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By Elaine Stuart
The hottest new museum exhibitions? Dance performances.
“Musée de la danse” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, Courtesy MoMA
One afternoon last October, visitors to New York City’s Museum of Modern Art who had come to see paintings by Picasso and van Gogh stumbled upon some unexpected works: Twenty dancers, scattered throughout the museum, were performing solos by artists ranging from Martha Graham to Michael Jackson.
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.
At right: Catherine Legrand in “Musée de la danse” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, Courtesy MoMA
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.”
Above: Daniel Arsham and Jonah Bokaer’s Study for Occupant at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum. Photo by Carlos Avendano, Courtesy Fabric Workshop and Museum
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.”
Left: Trisha Brown Dance Company at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo by Graham Newhall, Courtesy Whitney.
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.”
Right: Benjamin Millepied at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo by Christina Edwards, Courtesy MOCA
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.”
Elaine Stuart is a New York City–based arts and dance writer.