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Where the Hell is Matt? 2012

23 Jun

It has been about a year since I got a couple of emails from Matt Harding saying he wanted to dance with me….

I had been smiling to think of Matt Harding for several years and of his global quest to plant a little dance in each country of his travels, record it all, and later weave it into a narrative of connection with people, people who are so much the same in their joy of moving that we all seem to be of the same tribe – or so it seems in the experience of what Matt creates.

When I heard that he was looking for dancers last summer, and I joined him in NYC and Philadelphia to dance, it made an already wonderful summer into a magical one. As the months went by I got busy, I got back to work, I got back to life and I forgot that spurt of joy in coming together with large numbers of strangers to perform silly dance moves. Never whole numbers, mind you, because we were there to create but a few seconds of movement for a larger cause.

After the filmings I attended, for a long time Matt was off to new corners of the world to record more sessions and I began to wonder if this year’s video might be 20 or 30 minutes long… Eventually he began discussing the music for the project on his site and how he was bringing together the instruments and performers. Finally he started to suggest it was close to completion, with the music as the final piece of the puzzle to fit together.  He then suggested that he would be releasing it on June 20, the same release date as for his last two videos.  My anticipation started to build but Matt warned that not every taping session made it to the work – and in fact many of them probably didn’t as I lost count of the number of cities he had touched down in.  Still, with fingers crossed I awaited the work.

When it came out this past Wednesday, I was hammering his channel on YouTube mercilessly at 11:00 am EST, the promised time, but it took 30 or 40 minutes before it appeared.  I was chatting with friends online and shouted to them “IT’S UP!!!”  and immediately clicked to watch.  The counter indicated I was #7 to watch the video and there were no comments yet.  I missed the honor of first comment but the video was more important.  As it played, I felt the usual feeling of goodness and wonder well up yet again the way it always does watching Matt’s work – as I viewed a world stitched together, a few moments a location, but everyone in dance and laughter.  Hey, it was a lot like the live filming….

But something was different with this video.  A maturing of the concept?  A different story?  An evolved message?  In the days before the release of the video, Matt had put out a “teaser” meant to whet our appetites.  It showed Matt standing next to a military figure in North Korea, trying to induce him into the classic “Matt dance” together.  The soldier only wanted to have his picture taken and smiled but stopped any dancing with a motion.  Matt then tried to sneak a few steps, cracking up the soldier.  Seeing that, I was sure we were back to Matt’s standard “badly dancing” steps in ever more wonderful and beautiful locations – but no.  Not this time.  As the music was introduced, we see Matt, in one scene with his partner Melissa, working to learn new dance steps in distant places.  Learning but also teaching, and all the early “learning” pieces are strong.  It opens in Rwanda with a tentative gathering of dancers, later to return there at close.  Next, a Spanish twirl mimicked from a partner in Seville.  My heart swelled to see a ballet dancer in Damascus leading Matt in sweeping moves, with the beauty of their movement amplified by the necessary masking of local faces – directly and in the studio mirror – to ensure their safety in the current terror of that nation.  Cut to him being shown moves by a Penn State cheerleader team with seasoned mastery of each motion, and he tentatively responds.  Next, Matt and Melissa in formal attire are circling each other in a Viennese salon, seemingly trying to figure out how to generate the beauty of a waltz.  One of the sweetest moments was next when Matt moved the forearm of a yellow-faced Papua New Guinea tribesman into the desired stance, and he responded with a lovely smile in cooperation of working together on this piece.  The final one shows Matt and a well dressed North Korean gentleman in a sweeping hall working on moves together – arms driving downward together as the music swells.  As with the brief clip from his last work of the formal Indian dancers, at many points in this work he finds  dance with local people to explore – but he does not abandon the joy from the combined movements of hundreds together bringing beauty and expression.  Importantly, its no longer about one man dancing badly amidst the beauty and curious people of the world.  Matt has grown to recognize that weaving together the dance he finds in the world makes a far more compelling story.

