is ironic, according to Levine, since fluorescent lights have no filament. 

“In ‘Filament’ in particular, the lights are programmed to do a dance all of their own,” says Dance Place’s outgoing communications director Amanda Blythe. “So while there are dancers moving within the light installation, the installation itself is also playing with choreographic ideas, which is just a fun layer in this particular work.”

Joana Stillwell’s work aims to encourage viewers to re-examine the city. Her poem, written in her own handwriting and shining in neon light at Georgetown Lutheran Church, reads, “every day we are slowly approaching a solstice.”

Much of her pieces are based on light and time, she says. This particular poem is about being present and thinking about the present: What time of year it is, how the Earth is tilted, and the Earth’s relationship to the sun in this moment.

Stillwell grew up in Seattle, but is now based in the District, and it’s here that she became interested in the sky. 

“There’s something so striking about being in D.C. and seeing the sky and seeing the environment change because it doesn’t happen a lot in the Northwest,” she says. “It’s just a lot of evergreens. It’s very green and very gray.”

She hopes her poem in GLOW makes people take notice of their surroundings. “I think public art in general is great because it kind of productively disrupts someone’s daily routine,” she says. 

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