A naked man running down the stairs inspired Studies in Motion.
The interdisciplinary production, coming to the Yukon Arts Centre this week, explores the eccentric life of Eadweard Muybridge—a Victorian murderer cum photographer.
“His photos are haunting and weird because his subjects were all naked,” said Studies in Motion creator Kevin Kerr.
But it’s not quite as weird as it sounds.
Muybridge, who started out as a landscape and portrait photographer, became more and more obsessed with movement.
“He would take sequential photos of animals moving, or people doing pedestrian actions, like climbing steps or throwing balls, to break down the elements of motion,” said Kerr.
But cameras didn’t take shots in quick succession back then.
“You’d have to put in glass plates … to get a single shot was a big process,” said Kerr.
So, Muybridge would set up a long string of cameras—two dozen in a row—and he’d fire them in quick succession.
“It was the forerunner of cinema, but he didn’t anticipate that,” said Kerr.
“If you look at his pictures, they look like a strip of celluloid.”
Realizing the implicit movement in his photos was interesting, Muybridge transferred some of them to glass slides and showed them using a glass lantern.
He even approached Thomas Edison, famous for his phonograph as well as his light bulb, and suggested combining the photos with the phonograph.
It would have been the creation of film.
But Edison feigned disinterest.
Soon after, Edison filed for a patent on what he called a kinetoscope—a cylinder with photographic images arranged in a spiral.
He basically ripped off Muybridge’s idea, said Kerr.
But Muybridge was more interested in the science of movement than in the invention of motion pictures.
Painter Francis Bacon admired his work, added Kerr.
“As did Marcel Duchamp.
“Muybridge triggered something that reformed culture.
“He believed that our human sense are not enough to understand the world so he wanted to pry back the veils of nature, and stop time to see what’s happening.”
Kerr accidentally tripped over Muybridge’s quirky past while researching another production.
“I thought, ‘Who is this guy? What is his story?’” he said.
And it got even more interesting.
A decade before his photographic studies in motion, Muybridge stood trial for murder.
“He was tried for the murder of his wife’s lover, who was, ironically, a theatre critic,” said Kerr.
“He definitely killed him—I was cold-blooded murder—there were a dozen witnesses, but Muybridge was acquitted.
“It was frontier justice.”
Intrigued by Muybridge’s demons, Kerr began to imagine a production that would express the photographer’s visual world.
“And I wanted to break out of the linear text-based narrative,” he said. “Although the plot is still narrative driven.”
Employing digital lighting, Studies in Motion uses projections that were designed on a screen, much like Photoshop.
“It’s incredibly flexible,” said Kerr.
“You can even have text and make it appear where you want—there are endless looks and layers.”
Much of the action takes place against a giant grid, because Muybridge had his subjects work in front of a grid, said Kerr.
“The lighting is almost like a player in the story—it’s part of the narrative—it interacts with the actors.”
Then, Canadian dance sensation Crystal Pite got involved and movement joined lighting as part of the cast.
“Modern dance was affected greatly by the way Muybridge’s imagery revealed the human body,” said Kerr.
And his obsession with movement lends itself to dance.
“So Pite took the time to choreograph the movement elements of this piece,” said Kerr.
“Part of the journey of the piece is it’s a little less literal and a little more imagistic.”
Kerr also collaborated with a Vancouver composer, who created an original score.
“And at the centre is Vancouver’s most exciting and imaginative director Kim Collier,” said Kerr.
“It’s a perfect storm of artistry.”
Kerr, who studied theatre in Vancouver, formed a company with three other classmates who met at Studio 58.
Called Electric Company Theatre, the foursome are no strangers to the territory.
One of the founders spent summers in Dawson working at the old Gaslight Follies, said Kerr.
She convinced Kerr to come up for a summer.
“While I was in school I always fantasized about the North,” he said.
After a summer in Dawson, Kerr ended up in Whitehorse for a year.
Another member of the Electric Company also spent time in Dawson, and wrote one of the follies.
“And in 2002, we spent another summer at the Palace Grand,” said Kerr.
“So the opportunity to come to Whitehorse with the show is an excuse for us to get back to the Yukon.”
Studies in Motion is at the Yukon Arts Centre March 25 through 27th at 8 p.m.
Contact Genesee Keevil at