Dance Finds a Home in Museums
By HILARIE M. SHEETS, NY Times
On a recent Thursday evening at the New Museum in New York, the elevator door opened onto a fifth-floor gallery with a pole-dancing class in action. Some visitors looked confused and headed for the exit, but many more crowded around the edges of the floor watching the dance collaborators Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly learn strenuous and hypnotic moves — the kind more often practiced by strippers or teenage subway performers.
The pair are artists in residence in the museum’s “Choreography” season, in which they are exploring how race, class and sexuality intersect in pole dancing. Their research will culminate in a museum exhibition opening Feb. 4 incorporating dancers of all stripes — subway and exotic included — rotating on tandem poles.
Trained in experimental theater and ballet, Gerard & Kelly are migrating from dance venues to the contemporary art world in search of bigger audiences, new patrons and the intellectual support of curators, a shift that scores of performing artists are also making as invitations from museums accelerate.
While art museums have dabbled in live performance since the 1960s, “the real estate has changed,” said the choreographer Ralph Lemon, whose recent work at the Museum of Modern Art and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis blurs the line between theater and gallery installation. “Museums are now offering performance spaces beyond just the gardens and basements and unannounced hallways.”
The trend is proving a sure way to drive up traffic. “Live performance encourages audiences to be more frequent visitors to your building,” said Sam Miller, president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. “In terms of being responsive to what artists are doing today and bringing in a more diverse audience, it makes sense.”
But some wonder if such spectacle isn’t a cheap and quick way to generate buzz. What are the hourly wages of a dancer compared with the soaring costs of insuring and transporting fine art?
The watershed moment in cohabitation between visual and performing art came in 2010, when Marina Abramovic held silent court in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art before 560,000 visitors and Tino Sehgal filled the spiral of the Guggenheim with “interpreters” who guided visitors artfully into conversation. After the choreographer Sarah Michelson won the best-in-show Bucksbaum Award at the 2012 Whitney Biennial, contemporary dance — long neglected in the narratives of Modernism — began gaining a measure of parity with the visual arts in museums.
The new Whitney Museum in downtown Manhattan, designed by Renzo Piano, has committed for the long term, dedicating a substantial increase in budget for performance. Set to open May 1, it will have a dedicated theater, the Whitney’s first, with a sprung dance floor and retractable seating in prime real estate on the third floor and a multimedia gallery on the fifth. Each gallery will have pine wood floors over neoprene pads to protect performers’ feet.
At the Museum of Modern Art, under expansion by Diller Scofidio & Renfro to incorporate the site of the demolished American Folk Art Museum, “performance will heavily impact the spaces we’re designing,” said Stuart Comer, chief curator of the department of media and performance art. While plans are still fluid, he said there will be at least one major space upstairs in the run of galleries, for live performance.
“We don’t want to ghettoize the medium,” Mr. Comer said. “Our collection includes dance and performance as well as painting and sculpture. We want to stress the deep roots in the 20th century of these art forms.”
A pioneering multidisciplinary institution, the Walker has commissioned 265 performance works since the 1960s. The difference is that Mr. Lemon’s “Scaffold Room,” which had its premiere in September, was planned years in advance by curators in both performing arts and visual arts, rather than something squeezed into an empty gallery for a day or two. “Anything you put in the white gallery space becomes overtly beautiful and sculptural,” Mr. Lemon said.
His two female performers portrayed a series of provocative characters through monologue, movement and music. Viewers could watch open rehearsals, attend full performances or happen upon unannounced iterations of different lengths.
“A good number of museums are really looking at dance and saying how can this art form, which up until now has mostly been presented in theaters and thought of as a kind of entertainment, be integrated into art history,” said Philip Bither, senior curator of performing arts at the Walker. The museum setting allows dance artists to think more experimentally about everything from the duration of works — some only a few minutes long — to their relationship with spectators.
If museums offer performing artists the possibility of having their work viewed within the canon of modern art, there have been plenty of headaches. “You hear lots of frustrated choreographers saying, ‘I got to the gallery, and they didn’t even know I needed water or a place to change’ — things that your standard performing arts producer would just know,” Mr. Bither said. The electrical system at the Whitney’s 1966 Breuer building couldn’t handle theatrical lighting, said Jay Sanders, an organizer of the performance-heavy 2012 Whitney Biennial later hired as the museum’s first curator of performance.
