“Dance Across the USA” by Jonathan Givens. Eps Pub. 306 pages. Oversized trade paperback, $39.95.
In this beautiful and inspiring book, author-photographer Jonathan Givens celebrates the United States, especially its dedication to maintaining parks, preserves, forests and other natural areas owned collectively by citizens; the separate states plus Washington, D.C., individually; and the art, excitement and pleasure of dance. To accomplish this, he raised money to make an ambitious tour with an ambitious mission.
In his modified Nissan van named Buford, he crossed over 22,000 miles of America in 90 days. The trip took him to all 50 states plus Washington, D.C. Developing his route and choosing his settings carefully, he took photographs in 56 locations. While most of these locations are relatively untrammeled by buildings, he couldn’t resist urban places like New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. National parks of course play an important role in this hymn to nature, but so do smaller and less known recreational areas: lakes and streams, ocean coasts, mountains, canyons — even swamps. Sometimes a setting includes a distinctive structure that grabbed Mr. Givens’ attention.
There are no crowd scenes in this collection, which is just as much focused on the figure in the landscape as it is on the landscape.
The figure is a dancing person frozen in time. Most are girls and young women. Perhaps the average age is 14 or 15, though some are much younger and a few considerably older. There are very few male dancers. The statistical outcomes have to do with who showed up for the advertised opportunities to participate. The author-photographer aimed at inclusiveness, but he didn’t force it.
Each dancer seems embraced by the selected setting. One can sense reverberations between the monumental, imposing stages and the smallish figures, the dancers illuminated in a way that strengthens the image, balances it against the magnitude of the setting. Always at the foreground, the dancers seem to leap out of or above the place, defining it while being defined by it.
Indeed, a great number of the photos are of girls in flight — not fleeing, but flying. They leap in ballet poses that enhance the sense of their physical fitness, elegance and beauty. But mostly what comes across, in part because many of them were invited to talk about their experience as dancers, is their strong sense of self — their distinctive personalities.
Indeed, the voices of the dancers show that they themselves are inspired as well as inspirational. This is 13-year-old Sonja Giardina at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park:
“Before written language, before the spoken word, there existed the language of the body. A raw form of personal expression unhindered by the boundaries of conscious thought. Dance is pure movement and emotion channeled into a manifestation of one’s true self.”
At Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, Ieree Lundin announces: “Dance tells the stories I can’t get out of my mouth. … I dance with joy. I dance with fear. I dance to overcome.” Looking at the photos of Ms. Lundin, you believe her words.
Each chapter contains commentary by the author that is both useful and entertaining. For example, the chapter representing Texas touches Mr. Givens’ race to get from the Oklahoma session to the Texas location site in time. Since the site is The Alamo, he provides some history of the place and describes the building. Three dancers appear in four gorgeous photographs (one dancer is in two photos, the others in one each). Their poses are striking — and strikingly varied.
At the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Mr. Givens provides a diary entry of anticipation and disappointment. Bad weather cancels the photo shoot. However, the next morning he is able to take pictures of young Devon Winn before he must move on to Michigan. Readers will be glad he took that opportunity.
Of course, “Dance Across the USA” is a showcase for Mr. Givens’ skill as an accomplished entertainment photographer. He has specialized in dance, theater and circus and is also a certified stage rigger, a member of Actor’s Equity and of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. He has done much in his busy life, and he now owns and runs Fort Lauderdale-based Entertainment Photography Specialists.
His work in this book is visual dynamite. You can explore the photographs further at www.danceatusa.com. Meanwhile, buy the book for your coffee table and for your art-loving and nature-loving friends, and feel good that a portion of the proceeds will be donated to benefit America’s parks and the National Endowment for the Arts.
— Phil Jason, Ph. D., United States Naval Academy professor emeritus of English, is a poet, critic and freelance writer with 20 books to his credit, including several studies of war literature and a creative writing text.
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