Panel As Performance: The Danspace Conversations on Some Sweet Day

Ralph Lemon at Danspace Project (Photo: Ian Douglas)

Saturday I spent the afternoon over at Danspace Project for their Conversations Without Walls dedicated to Ralph Lemon’s “Some Sweet Day” platform at MoMA. It was very revealing and I’m really glad I went. The conversations revealed some very problematic stuff that clarified exactly how wide the gulf is between worlds, but also some indications of ways to move forward towards meaningful collaboration. The conversations also provided some great insight into the program itself, outside of the “dance in the museum” issue. If you’d like to listen to the conversations (and I suggest you do as I can’t possibly cover it all here) I recorded the event and it is available here:




The conversation was divided into three parts, all moderated by Jenn Joy:

Part One: Regarding Steve Paxton’s Satisfyin Lover and Jérôme Bel’s The Show Must Go On:
Conversation with Sabine Breitwieser (Chief Curator, Media and Performance Art, MoMA), George Ferrandi (artist), Maria Hassabi (choreographer), and Noémie Solomon (Mellon post-doctorate fellow, McGill University, Montreal).

Part Two: Regarding Faustin Linyekula’s What is Black Music, Anyway…Self-Portraits and Dean Moss’s Voluntaries, and Kevin Beasley’s I Want my Spot Back:
Conversation with Thomas J. Lax (Exhibition Coordinator and Program Associate, The Studio Museum in Harlem), Ralph Lemon, Katherine Profeta (dramaturg) and Jenny Schlenzka (Associate Curator, MoMA PS1).

Part Three: Regarding Sarah Michelson’s Devotion Study #3 and Deborah Hay’s Blues:
Conversation with Luciana Achugar (choreographer), DD Dorvillier (choreographer), Thomas J. Lax (Exhibition Coordinator and Program Associate, The Studio Museum in Harlem), Ralph Lemon, and Rashaun Mitchell (choreographer).

I’m going to start with the negative stuff before I get to the positive, and yes, it is nit-picky but it is really only one overarching criticism that umbrellas a number of other issues that I won’t go into here. Okay, so, the event was billed like this:

In collaboration with The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Danspace Project presents a conversation responding to Ralph Lemon‘s MoMA commissioned series Some Sweet Day (October 15-November 4, 2012). Danspace Project invites artists, curators, and scholars to respond to the aesthetic and historic dialogue proposed by Some Sweet Day performances.

I really don’t see how it is a “collaboration” when MoMA didn’t publicize the event, include it on their website, email, twitter, Facebook or otherwise promote to their rather substantial constituency. One would think that if MoMA went to the trouble of commissioning and presenting the work and, one assumes, thinking about the implications of dance in the museum and the important issues Ralph raised in his platform, that they would want to promote a conversation either in their museum or outside of it. Since they didn’t choose to include this level of conversation as part of the actual platform at MoMA (artist talkbacks are one thing, but not necessarily sufficient unto themselves), it would have been a nice gesture to reach out to their visitors, some of whom might have encountered this work without any context, and invited them to learn about the work after the fact. Just sayin’.

That being said, I got a lot of new and valuable information that will inform my writing as I develop the fourth installment of my essay series. It is currently titled “Museums, Performance and the Crisis of Materiality” and will explore just that. We’ll touch on some of this here, lightly, to be explored more deeply in the subsequent essay. Also, let me re-emphasize that I can’t possibly recapitulate all that was said in these conversations, so I encourage you to listen to them using the media player above.

The first thing I found out – which was not surprising but I hadn’t considered – is that MoMA is diversity-challenged. That is to say they haven’t really featured the work of very many African-American artists, particularly solo exhibitions, and that part of the original impetus behind this dance platform was as a companion project to an exhibition on blues that never came together. Ralph’s “prompt” to the invited choreographers was (and I paraphrase) “What is Black Music?”. Paxton and Bel chose not to really follow the prompt, the other four choreographers did in different ways, raising different levels of challenge to the prompt, the audiences and the performers. Ralph chose to de-emphasize the prompt in the expository material developed for the platform, feeling that it would complicate matter too much and serve as a distraction. If I understood correctly, he proposed that race and blackness was an activating material for the work, but not the entire focus of the platform. Still this was new and valuable information and I began looking at the platform and work in a new way realizing that the MoMA was, as Ralph put it, “a capacious container” for any number of ideas from interrogating blackness in art, to being an “instrumentalized institution” (as Thomas Lax put it) that embodies the alignment of power, valuation and wealth.

<rant>On a brief side note, I consistently wonder, across disciplines, how the influence of European (or non-American, anyway) curators affects institutional engagements with race – blackness specifically and diversity in general. I’ve talked about this before and will talk about it again but, as messed up as America is, we’ve been talking about and struggling with race since the founding of the country and, literally, fighting about it since The Civil War. I’ve been to a bunch of European countries and talked to lots of curators and I’m constantly amazed at how much they mock us for our attitudes towards multiculturalism and call us racist, yet have completely managed to fuck it up in their own countries. There is a huge double standard and blind, implicit racism in Eurocentric aesthetic frameworks – visual, performance or otherwise – I find it unlikely that non-American curators will be able to build cultural institutions or exhibits that reflect the complexity and  nuance of 21st Century America.</rant>

Anyway -listening to Sabine Breitwieser I realized that from the museum’s perspective this was a huge deal. She characterized the Atrium as the center or core of this imposing institution and by inviting Ralph to “occupy” the Atrium was investing him as curator – and dance as discipline – with significant power. Still problematic in the idea of “giving” of power, but fascinating. She made a thoughtful observation about how Paxton’s piece seemed to be a counterproposal to the culture industry whereas Bel’s seemed to represent a capitulation, which was an interesting point, and she asserted that the movement in Bel’s piece was “grotesque” though I’m still unclear what she intended that to mean.

