Many contemporary dancers are tired of the conventional theater space with its divided stage-audience structure. They seem eager to enter a shared space where audience and the objects on view coexist. In a performance, the objects, usually permanent and material, become time-based and immaterial — to the great interest of the museums.
Since the early 2000s, an increasing number of museums have incorporated performance into their structures, envisioning a looser, more vibrant ambiance. The New York nonprofit Performa embraced this trend and in 2005 created the first New Visual Art Performance Biennial, based on moving bodies and images instead of still objects. However, the predominant focus of museums and Performa has been on performances in the realm of visual art, conceived by visual artists, not dancers. Until recently.
In recent years, a new generation of dancers, above all the French choreographer and dancer Boris Charmatz, have attempted to redefine the role of the dancer as well as the time and space of dance performances in general. As part of the Performa 13, held in New York November 1–24, the Museum of Modern Art presented Charmatz’s project Musée de la Danse: Three collective Gestures. I saw the last part of the three-week-program called Flip Book. The first two parts, 20 Dancers for the XX Century (2012/2013) and Levée des conflits extended/Suspension of Conflicts Extended (2010), dispersed more than 20 dancers throughout the museum where they reinterpreted movements of past and contemporary choreographies while interacting with the audience.
Charmatz, the French contemporary equivalent of, let’s say, William Forsythe, has long been well-known to European audiences. He became director of the Centre chorégraphique national de Rennes, Brittany, in 2009, and as one of his first actions in that post, he renamed the center the Musée de la danse (Dancing Museum). Critical of a dance education that only required him to read one book, Charmatz made it a priority to establish an archive for dance in Rennes that can be continuously rearranged, rethought, and revisited.
In Charmatz’s view, a museum should be dancing.
Charmatz is not alone in taking inspiration from dance history. Many of his fellow contemporary dancers and choreographers are basing their works on archival material — offering evidence that the “archive fever” prevalent in the visual arts has also reached the dance world. But it still remains difficult to find historical material on dance. Charmatz’s museum is one step into the right direction.
The other main concern of contemporary dancers, the audience, is also a focus of the Dancing Museum, which aims to activate its visitors and present different contemporary notions of dance and choreography in an immediate setting. The goal: to be more vivid and responsive than museums for visual art.
The performance at MoMA, an institution still predominantly known for showing “dead” objects (they do have a very established and ambitious film program), gave Charmatz his first opportunity to test his explorations outside of his own museum in Rennes.
Parallel to the establishment of the museum, Charmatz wrote a “Manifesto for the Dancing Museum.” Like the museum itself, it is an invitation to fellow dancers, performers, curators, and, above all, the audience to rethink predetermined definitions of dance and to enter new grounds of experimentation and adventure.
The manifesto is based on Charmatz’s claim that dance centers are outdated since the idea that the body itself has a center belongs to the past. He urges the dance community to think outside of the conventional choreographer-interpreter-company framework and to create a more profound content for dance that is able to interact with other forms of contemporary art as well as with the audience.
The manifesto lists ten commandments dance-makers might consider when developing a museum-based performance intent upon creating a space of exchange, exuberance, and critical response. These points could be used as a checklist for dancers and museums alike when faced with the dance-in-a-museum-situation.
I picked five of Charmatz’s ten commandments and applied them to three different performances that I’ve seen in the past few years and that, in my view, represent the recent development of dancers dancing in museums: Charmatz, mainly active in Europe; Maria Hassabi, originally from Cyprus but based in New York and greatly acclaimed; and Ryan McNamara, a New York–based artist who incorporates dance into his practice.
Five of Charmatz’s commandments:
(“It intends to be an introduction, an appetizer, a place for enhancing public awareness of dance and choreographic culture in the broadest sense, of the history of the body and its representations (…) stimulating the desire for knowledge.”)
(“It approaches dance and its history through a resolutely contemporary vision, questioning the ingenuous knowledge and conventions everyone has about dancing, inducing unlikely links and confrontations.”)
(“It fully acknowledging the fact that its activity does not limit itself to the quest for and the representation of the ‘authentic’ object, encouraging artists and visitors to make works of their own, while stimulating plagiarism”)
(“It is independent, but working in connection with a network of partners, building a relationships with individuals, whether they be artists of international fame, or passionate amateurs.”)
(“It exists as soon as the first gesture has been performed.”)
