For her dance-film festival, Best created a space inspired by the avant-garde Soviet kinos of the 1920s and ’30s. (Photography by Eric Rogers, AB’05, AM’07)

Moving pictures

Dance and Soviet film inspired curator-artist Sarah Best’s installation at the Hyde Park Art Center.

“Hello! Come on in,” Sarah Best greeted guests who entered Dance Films Kino, in a dimly lit room down the Hyde Park Art Center’s maze of hallways. “That’s my stranger voice,” she told an acquaintance.

Best, X’03, cheerfully welcomed the five visitors to the March 14 film screening and live performance. It was usually busier, she said—for other screenings, the small room had been packed.

Maintaining a steady flow of visitors over a three-week festival dedicated to obscure dance films was not easy. But the Hyde Park Art Center, where Best spent the festival as an artist in residence, had marketed the event well, she says. A former student in UChicago’s Master of Arts Program in the Humanities, she worked with local organizations, including the Chicago Cultural Center and performing-arts venue Links Hall, to preview screenings over the past year. The artist curated a line-up of films around three themes—Revolutions and Revelations, Women and Men, and Utopias and Dystopias—and scheduled more than a dozen live performances and talks about dance on film.

Films about dance are often confined to one-off screenings and four international festivals, Best says. “It doesn’t have the biggest audience.” For Dance Films Kino, Best showed experimental works in an environment that was “friendly and safe.”

That safe space was the small room in the Hyde Park Art Center, Best’s residency studio. She painted it a deep red and arranged cabaret tables and chairs, adding candles, art deco works, and palm trees that lent an intimate, Casablanca-like ambiance. One of her favorite decorations, which she found on craft and vintage website Etsy, was a Bakelite switchboard phone with a Soviet symbol on the rotary dial.

The festival was originally inspired by kinos, avant-grade Soviet art clubs of the 1920s and ’30s. Best learned about them from Yuri Tsivian, a UChicago professor of art history, Slavic languages and literatures, comparative literatures, and cinema and media studies. Without film distribution methods but not without censorship, Soviet filmmakers created underground communities where they watched movies. Best’s kino, she is quick to point out, is inspired by that period but is not a literal expression of those Soviet clubs.

The March 14 screening featured artist Mikey Rioux’s Richard Rioux July 4, 1926–July 11, 1995 (2007). The 22-minute silent film shows Rioux dancing blindfolded on a Sharpie and black oil painting of his grandfather’s face, taking a shot of vodka every two minutes to represent a wake ritual. Experimental music by the Spooky Action Ensemble accompanied the film. It was the second time the musicians had played together as a quartet, and, in honor of Rioux’s performance, they wore blindfolds while performing a haunting improvisational piece. Best had met the singer and harmonium player, Dan Mohr, in a dance class she had observed.

Meeting dancers was how Best—not a dancer herself—found the art in the first place. When she moved to Chicago for graduate school, she volunteered for Links Hall and befriended some dancers there. “I saw more and more work,” she writes in an essay for Chicago Artists Resource. “I asked questions; I developed a sense of what I liked and didn’t like; I fell into conversations.” She reviewed dance performances for Time Out Chicago and emceed the 2011 Chicago Dancing Festival’s inaugural program of dance films. In July she curates the festival’s dance-film programming.

With Dance Films Kino, which drew more than 300 visitors from all over the city, New York, and Minneapolis, Best says, she put together “an anti–film festival.” Festivals can be intimidating for people with no film background. “I wanted to create a more communal and social experience.”