The few ponderous moments of training past, the beat of the song kicks and Matt stares down the camera, center stage, with a small group advancing on the camera as if to say “here’s what you were waiting for…”  Following scenes flash quickly.  Some  profile Matt mirroring the moves of local dancers (quite well) while others are clearly moves that Matt brought in order to progress the theme of the piece.  An early piece that stayed with me was a wonderful choreography of a few dancers on the deck of a ship in Budapest – incredibly short but pumping huge energy into the work and technically impressive.  The scenes progressed through dancing seemingly in local style (South Africa, Bali, Maldives, Zimbabwe, Hawaii, Haiti, Austria, North Korea, Namibia and Puerto Rico) and through many other locations where coordinated moves sent the combined work forward.  Ultimately, massive crowds were brought to bear with their energy, helping to move the music and story to a peak.

What was fun was watching for the unique and small nuances of individuality in each scene.  Duck and monkey costumes in Slovakia, jugglers in Detroit, a “Hi Mom” sign in Louisiana, a “Vote for Pedro” T-shirt in the Salomon Islands, a polar bear mask entering the scene at the last moment in Trinidad and some guy totally disconnected in the first row in Hong Kong checking his watch, holding a bag and seemingly waiting for a train.  If you are looking for Waldo, he is two or three people to my left on the steps in Philadelphia.  Memorable scenes were mobility-impaired people dancing in Oakland, a desert gathering in Saudi Arabia, and the deck crew from the USS Abraham Lincoln taking their normal “clear for takeoff” motions into a dance piece.  People of all body shapes and sizes, as well as ability, participated equally and with the same passion.  My personal favorite was Edinburgh, Scotland where everyone was right on point in a beautiful piece and perfect location.  They nailed it.

The crescendo of the piece was a series of quick cuts between crowds in Prague, Athens, Cairo, Zürich, Dresden, Rome, Costa Rica and Budapest, each with coordinated arm motions and energy, bringing the theme forward and then settling it down into masses of dancing joy among various cities.  Masterfully done, Matt.

Following Schyman’s Praan from the last video, the musical work developed for this piece, “Trip the Light” was a wonderful progression.  Perfect in offering a base for dance but with beautiful lyrics and execution.  It all comes together wonderfully in this 2012 release of Matt Harding’s Dancing…

Watching this, it really means something to me to have been part of this work.  Yes, I am a little of a blur in the center of the Philadelphia performance, a couple of steps to right of Waldo and a little behind Matt on the first landing. I can now pick myself out every time – but it took a few viewings to get there.  I smile and grin like a fool every time I see myself in this.  It’s ok….  but I do the same watching everyone else too !!

I love what Matt is doing with his life to envision and create these works.  It is so different from individual artistic expression – precisely because he needs to welcome not just his friends but the world to make this work.  It started out focused on Matt.  Now, it’s about us all.  It’s about how we connect and find joy together – joy in movement but also joy in creating something beautiful together.  I think we all did a really great job this time around under Matt’s guidance.  Thank you to all the dancers and a special thank you to Matt Harding for all you have invested in this – and continue to invest.  I hope to keep supporting your vision and your efforts.

More information about Matt Harding is at http://www.wherethehellismatt.com

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Dancing with Matt 2011 – New York and Philadelphia

31 Jul

This is an account of my two opportunities to dance with Matt Harding on Saturday, July 23 and Monday, July 25, 2011 as he invited all his friends from each region he passes through to dance badly with him in the preparation of his new 2011 dancing video.  I met up with him in Central Park, NYC and on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum to record some truly bad dance steps…

It only stands to reason that in this, my summer of magic, I would get a couple of emails from Matt Harding to announce that he was again dancing his way around the world and would be visiting my area soon.  If you are unfamiliar with Matt, he connected with the world through his inspired 2005, 2006 and 2008 viral videos entitled “Where the Hell is Matt?” which followed him across scores of countries where he would be filmed performing a memorable little dance, one that tends to make people smile and to create positive brain waves.  At first he was alone, an incongruous figure skipping to a Fred Flinstone hop before some of the most memorable and iconographic images of world travel – showing us the images of a wanderer bringing a little joy of dance to each scene, a common thread throughout a global narrative.  In his 2008 video, he invited friends and followers to join him in the dance, and a new dynamic was created as a result.  The 2008 video is my therapist and my medicine.  Whenever I need to inject some happiness and belief in the goodness of the world, especially in these days of political collapse, I just call it up and watch.  It brings a smile and a belief in people that we can sometimes just get together to dance and have fun, no matter where we come from or what our agendas happen to be.  I have watched Matt’s videos for years with my friends.  These videos remain such a great anchor for us.  We fantasized about how great it would be to dance with him – not to gain fame on some widely-watched YouTube phenomenon but rather to just join in on the joy that we witnessed on his videos, to be part of the creation of some of that joy and to experience that moment.  None of us are acceptable dancers, but that is not the point.  Its to just dance, as badly as you might, with no judgment but just connection to all the others with you.

