On her Facebook page Carol McDowell writes that she is an interdisciplinary dance artist, scholar, and educator, yoga teacher and surfer. What it does not convey, however, is that she is an extraordinary performer or when McDowell is on stage with other performers it is difficult to watch anyone else. To see her alone in the film titled Be Cool choreographed by Alexx Shilling and directed, photographed and edited by Taso Papadakis is definitely an exceptional experience.

McDowell was born in California but grew up in Hawai’i. She lived and worked in New York City for over a decade and has been a major force in the Los Angeles dance performance community since 1992. She studied with modern dance icon Betty Jones, jumped from an airplane in Tim Miller’s Cost of Living, and performed in works by Kei Takei, Jack Moore, Pooh Kaye, Barbara Dilly, Christine Suarez, Alexx Shilling, Rebecca Alson Milkman, Ari Hoffman, Cheng-Chieh Yu, Victoria Mark, and others. Her choreography has been presented at Looking Left, Pieter, LA iDfest, Craftswoman House, Skirball Cultural Center, Sweeney Art Gallery, Anatomy Riot, Platinum Oasis, FAIRY/Side Street Projects, Highways Performance Space, The Kitchen, Dance Theater Workshop, Performance Space 122, and abroad in Indonesia and Europe. Add to all this, McDowell is a lighting designer receiving a 2002 Lester Horton Award and a 1985 BESSIE. She teaches dance and performance studies, multicultural dance histories, composition, repertory, improvisation and yoga at CSULB, Rio Hondo College, and West LA College.

in one of her bios I read, “McDowell creates movement scores and performance events concerned with presence, compassion, and difference.” And it is that empathy and compassion that comes across so powerfully in Be Cool. It is expressed in very subtle but prominent facial shifts – a small lift of her mouth to show just a hint of a smile, eyes slightly narrowing, or with a hardened stare. The camera loves McDowell and she knows how to perform without acknowledging its presence – a sign of a seasoned and confident performer.

Filmed onstage in one day at the historic Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro, California, Taso Papadakis allows McDowell to appear and disappear from view without moving the camera. Her entire self is prominent at one moment and the next flashes of her fiery red hair are what is visible. This in and out of the frame becomes part of the choreography and Papadakis incorporates shifts between sections in the solo by allowing McDowell to leave the frame via simply walking off or changing levels. Fortunately, what he never misses is McDowell’s intensity as a actor, a woman or a wonderful mover.

Shilling’s choreography allows McDowell to express who she is and takes total advantage of McDowell’s performance art persona. We are watching her perform, yes, but we are also seeing McDowell up close and personal.  I have known McDowell for many years and this film is a wonderful portrait of her personal and performance personalities.

When McDowell was approaching a milestone birthday she invited five close colleagues to choreograph solos for her to perform live. The dance artists were Kevin Williamson, Laurel Jenkins, James Kidd, Nickels Sunshine and the choreographer for Be Cool, Alexx Shilling.  I contacted Shilling, Artistic Director of Alexx Makes Dances, and she stated that the solo she made for McDowell was indeed in celebration of her birthday but that it also brought up other inspirations for a film.

Carol McDowell in "Be Cool" - Photo by Taso Papadakis

Carol McDowell in “Be Cool” – Photo by Taso Papadakis

Shilling and McDowell have had an ongoing conversation about “the idealized female body in society and dance, including Carol’s rejection of ballet and its imposed aesthetics”.  They have talked about celebrating women figures in McDowell’s life, both in her family and her artist colleagues. The small gold footstool that McDowell uses in the film was a gift that she immediately perched on top of and David Bowie died the week that the two women began working on the film.

Be Cool was originally scored to David Bowie’s cover of Wild is the Wind but due to copyright stipulations, Shilling and Papadakis used the opportunity to ask Julio Montero to compose and record a new original score for the film. It is a wonderful score and a great addition to the film.

The live piece was actually organized according to filmic logic, with blackouts to create a jumpcut feeling,” Shilling wrote.  “As the piece progresses, the blackouts go away and we watch the transitions in the light. This organizing principle fell away for the film since it its logic was no longer out of context. Taso was photographing the piece at the first Gold Series and expressed his desire to put it on film. “He is a brilliant portrait artist and brings an intimacy to his films as a result and took on the role of editor,”  Shilling said and she admitted that this was the first time someone else has edited her work.

I asked Shilling why McDowell was dressed in all gold. “What does the idealized female body look like” she asked? “I used gold to emphasize value, to say: this body, this person, is a treasure. I also wanted her to match the stool so she could become a sculpture or a monument, although sometimes precariously perched,” She answered.

In the last section of Be Cool, McDowell is seen perched on top of the footstool. She later lies atop it as if surfing the waves of Hawai’i. But it is when McDowell begins pushing the stool and drops her head upon it that we see the power of her acting ability. As McDowell uses her head to push the footstool across the floor, she express taking on the weight of the world, the heaviness of living up to society’s standards, and/or the struggles of simply moving forward in life.

Be Cool was recently named an official 2021 Selection of the Paris Independent Film Festival and will be streamed online with a lineup of shorts and features at the end of this month.  Keep an eye out for the announcement of this happening and do not miss viewing this visually stunning film. For more information on the Paris Independent Film Festival, click HERE.

To visit the Alexx Makes Dances website, click HERE.

Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Carol McDowell in Be Cool – Photo by Taso Papadakis