Jackson Pollock, Meet Trisha Brown
"Musée de la danse" at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, Courtesy MoMA
They were part of an exhibit titled “Musée de la danse: Three Collective Gestures," a collaboration with the French choreographer Boris Charmatz presented by MoMA's Department of Media and Performance Art. The program, which was promoted as “re-imagining the function of dance and its relationship with the body, society and the institution," is an example of a growing trend of postmodern dancers and dance companies performing site-specific works in museums. In recent years, MoMA has also showcased the work of Yvonne Rainer, Ralph Lemon and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, positioning these “outsider" artists firmly within the establishment. It's a move that's given a sense of weight and permanence to a traditionally ephemeral art form.
Of course, the idea of live dancing in museums isn't entirely new. Steve Paxton's 1972 performance series at New York City's John Weber Gallery, Trisha Brown's 1974 residency at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and other “happenings" at that time explored the relationship between movement and public spaces for art.
But over the past several years, these presentations have moved from the margins of the art world to inside leading cultural institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London. The choreographer Liz Santoro even won a 2013 Bessie Award for her site-specific work Watch It at New York City's Museum of Arts and Design. The facts that MoMA created a department for producing performances in 2008 and the Whitney Museum of American Art hired a full-time performance curator in 2012 suggest that dance today is seen as a core component of programming, not an occasional novelty. These museums are aware of the current popularity of performance art, and have invested in helping to direct its transition into the mainstream.
Above: Shen Wei Dance Arts at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
“What happened with photography—it was not originally considered fine art—is happening now with dance," says Muriel Maffre, executive director of San Francisco's Museum of Performance + Design and a former principal with the San Francisco Ballet. “It's being recognized by a bigger group of people and finding a place next to great paintings." Ana Janevski, a curator of the “Musée de la danse" exhibit at MoMA who describes dancers as “living archives," agrees. “Dance is not only about movement, but about space and writing and thinking," she says. “What we've tried to show is how dance is not just a footnote or sporadic event but an art form contained in itself."
This recognition has helped to elevate dance, which is often perceived as less serious than fine art, says Diane Madden, associate artistic director of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, who has set the choreographer's works at MoMA, the Tate Modern, Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Getty and Hammer Museums in Los Angeles. “People go to a dance performance expecting to be entertained, but people go to an art museum expecting to put thought and time into what they're seeing," she says. “It does give it a little more validity to associate ourselves with these more accepted art forms."
It also provides a profoundly different way to experience dance. Unlike a traditional theater, where the audience is fixed and their attention is focused on a proscenium stage, site-specific works in museums often allow viewers to move throughout the performers, shifting their proximity and perspective. As a result, these pieces are more intimate and interactive. “It shows the humanity of the dancers," says Madden, who recalls how during a performance of Roof Piece Re-Layed at MoMA in 2011, a group of middle-aged women started doing the steps along with them. The dance, which is about the transmission of movement, really resonated “in a space where the audience can be with them instead of looking upon them."
For Shen Wei, whose company has performed everywhere from the Metropolitan Museum to the North Carolina Museum of Art to the Collezione Maramotti in Italy, this reflects a larger mission. “When we perform onstage, it's showing," he says. “But more current dance works are not about showing something. They're about discovery. And those things fit well in these kinds of surroundings."
Maffre believes this immersive quality appeals to dance and non-dance audiences alike. “More than ever people are looking for experiences," she says. “In the past museums were considered temples of art, but museums are becoming more of a place of exchange and encounters." As Evan Copeland, a member of Shen Wei Dance Arts, puts it: “Museums are sacred ground—don't touch—whereas we're like, 'Please touch, be part of this, contribute.' We're making the space accessible."
Site-specific works can also make dance more accessible, engaging audiences who might never set foot in an opera house. But they require certain sacrifices of the artists. Because these spaces weren't designed for dance (awkward layouts, no sprung floors), steps have to be modified and rehearsals are limited. And dancers used to performing in theaters have to get used to people staring them in the face.
“There's not that distance of the stage, so you're very vulnerable," says Copeland of works like Undivided Divided, where the practically naked performers dance and roll around in paint on 7x7-foot squares while the audience wanders among them. But he ultimately enjoys the sense of community this generates with the viewers, just as Shen finds the location constraints stimulating. “It makes you create something you wouldn't think of before you saw the space," he says.
And since many cities lack affordable performance venues, alternative spaces like galleries provide more opportunities for dance artists to present their work. But as with all trends, there's the chance that dance in museums will become too ubiquitous. “The challenge is how to continue to reinvent and not enter into certain patterns," Janevski says. “If you're really interested in breaking down the fourth wall and trying to push how an audience views art, that's awesome," adds Copeland. “But if you're just using the space to dance around, personally I don't find that interesting."
Shen stresses that just like dance in a theater, the quality of site-specific works varies. But he believes the potential for connecting with audiences—both new and old—and making dance come alive outweighs any risk of this becoming a gimmick.
Madden agrees, citing the reactions she's seen as proof of the powerful impact of these pieces. “Inevitably, there's some joyful surprised discovery that happens among the audience, and I just love that. It tells me we're on the right track."
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.
Whatever your feelings about Wayne McGregor's heady, hyper-physical choreography, we can all probably agree on one thing: We'd really, really love to pick his brain. And tomorrow, Dance Umbrella, a UK-based dance festival, is giving everyone the chance to do exactly that.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.
A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.