When I was a graduate student in performance art, our cohort did a piece in which she stood in one place and spun around and around until she fell to the floor from dizziness. It was clear that in critique no one knew exactly what to say about what they had just witnessed. The performer had quite literally allowed herself to spin out of control; not turning on pointe the way one classically trained in ballet might, gracefully and seemingly untethered from gravity, but rather like a willful child with no concern for safety or the aftermath of such a gesture. I think a lot about the relationship between artists and dancers, or maybe more simply between makers of things and makers of gesture. I recently learned that there is an actual state of unease called, Chorophobia; Chorophobia is fearful of dancing and can be upset or uncomfortable merely seeing other people dance (oddly, the United States is one of the few countries without a national dance). Dance as an artform is often a source of unease when brought into the space of the visual arts; the visual arts seem have a lack of language to address dance and its visuality, though this is not historically the case.
The history of “modern” dance is a history marked by significant overlaps with the contemporary arts of each era. I recently revisited a film by the Belgian experimental film maker Chantal Ackerman called One Day Pina Asked… (1983), an exquisite document of the work of the late German Dance Theater artist Pina Bausch. Based in Wuppertal, West Germany, Bausch took the histories of German experimental dance from the early part of the 20th century (the Folkwang-Tanztheater-Experimentalstudio, founded by Kurt Jooss in 1928) and linked it to a narrative-driven, dream-like, often violent and inscrutable kind of contemporary dance-theater vocabulary. The result of this was a particular kind of movement-based performance that always had at its core a visually provocative and stunning mise en scène. Watching a Pina Bausch performance was like watching a Fellini film in one long take, but with all the characters from his films funneled into one continuous surreal scene.
While Bausch seems to be well known amongst European artists she is less known elsewhere. I have had many conversations over the years about the relationship between dance and art; about how the two have a natural tangency and how each informs the other. Yet, curiously, the teaching of art and the teaching of dance seem to largely ignore each other.
In the last five years or so, the museum world has “discovered” dance. The work of choreographers is regularly featured in museums such as the MOMA in NY and is included in the Whitney Biennial, in the ICA in Boston and of course in culture centers around the globe. The New York Times notes, that:
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.
It is hard to know if the sudden art-institutional interest in dance is a kind of art world fetish or if it is an attempt to re-think the narratives of art since modernism. Either way, it is a moment in which dance (and its own histories) is being re-integrated into the histories and the narratives of art, and thus fleshes out the histories of individual artists. For example, consider the two-part exhibition called Merce Cunningham: Common Time, installed concurrently at the Walker Art Center, Minnesota, and at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. The trajectory of Cunningham, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century (working in any discipline) goes straight through Black Mountain College in the early 1950’s where he met the young painter Robert Rauschenberg who became Cunningham’s scenic designer and collaborator for more than a decade. Rauschenberg’s earliest “combines” were initially created as sets for Cunningham’s 1954 dance Minutiae. Rauschenberg said at the time, “I don’t find theater that different from painting.” Cunningham famously invited other artists to collaborate with him over the years, including Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Charles Atlas, Tacita Dean, and others. Through such collaborations, Cunningham’s ideas about the body and about movement, duration, and gesture found their way into the hive of contemporary art, substantially altering the landscapes of a number of significant movements thereafter and initializing the kind of interdisciplinary collaboration we embrace in the contemporary era.
Merce Cunningham as Collaborator, Breaking Down Hierarchies in Art and Bodies by Holland Cotter, New York Times, March 3, 2017.
When the Art Isn’t on the Walls Dance Finds a Home in Museums by Hilarie M. Sheets, New York Times, January 22, 2015.
Pina Bausch-Chantal Ackermann