And now, applying them to my three performances:
1. Boris Charmatz, Flip Book (2008/2013), MoMA
Charmatz’s performance Flip Book (2008/2013), part of Charmatz’s three-week series Musée de la danse: Three Collective Gestures at MoMA, interprets the images of Merce Cunningham’s choreography in David Vaughan’s 1997 book Fifty Years. This piece reveals Charmatz’s interest in documentation, archives, and scores, which is extremely relevant to today’s performance landscape.
The eccentric colorful full-body tights widely associated with Cunningham caught the museum’s audience eye, made it stop and watch possibly bringing back memories of dance performances seen in the past.
Six dancers warmed up, rehearsed, and interacted with the audience in the provocatively central Marron Atrium of MoMA. Usually, the warm-up is never public. It happens behind the scenes. At MoMA, behind-the-scenes became on-stage.
For the second part, the performers embodied the poses shown in the images of Vaughan’s book on stage in front of the audience in accordance with a Charmatz collaborator placed in between the stage and the audience who flipped through the pages of the book.
Charmatz and the dancers worked for four days on the reinterpretation of the images. The process was fast. A few minutes per images. Bang. Bang. Image after image. The associative use of the images proves transgressive and shows Charmatz’s interest in opening up a space for experimentation, whilst escaping conventions; reinventing himself over and over again, inspiring others whilst being inspired by others.
Since 2008, several iterations of Flip Book have been performed by students, amateurs, and trained dancers with no Cunningham experience and as well as by former Cunningham dancers. For Flip Book (2008/2013), Charmatz cooperated not only with the other five dancers but also with a light and sound designer, as well as with former Cunningham dancer Valda Setterfield.
They all were concerned with giving immediate access to their bodies during the MoMA performance.
“What makes a dance should go well beyond the restricted circle of those who structure it in everyday life, and open itself up to an anthropological dimension that joyfully explodes the limits induced by the strictly choreographic field,” wrote Charmatz in his “Manifesto for a National Choreographic Centre.”
2. Maria Hassabi, Intermission #1, Lithuanian-Cypriot Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale
On the stairs of a brutalist gymnasium near the Arsenale, amid works by fellow representatives of the Lithuanian-Cypriot Pavilion, Maria Hassabi and her dancers performed during the four opening days of the biennale. Intermission #1 was presented by professional dancers, Intermission #2 by volunteers and artists.
The performers drew the attention to the eccentric space. They crawled up and down the public gallery, stopped next to or passed visitors on their way, directing their gaze towards the modernist clear architecture.
Movements were provocatively slow, as in all of Hassabi’s pieces. Suddenly, a dancer appeared next to me, touched my hand. An immediate experience, however not focused on interaction. The dancers were wrapped in thoughts. However, their movements felt like an invitation to move the body, transgressively, sideways, up and down, activating bones and limbs. We are in a gym after all.
Hassabi cooperatively integrated her piece into the Gesamtkunstwerk of the Lithuanian-Cypriot Pavilion, in dialogue with the other works on show. She often collaborates with fellow dancers and choreographers (Hristoula Harakas), with fashion designers (threeASFOUR), as well as with light & sound designers. Jeans outfits have become her trademark.
3. Ryan McNamara, Make Ryan a Dancer (2010), Greater New York, PS1
McNamara’s MEƎM: A STORY BALLET ABOUT THE INTERNET at Performa 13 was one of the highlights of the first few biennial days. To understand McNamara’s relationship with dance, it’s useful to look at his first dance piece for the Greater in New York show (2010) at PS1 because this is when performance artist Ryan became a dancer.
In the hallways, in the gallery space, outside of the PS1 building. Dance lessons everywhere. An immediate learning experience. Every day. Free of charge. All levels accepted.
For five months, McNamara trained with professional dancers 18 different dance styles, in and outside of the PS1 gallery space. These different dance styles eccentrically revealed different cultures, times, and trends. The body responds to each one in a different way. In fact, every body calls for a different style. McNamara learned them all. An amateur dancer himself, he put himself provocatively, shamelessly in the spotlight next to his professional teachers. His artistic ego accepted to be the amateur in this relationship and to cooperatively be turned into a dancer.
This public display of dance lessons made the dance profession all of a sudden seem more transparent, more vulnerable, over all more graspable to the audience. If everyone can be an artist, everyone can be a dancer, McNamara transgressively claims.
While I’m writing this, Performa 13 is continuing (until 24 November) and further dance performances are taking place in art spaces and museums. If you happen to see one, in New York or, of course, in Minneapolis, keep Charmatz’s manifesto in mind.
But most important, next time you enter a museum, be prepared to put on your dancing shoes. Museums are beginning to dance.