Brian Rogers, artistic director of the Chocolate Factory, a performing arts space in Long Island City, is skeptical of museums “rediscovering performance,” recalling that in the 1960s, dances by Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown at the Whitney helped usher in a new era but fell out of fashion, in part because of the difficulty of collecting such work.
Mr. Rogers cites Xavier Le Roy’s retrospective last fall at MoMA PS1 in Queens, in which dancers told personal stories, as a successful example of the current trend. “But putting work made for a performance space, where there’s a social contract around how the audience and artist relate to each other, into a noisy museum space sometimes upends the intentions behind the work,” he said. “The social engineering aspects of it may seem fascinating to a museum curator, but I wonder if that’s just grasping at novelty.”
Mr. Rogers also worries that New York in particular, which already has an extensive network of performance spaces including The Kitchen, Danspace Project, PS122 and the Chocolate Factory, “may be overbuilding, with too many spaces that will need to be supported in the long run.”
Johanna Burton, director and curator of education and public engagement at the New Museum, who organized the “Choreography” season, is not sure any museum has yet figured out the right balance between visual and performing arts. But, she argued, “we’re not just providing spectacle” and noted that museums need to “make sure there are questions being put forward: What does it mean to have pole dancing in a museum?”
She added that people often come to a museum with a desire to be challenged, not expecting to love everything.
While many artgoers walked out of Ms. Michelson’s shows at the Whitney, which hadn’t happened in theaters, she said she didn’t feel rejected. “I wasn’t used to it, and it felt very exciting,” said Ms. Michelson, who will perform at the Walker throughout September.
David Henry, director of performing and media arts at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, has increased the interpretive tools for understanding contemporary dance, including gatherings after performances where visitors discuss what they’ve seen. He is also leading dance directly into his institution’s art exhibitions. Last fall, within a show on fiber art, the choreographer Trajal Harrell and the sculptor Sarah Sze staged a duet between two dancers connected by two threads, performed in a gallery without seating. “I wanted people to have the space to move and to see it in the way they would choose to see a sculpture or painting,” Mr. Harrell said.
The economics of “acquiring” an ephemeral performance work is something museums and artists are still negotiating. Mr. Sehgal is widely cited as the first artist to crack the code of selling such an event to museums for their permanent collections by developing rules about how such pieces are to be re-performed.
Mr. Sehgal’s work was the first live performance to be acquired by the Guggenheim. It has now just acquired its second, Gerard & Kelly’s “Timelining,” designed for couples in a variety of intimate relationships, which will be shown in the rotunda from June through September. “The museum got a certificate of authenticity as they would with a Sol LeWitt,” Mr. Gerard said. The artists created guidelines for its presentation, even for performers’ pay.
The Walker and Mr. Lemon are developing another model for the acquisition of “Scaffold Room.” The museum will not be claiming ownership of the physical production but rather of a “collection of memories” of those who participated and those who watched it, Mr. Bither said. Their interviews will be incorporated into a document outlining the performance.
Mr. Lemon would like the interviewees to be called back periodically. “What’s beautiful about that idea to me is as these rememberers are remembering, the oral histories can continue to morph and change,” he said. “The ephemerality of the piece can continue to be alive.”
Does Dance Belong
in a Museum?
By Katja Vaghi,
As I mentioned some time ago, when I wrote about Rambert's performance of Rainforest, dance has entered the museums and exhibitions spaces more and more, not as entertainment or a one off event, but rather as the object exhibited. And this isn’t a UK exclusive either, but a real international trend. Besides several national examples, you are bound to find a dance exhibition in each of the major European cities
read full article here
Come and join the dance
Why museums are making performance and dance the focal point of exhibitions
By Helen Stoilas.
By Elaine Stuart, Dance Magazine
The hottest new museum exhibitions? Dance performances.
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.
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.
“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.”
Elaine Stuart is a New York City–based arts and dance writer.