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Tacita Dean: Craneway Event

Frith Street, London W1

There are not many living artists whose every new work you would always want to see, but Tacita Dean is high on that list. At 45, she is the great poet of art film. Over the years, she has turned her deep and elegiac vision to some of the grandest of dramas – storms, shipwrecks, total solar eclipse – and some of the smallest, from the passage of diurnal light through a restaurant to the faint breeze that transforms a lake from still landscape to moving picture. Not for nothing has she been variously compared to Terence Davies, Walt Whitman and Edward Hopper.

Lately, though, Dean has turned more to the art of the portrait. It suits her origins as a painter. And she has found a way of transforming the single, condensed image that a painter might make over many sittings and long scrutiny by spooling time through a sequence of nearly motionless images.

Her studies of the Italian sculptor Mario Merz and the poet (and translator of WG Sebald) Michael Hamburger are classics of empathetically patient observation. In each, she finds elements of the man in oblique or ephemeral details. The overgrown house, the volatile wind and the sudden arrival of a rainbow, in Hamburger's case, brought this complex man into clearer view.

Now Dean has made an immensely beautiful portrait of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, the American choreographer Merce Cunningham. It is a perfect collaboration between two kinds of creator. But so strong is the affinity between them that one soon begins to see that they are intent upon the same thing: man's brief walk (or dance) in the sun.

Craneway Event was filmed on 16mm in late 2008, as Cunningham rehearses his dancers in the disused Ford assembly plant on the east shore of San Francisco Bay. Craneway refers to the purpose of this grand canyon of a building, with its full-length windows and vast doors opening on to the quay outside. Event is Cunningham's term for a 100-minute anthology of pieces from the company's repertoire. And this is what Dean appears to give you at first: almost two hours of the master at work, the dancers practising against a backdrop of passing ships and the distant hilltops of Marin County.

But everything runs against expectation. The film opens with a pelican on the quay steadfastly waiting for the best moment to lift into flight. Inside, technicians are laboriously peeling gaffer tape from the floor. The dancers are pacing round the hall, a parade of earthbound figures apparently whiling away time. Cunningham's quiet arrival, a black-clad figure in a wheelchair, scarcely alters the picture.

Anyone familiar with Dean's work will know that the rehearsal itself is not likely to be the main event. Rather, she notices the totality of the scene: the grids of the windows like hundreds of picture frames on the landscape beyond, the cavernous space, the liquid sheen of the floor with its ever-changing reflections. Her cameras drink in the sunshine. Occasionally, a dancer slides into shot, or a ship glides past, but it gradually becomes apparent that these are Cunningham's preoccupations, too, precisely what inspire the wonderful abstractions of his choreography.

The dancers move like creatures and objects as much as people. One may be executing a slow circle with his toe, bent arms rotating like propellers, head delicately craned like a bird. Another raises an elegant arm, describing the sail of a yacht. Four together take on the rhythms of an assembly line smoothly alternating with a square dance. A pas de deux becomes an aerial gantry.

All of this occurs without music. The only sounds are of creak, footfall and soft-shoe shuffle, occasionally broken by Cunningham's mellifluous voice, suggesting a slightly different orientation in space. He appears to view the dance like a painter, holding his pen like a brush, yet he is also within it. The movements all seem to flow through and from him.

Dean shows him at a distance, framed by his dancers, or watchfully close, the tendrils of his hair illuminated like a Rembrandt etching. Approaching 90, he still looks forever young and graceful, presiding over the scene like a pensive angel. In one shot, the handles of his chair at shoulder height appear ever so briefly like wings.

A pigeon arrives, appearing to swim in the reflective floor. A man in a stetson ambles along the boardwalk. A great ship passes with such magnificent grace that one can hardly help but think of Cunningham himself, wheeling slowly out of the frame. He died during the editing process; the film becomes both portrait and homage.

Cunningham watches and guides with transcendent concentration; so does Dean, whose camera positions are never as anticipated. Both orchestrate movement in mysterious ways. And like Cunningham, Dean is fascinated by the structure of motion and time; her film is, in a sense, open-ended.

The long day closes, another begins. Light passes through the celluloid as shiftingly as the sun through the high windows. And eventually the viewer, having nearly rebelled at the slowness of both artists' pace, becomes entranced – calm and poised as the figures on screen, mesmerised by their movements through glowing space.

Dean's work is screened too infrequently in this country. Tate Britain owns many of her best films, including Disappearance at Sea and Michael Hamburger, but they are not on permanent display. Occasionally, you catch a work in a mixed show, but it is almost 10 years since her last major exhibition and 12 since she was shortlisted for the Turner prize.

I have no idea why she has never won the prize, since she is one of the most intelligent, profound and inventive artists of her generation. This film (and her enthralling study of nuns in a Cork convent, grace incarnate, shown at the Edinburgh festival last August) could have put her on this year's very strong list. Still, as Cunningham says in his serenely encouraging way, there is always time again tomorrow. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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