I discovered that Matt had started his latest production the middle of last year and had already been overseas from his home in Seattle to South Africa, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Dubai, Afghanistan, Tel Aviv, Gaza, Riyadh, Haiti, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Maarten, Costa Rica, Hawaii, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Australia, North Korea, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, South Korea, Mongolia, Madrid, Seville, and then back to America. He began the US tour in the Spring, from Seattle to Phoenix, Oregon, Detroit, and then on to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, Houston and on from there.  Most of the places on that list could use a bit of joy and a bit more connection to the love that the world can generate when it remembers how.

Matt was to show up in the middle of the Sheep Meadow in Central Park, Manhattan, at 4:00 pm last Saturday.  He even provided a picture with an arrow – and the crowd had apparently wandered the Sheep Meadow until finding the exact point of his arrow.

Where the Hell is Matt ?

Gathering crowd

The problem was that the East was at the very peak of a massive heat wave with temperatures reaching 106 degrees in parts of the city.  Not a day to dance in the middle of a huge field with no shade – but Matt had anticipated the challenges…  It was approaching 4:00 pm and my shirt was already soaked through with perspiration as we waited for Matt.  A few wags were shouting “Where the Hell is Matt?” but the group was smiling, expectant, and just very welcoming of all who wanted to join.  I estimated that we might have had somewhere between 50 and 100 people present for the event.  Matt appeared walking across the meadow pulling an ice chest full of water bottles, and apologized that he could find no ice to cool it down…  The group was thrilled to see him – but a few of us needed the water as well.

Water for everyone

Matt arrives with water

Matt welcomed everyone and began a conversation to ask people how best he should set the camera up with respect to angles, backgrounds and the like.  The concensus was that we should shoot with a Northwest background framing the Dakota and the upper west side.  Matt had a friend accompany him, toting a large red suitcase filled with the t-shirts and books Matt was selling to finance the trip, but this person was the videographer as well.  He erected a stepladder and lashed a tripod to the top of it so that the camera could film downward on the assembled group.  He was using an SLR camera with video capabilities to record the dancing and his travels.  I didn’t get the chance to check out which one it was but it looked like a Nikon of some sort.  I have been waiting to replace my old video camera with a new generation SLR with such skills, which will give me the chance to augment my photography with some dance steps in far off places as well, when the spirit moves.

Matt led us through the legal issues on our dancing – indicating that he had no sponsor now, that he was paying for the tour from what he earned on t-shirt and book sales, but that he wanted us to all sign his ledgers with our email addresses in case he needed a future release.  For the general liability release, he read a statement on camera and asked us to approve it by giving a thumbs up and shouting “yea”.  With that out of the way, he addressed the group and talked about the dancing experience.  To start, he had us do a general bad dance to loosen everyone up and everyone finally got the chance to release their energy in a dance with Matt.

To start the filming, Matt came out in the audience to join the dancing throng.  I had positioned myself about halfway back, especially after he asked that we organize the group in terms of height.  I felt that there was no particular need for me to be on camera or profiled in the video.  I was just here for the fun and the memory.  Anyway, Matt came back into the pack and basically almost stood next to me – I guess because we are about the same height and he was taking his place in the throng.  Anyway, it was a kick to really be dancing with Matt almost right next to him.

Setting up for the dance

What steps should we do?

Shall we dance?

Ready?

Just do this

We went through a series of steps from the classic “Matt step” to something special he had in mind for New York – a twist step dropping down to a curled ball, and then a spring up, jumping into the air.  With that down, he asked the group whether there was anything special we wanted to do.  The “worm” and things involving high kicks were discounted but he did warm up to a classic New York chorus line number where each row of people would lock arms over shoulders and kick right and left in alternating rows.  Even in the extreme heat it was a blast and people were giggling and laughing at trying to keep in step.  Towards the end, he asked us to finale with a totally loose “Matt dance” with no holds barred.  I loved it but my iPhone went flying and I needed to drop to hands and knees to recover it before anyone danced across it.

