Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up: if not, I’ll stay down here till I’m somebody else. – Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

Matthew G. Johnson is no stranger to dance photography: he has photographed for da:ns Festival at the Esplanade, and has worked with various Asian dance groups, including the current darling of the local dance scene, T.H.E. Dance Company. In his latest visual essay – Urban Tribal Dance – Johnson takes the performers out of the cocoon of the stage, and takes a step back as a documenter to make a broader comment on the line (or link) between social life and performance, and the choices dancers make to define themselves through their craft.

The choreography of the dancers and their ‘alter-egos’ within the frame is playful and deliberate, yet never feels too staged or artificial. The inclusion of a wide breadth of dance styles within the series provides for a diverse array of narratives, each celebrating the human form and the athleticism of the dancers, each also taking an equally meditative look into the lives of these individuals outside of their performative personas.

Through meticulous composition of his images, Johnson works with dancers whom he directs and with the uncontrollable crowds and bystanders to create scenes that balance the everyday with the theatrical. There is an effortless quality to the images, where dance “just happens” in unpredictable settings, be it a public playground, a fish market, or shopping centre. With unobtrusive lighting and a thoughtful use of more graphic elements of colour and line, Johnson imbues each location and its surrounding architecture with subtly stage-like characteristics.

Johnson has earlier explored the idea of taking dancers out of formal performance settings last year in the exhibition Shooting Home ’11, organized by Objectifs. However, this time round his work is more layered and textured; Johnson composes visual conversations not just between the dancers and passersby, but the images also manifest visually the internal dialogues within the performers, conveying their joy, wistfulness, or vulnerability.

Urban Tribal Dance provides a deeper insight into Johnson’s direction as a fine arts photographer and highlights his interest in exploring man’s relationship with his environment. With the gradual growth of the dance community in Singapore, this exhibition is also a reminder that dance is just a footstep away within the bustle of city-living, and every moment of daily life provides the potential for performance. Urban Tribal Dance is not purely an exhibition of dance photography, but rather a portrait of separate and distinct individuals living in a modern city, choosing to define who they are through dance.

Urban Tribal Dance is part of the NUS Arts Festival, and will run until 18 March 2012 at the University Cultural Centre, Foyer Level 2, National University of Singapore, 10am – 10 pm.