Dance gatecrashes the museum
by | 26 February 16
“Dance” and “museum” are concepts with an uneasy relationship. Museums—with their freight of the past, of historical artefacts and traditions to be collected rather than questioned—have a purpose that cuts against the imaginative, creative, time-sensitive grain of dance performance. Dance companies never like being called museums; rather, they imagine themselves as living, regenerating artistic organisms.
Leaving aside the question of why tradition may be less a burden in dance than in painting, the act of staging dance performances in a museum or gallery throws out a challenge. It shakes up the maker, viewer and venue. It jettisons the stage, the frame, the viewpoint, the timescale—and the expected relationship between creators and audiences. It says: let’s think.
The celebrated Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, in a new production opening this month called Work/Travail/Arbeid at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, aims to explore the implications of surrendering her work to a museum exhibition. By extending the usual theatrical time conventions to a ten-hour scale, segmented over nine days, her work seeks to upend expectations. Spectators will come and go. They will choose where to be, how long to watch. They could miss 90% of the work if they only come once. Maybe 99% of them will not see the full performance.
Sounds radical? But fashion has always favoured the gatecrashing of staid galleries by wildchild dance. The Soviet Constructivists turned dancing bodies into exhibits. Jean Cocteau’s 1917 Ballets Russes ballet, Parade, made Pablo Picasso’s Cubist costumes the stars. Merce Cunningham and John Cage insisted on equality with their visual collaborators, such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. (This approach is due to be showcased at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in February 2017 in the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time.) The German tanztheater inventor Pina Bausch, whose oeuvre is being treated to a lecture series in Bonn’s Bundeskunsthalle in March, turned her performers, unsettlingly, into interrogators of the audience.
Location is key in the “how” of watching. The theatre separates performers from viewers like a picture frame. The experience is time-defined. But the character of museums and galleries is dictated by their contents and how they are prized; you can stare at them a little or a lot and repeat your viewings until you feel something—an idea entirely alien to dance. Many choreographers say that dance never truly exists beyond the moment, beyond an interpreter’s choice with the script, beyond a spectator’s choice to receive or blank what is in front of them. Museums and galleries are mute places, teeming with silent, still life, offering eternal reconsideration; dance is ephemeral, noisy. It invades and it vanishes. Nothing is left.
For the venues, the central difficulty is how to show the importance of a dance event in their canon (and budget) as something more than a PR event. Britain’s cavernous Tate Modern regularly features dance “happenings”, always attracting a sense of novelty, an occasion to be shared and puzzled over later. (Cunningham actually preferred the word “event” to describe his danceworks.)
In that sense, dance’s unpredictability may be, counter-intuitively, its value to the venue. Sometimes dance is a complement to its host, the choreography decorating and commenting on the location, like Stephan Koplowitz’s site-specific work at London’s British Library and Natural History Museum. Sometimes it thumbs its nose, as in Trisha Brown’s gravity-defying roof pieces. Sometimes it bounces of the works of art, like the Royal Ballet’s Titian-inspired 2012 National Gallery collaboration Metamorphosis.
But De Keersmaeker is particularly interested in visualising something that defies visual record: the conflicts of time. In her 1982 duet Fase, two women dance the same sequence in gradually differing tempi so that unanimity goes through discordancy into counterpoint, and the gradual reconvergence becomes a climactic provocation. Is this a willed convergence or is it objectively predestined by the operating principle? When De Keersmaeker lets her art-brain speak to her theatre-gut, it can be an arresting experience. But will the public have the patience to follow her all the way?
• Ismene Brown is dance critic for The Spectator and co-founder of The Arts Desk
• Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Work/Travail/Arbeid, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 26 February-6 March
• Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater, Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn, 4 March-24 July
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