We had been working on the video for almost an hour and Matt thanked us and reminded us of the t-shirts and books available for sale, which he was counting on to finance his venture.  I happened to be standing in exactly the right place and was pointed out to be the first person in line for sales, and picked up a couple t-shirts.  But the interesting thing was that Matt stayed around until the last person had left, offering to take pictures or do a short dance number on video with each person.  I actually hung around until only a few people were left and had enjoyed watching the photos and filming he was doing with everyone else.  Here is a clip of a group dancing with Matt –

And of course here is my video of dancing with Matt –

With the group breaking up, I bid Matt farewell and advised I would likely catch up with him in Philadelphia Monday night on the steps of the Art Museum (yes, the Rocky steps).  He made sure to ask my name and seemingly tried to remember it.  I had seen him greet several people in New York who had come from South Africa, Europe and other places to overlap their schedules with that of Matt – and he had an immediate recall of their names and the stories he had of time with them in his travels.

Leaving the park, I headed for the A train to the Port Authority Bus Terminal where my car was parked, and then the drive home.  The heat was still intense at almost 6 pm and I saw few people in the city who were not dressed in almost as little as they could get away with.

Finally at home, I checked my OTHER email from Matt for details of his next stop in Philadelphia Monday.  I live about halfway between New York and Philadelphia – so it is only an hour to either city.  On Monday I would work at home (only a few conference calls, some report reviews and some memorandums that needed tending to) and leave for Philadelphia before 5 pm to meet up with him at 6:30 pm on the Art Museum steps.

Traffic and weather were not with me on Monday as the heat wave got cut with a series of storms coming to rest over the area.  It was still hot, but raining and gray.  Still, I intended to join Matt and soldiered on.  The typically predictable Philadelphia traffic did not disappoint, and the last mile or three was the challenge – but soon the Art Museum was in sight and I steered my MINI into the fairly new parking garage on the western edge of the museum property.  Ah…  $30 for an hour or two (with no museum validation)…  no problem.  I ran around the towering bulk of the museum to the east entrance, ending up at the top of the steps.  I ran down the steps just in time to see Matt arrive and greet the group.

     

The group seemed large than Manhattan actually, well over 100 people, with a little more passion if anything about dancing with Matt regardless of the rain.  Some people had signs but Matt warned that no one will be able to read them.  One sign was held by a person dressed as Waldo, noting that he had found Waldo but was still wondering where the hell Matt was.  It was pretty much agreed that we would stand on the steps to dance, and the numbers of people not only filled up the lower steps but climbed into the upper steps as well.  I positioned myself about halfway up on the first step of the first landing.

Hurry up ! You're not too late !

We went through a series of steps similar to that of New York, starting with a general Matt step but then migrating into something that Matt had planned for Philadelphia, which was a craning four-part step with our torsos lurching right, right, left, left and then repeating with our arms and hands pointing in each direction too.  Can’t wait to see how this step fits in with the larger pattern.  Like New York, we then designed a unique step for Philadelphia – which was stepping sideways up and down the stairs in synchronization as one big mass.  It was pretty cool.  We finally wrapped up with a general high energy dance step and called it a day just as the rain was intensifying.

Here, Matt also had us sign the ledgers in case he needed to reach us later.  He really needs an iPad for this.  I have a wonderful app on my iPad that collects photography releases from people complete with signature.  He also opened up the red suitcase to sell t-shirts and his book.  I bought another t-shirt (for him to sign that day) and a book for a signature as well.  I previously had his book on the Kindle but that is harder to sign.

Matt did remember me from New York and was just great in making time to spend with everyone and dance together.  I elected not to ask for another photograph or video because the rain was getting harder.  So many others wanted that chance so I got my signed booty and stepped back.  I then bid farewell to the group and trudged back to the garage and the dryness of my MINI for the drive home.

In thinking back on these two events,  I was so very pleased that the magic of the several videos was certainly present during the live gathering to create the dance.  There was such a wonderful spirit in so many different people from all over just getting together to dance badly on video.  I have no idea of whether Matt will use either segment in his final video – and trust him to create the perfect art in video and music that will become the next video.  It was enough for me to have that experience of dancing with Matt, one of the nicest people I have ever met whose passion is just infectious in having fun with simple things.  Maybe all this grants a little immortality – but better than that is simply a lot of fun in the moment.

Dance on, everyone – all across the globe…