In conversation with Marlene Millar and Philip Szporer, of Mouvement Perpétuel

April 24, 2019
Marlene Millar and Philip Szporer, of Mouvement Perpétuel, are the talented Canadian producers behind 1001 Lights — the immersive video currently being exhibited at the Jewish Museum of Australia as part of our latest exhibition, Discover Shabbat Through 1001 Lights. We recently interviewed Marlene and Philip about their motivation behind creating this visual ode to an ancient ritual.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and your background?
We are both Montréalers, born and bred. We’ve been immersed in the arts, whether in performance, journalism, or filmmaking, and are deeply committed to promoting the arts and engaging new audiences through their blend of documentary and art filmmaking, as well as exploring emerging technologies. Our award-winning Montreal-based independent film, video, and new media production company, Mouvement Perpétuel, specializes in arts programming.

How did you both meet?
We met in 1986, dancing in the work of New York choreographer Charles Dennis. Subsequently a friendship developed and our professional talents merged once more ten years later when we embarked on the first sketch of what was later to become the video series Moments in Motion/Au fil du mouvement. We shared a Fellowship for the Dance/Media Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, developing new ideas, and producing work in the United States. Our return to Canada saw the creation of Mouvement Perpétuel in 2001.

Why did you choose to focus on the tradition of candle lighting in 1001 Lights?
Philip: In a sense, the project was initiated after my mother’s death, now six-and-a-half years ago. Every Friday evening, shortly before sunset, she would light the Sabbath candles. Though she was not an overtly religious woman, she held dear this tradition, and would invest the moment with specialness. It was, I believe, for her, a significant meditation and a moment of renewal. When it came time to pack up her belongings from the apartment, I felt it was important to offer her candelabra to someone who also engaged in this ritual, and bestowed the same importance in upholding the custom. But my partner encouraged me to keep this family heirloom, and soon after I found myself continuing the ritual of the lighting the Sabbath candles.  In sharing this inspiration, we’ve chosen to give the installation a dedication, “For all our mothers.”

Marlene: I am not Jewish but I was drawn to the project initially for its dance element but, in the course of filming the participants, often in their homes, I started recognizing something especially personal to me: the connection between mothers and daughters. There were always stories of how the candlesticks passed through generations and, on many occasions, we filmed mothers and daughters lighting the candles together. As a daughter I was very close to my mother until her death a couple of years ago, and as a mother to a daughter, I cherish our relationship.”

Can you explain the significance of the hand choreography in the video and what it represents?
Over the years, we’ve been witness to South African-born Montréaler Ami Shulman’s invaluable work as a dance artist and practitioner of the Feldenkrais method. Her process is highly dynamic, and focuses on connectivity and somatic awareness, and is sensitized to bring a participant’s awareness to their body as an articulated vessel. Ami’s personal connection to the Sabbath ritual intimately informed her choreographic approach for this project, and harmonized with her capacity to direct the performers and enhance their efficiency and clarity of movement, allowing for a more refined and articulated physical expression. Essentially, Ami created a choreography of hand gestures, in which the hands of five dancers seem to emerge from the darkness.

Why did you choose to specifically focus on Montréal’s Jewish community?
We are both from Montréal and the city has a varied and diverse community, bringing together the rich Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities from across the globe (and within those two communities a diversity of other ancestries).

What’s the correlation between dancing and the lighting of candles?
These individually documented ceremonies play in syncopation with each other. This rhythm serves to unify the experience and encompass a diversity of expression. The transformative movement is projected on three screens in panoramic form and enveloping the peripheral sides of the room. The narrative form oscillates between the quiet hushed resonance ignited by a single candlelight flame, and the fluid hand gesture choreography created with five contemporary dance artists that elicits an emotive response to its layered meaning and tradition. The installation culminates into a hypnotic orchestration of ritualised shared experience. 1001 Lights provides an environment where time slows down and is altered.

Do either of you have a background in dance?
Philip: I have been a dance writer and critic, as well a professor at Concordia University’s Contemporary Dance department and the university’s Loyola College for Diversity and Sustainability, all the while immersing myself as a dance-filmmaker. I’ve also served as artistic advisor for interactive exhibits and installations, and guided dance-film workshops in Finland, Portugal, the United States, and Mexico.

Marlene: Mentoring emerging filmmakers has been an important part of my career since 1994. I’ve taught filmmaking workshops across Canada and internationally, and have mentored documentary filmmakers all over the world. I also have an established career as a film editor.

Why do you think it’s important to reflect on things like religion, tradition and humanity?
An integral component of the intercultural form of 1001 Lights is identity – not only in its pronounced or expected way but identity also found through its subtlety – the slow gradual reveal in the culture of details, the unnoticed and the density of different meanings that shape our human experience. The imagery enveloping its spectators in emotive, ceremonial practices encourages deep contemplation and observation, and seems to clarify the edges of any cultural separation or fragmentation. The piece serves as a bridge to a larger community, and allows for an experience of connection through difference. In such an installation, the viewer is invited into an ambiance of contemplation, renewal and reflection, a place where the outside world momentarily takes a pause, giving time to reflect with these traces of humanity – and reaffirming our communal imagination.

What do you seek to achieve with 1001 Lights?
1001 Lights is a natural and stimulating development for us, as we are constantly striving to find and explore new ways of expressing ideas while engaging in new dance-media platforms, and propelling us into new territories of investigation and achievement. For this project, we advanced our recent explorations into immersive experience in greater depth, looking at how filming techniques and methods, along with projections, can amplify perspectives of the body in relation to the screen plane, and the ways in which screen projections communicate human impulse, intention, and feeling in relationship to the flux of spectators interacting within the space.

What do you hope it will inspire viewers to feel and do?
The project is designed such that visitors can drop in and out of the space, at will. The lighting will be low, and reminiscent of the sheltered space in which Sabbath candles are lit, suggesting more of a sanctuary, a place to pause and reflect with these traces of humanity. The pairing of new technologies with embodied gesture and dance is essential to connecting viewers and creating a sense of place. The focus on physical reality rather than narrative creates a physically and emotionally affective experience for the viewers. By combining a danced and documentarian approach to explore the Shabbat candle-lighting ritual, we step outside of the classical storytelling narrative associated with many films and documentaries. The viewer experiences 1001 Lights in different ways depending on their proximity to the screen and their placement within the space. They can either stand, sit (there will be select benches in the venue), or move about at will, allowing organic, physical and technological worlds to commingle.

How long did this project take to complete, from conception to completion?
A year.

What is your next project?
We are in production on a documentary project. As dance filmmakers, we are always looking to work with dance artists who are as articulate with their words as they are in their bodies. Zab Maboungou is such an artist. We are creating three projects with Maboungou, two are short capsules for Télé-Québec’s online Fabrique culturelle platform, a dance-film and an interview with the artist. The other, in its initial research phase, is a full-length documentary.


Experience Shabbat like you never have before through an experiential exhibition of our permanent collection and a rich calendar of creative and inclusive events accompanying the 100 Lights video installation.

Discover Shabbat through 1001 Lights

Closes: 14 July 2019