Daniel Gwirtzman Dance Company’s Sisyphus (2014), conceived, directed and edited by the collaborative team of Daniel Gwirtzman and Stefanos Milkidis was inspired by the majestic landscape of northern California. This meditation on time, futility and work updates the Greek myth to show Sisyphus forever pushing a wheeled piece of farm machinery. A metaphor for the endless difficulty of making art and living as artists, and a commentary on the evolution of technology.
Stefanos and Daniel enjoyed a live chat on our Facebook page discussing the work. Here is the transcript of their conversation, Saturday, March 8, 10:30-11:30am.
Daniel Gwirtzman Dance Company (DGDC): Good morning, Daniel and Stefanos. What was the genesis of this collaboration? How did you decide upon Sisyphus?
Stefanos Milkidis (SM): Well, we were both interested in utilizing certain myths in the picturesque scenery of Northern California. The whole landscape resembled Mount Olympus, where Gods and Goddesses and gnomes and strange creatures must have been hiding somewhere. Looking at the steep hills of the Santa Cruz mountains it reminded us of the myth of Sisyphus and how he was condemned to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever.
Daniel Gwirtzman (DG): The extremely hilly terrain–the property at Djerassi Resident Artists Program encompasses thousands of feet in variation–just naturally made one think of Sisyphus. It was a struggle some days, albeit a gloriously happy one, to traverse the landscape and this labor seeped into our conversation.
SM: I would say it was a struggle for both the performer and the videographer dealing with the cold and the rugged surfaces of the terrain.
DG: Well, yes, this is true. I meant that when we were walking around before we began shooting, just climbing alone had its challenges. Certainly once the wheels came into the picture, the struggle did intensify. It was winter, and on some of the days we shot it was quite chilly.
SM: The whole idea of reviving the Sisyphus myth excited us to a great degree, and prompted us to look for anything possible that could be used in order to draw the myth’s references into the film.
DGDC: Speaking of this, how did you both decide upon this antiquated piece of machinery?
DG: We discussed a lot of different things. We wanted to contemporize the myth and we also wanted to make a conceptual piece. We had at first considered having Sisyphus lugging a large television. Stefanos, what other objects do you remember talking about? We may have considered a heavy chain?
SM: Initially I was more drawn into the idea of constructing something that would resemble Sisyphus’s boulder, but we were looking simultaneously for things that could be found in and around the Djerassi property. A dumped television was something that we thought of using, or a large box with a rope attached to it etc. When you showed me an abandoned piece of farm machinery I thought, “This is great,” as it could make direct references to human labor and the Sisyphus’s struggle.
DG: Right. The discovery of this wheeled equipment changed everything. It was an a-ha moment! The discovery itself was lucky. Hidden from plain sight, it was only through wandering off the paths (itself a great metaphor) that this ungainly object was found.
DGDC: What of the editing process? Were you following a storyboard? How did you structure the shooting?
SM: The shooting revolved around the main idea of recreating the Sisyphus myth. At that time we had no idea what the final film would look like. I guess it was more important for us to find interesting places and achieve interesting shots, keep it simple and powerful. I must stress again that the landscape was our ultimate inspiration. It sort of led the process on.
DG: Agreed. We set aside four days for shooting. Because of the immensity of the land, different perspectives kept attracting us. It was extremely time-consuming to shoot and re-shoot. There weren’t any shortcuts for getting the wheels to another area. The off-stage efforts were identical to those we see on-screen. We did work for a certain consistency when shooting. The same moment, shot from multiple angles, resetting and getting from a high angle, from behind, in front, etc. Ultimately the logic of following where Sisyphus had come from/was going was irrelevant.
SM: Yes. Also, the lure of the landscape and its beauty made the whole experience super-fun, despite the physical challenge involved. Following Sisyphus was what kept us going. In other words it was all about a trip with no set destination. I will never forget the times that I had to set the camera at the top of a hill and communication was hard considering there was no phone reception. Signaling proved to be an effective way of directing the project.
DG: Ha! I remember now a few times when I kept going on, pushing and climbing, clanging my shin into the iron rods, cursing…only to learn that you had lost me from the camera’s view after just a few minutes. There were definite difficulties in working this way, but the brilliance of being in nature kept us going.
DGDC: Thank you for these insights. Any final statements before we wrap up?
SM: I would say that Sisyphus was one of the most exciting projects we have ever done. We were highly involved in it due to the uniqueness of the landscape and the unpredictability during the shooting process. That alone made it most intriguing during those 4 days of shooting.
DG: Yes, and the poem of Josephine Miles, which was published in The New Yorker in 1958, added such a terrific element to the film, not to mention the rich reading by actor Chris Harbur.
DGDC: Thank you. We will transcribe your conversation and add to the Company’s website.