Artist George Ferrandi‘s observations were less critical, offering more of a personal narrative on how she received the work. She told a great story about working with an artist collective on a project and deciding to invite Katie Pearl to help them with their performance technique. She said that Katie asked the group to stand there for a minute and do nothing, they fidgeted, but their hands in their pockets, etc. Then Katie gave them instructions to focus on something, embody it – and they all stood much more still and focused and attentive. Katie said, “Do you see the difference”? And George said, “Yeah, you ruined it!” Which was really revealing about perspectives on what performance looks like to different artists in different contexts and illuminates part of the divide between visual art performance and theater or dance-based performance. I also think it points to something that is often left out of the conversation – theater and dance-based performers work to be so good that they can faithfully and wholly embody and replicate the appearance of the untutored and everyday with absolute consistency time and again. I bring this up because George mentioned how, even in the visual art world, people are starting to return to an appreciation of craft and skill.

I don’t remember who mentioned it but someone – maybe several people – rightly pointed out that Judson was a long time ago and a lot has happened since then. The question was raised “what can be achieved through virtuosity?” Even as many artists are explicitly separating choreography from dance and interrogating that relationship, it seems like a useful moment to really re-examine virtuosity and see what role that plays in re-envisioning contemporary dance as a field.

Maria Hassabi was mostly quiet but made some keen observations. She mentioned how she looked around at one point and saw everyone she knew, how it felt like a whole community took a “field trip to MoMA” which seemed to complement Noemie Solomon’s interpretation of Bel’s piece as “generous”, creating a feeling of joy and communal space.

Over the course of the conversation it became clear how much distance there is culturally, aesthetically and linguistically, between visual art and dance. I realized that – and I don’t necessarily mean this quite as pejoratively as it is going to sound – MoMA’s relationship to dance (and performing arts generally) is kind of like the fictitious but instructive anecdote about George H.W. Bush’s amazement at a price scanner at the grocery store or the very real accounts of Mitt Romney’s (and Karl Rove’s) disbelief at losing the election.They honestly never really thought about it before and they’re so wrapped up in their own conversations that until now they haven’t seen the differences nor been concerned enough to think about it.

As I’ve said countless times, the origin stories of dance and visual art are vastly different and the existing ecologies and modes of production are totally different. Dance (and theater and live art) takes a village, a community, to build. Even a solo requires a team of collaborators to come to fruition. The fact of the matter is that contemporary dance, like contemporary theater – historically hasn’t existed in institutions, it is built outside of the institution and has become professionalized only in the past 30 years or so. We exist in community, we create in community, we are interdependent in a way that visual artists – and visual arts institutions are not. We don’t have a market to fall back on for revenue, we don’t accrue capital, so we have to rely on sweat equity and each other. We also exist in an oral culture, especially in dance.

During one of the panels Jenny Schlenzka brought up Labanotation and the idea of “the score”. I started obsessing about this when I was in Minneapolis in September and I started asking choreographers how they taught dances and how they remembered the movements from any given work, much less numerous works. Most of them told me they had an idiosyncratic writing practice to help them remember. Some actually wrote words, narratives and text. Most had some unique, individual self-generated system of squiggles, shapes, lines and figures that served as mnemonics or pictographs. A friend visting from Seattle had just seen a Mark Morris piece at PNB and was marveling at how the dancers seemed to literally incorporate Mark Morris into their movement. Choreographers regularly speak of “putting their movement” on a dancer, or dancers talk about embodying movement vocabulary, getting the moves into their bodies. Historically choreographies have been passed down through an oral tradition that conveys information held in the body. Ballet masters remember ballets and teach them to new generations. And even the scripts of Shakespeare, the most iconic playwright in the English language, are textually unstable and subject to interrogation. With little or no stage direction, production specifications or any other instruction, the text exists merely as a starting place for reinventing the ephemeral experience. Performance makers are ever in pursuit of the truth revealed in the moment before vanishing, we exist in liminality, we seek to connect the ineffable to its glimmering representation, the immanent to its manifestation. This kind of hits at the heart of the question about the difference between “dance” and “choreography”, I think.

Looking at my notes I see a lot of the same things cropping up where the issue of race in art is almost a subset or parallel conversation to dance and the museum: power, ephemerality, erasure, invisibility, representation, blackness vs. whiteness, the body and the reale, value, access, agency, multiplicity of voices. Almost everything said generally about the relationship of contemporary dance and the museum can be contextualized specifically in terms of race. So I think it was incredibly genius of Ralph to elide the race conversation and surreptitiously,  subversively, almost subliminally, intertwine it with the wider, seemingly less contentious frame of dance and the museum. Some artists addressed it overtly, drawing the connection between the “performance” of the mostly black security guards and their socioeconomic relationship to the institution, some less overtly, but this pervasive intertwining of meanings was resonant, if only on reflection.

One thing that numerous speakers brought up in various ways was the conditions, limitations and various meanings of the physical space. I have two scribbled notes, one that I will pursue now, one for later. The first was just an idea I think a lot about, “performance as art object”. More and more I think of work like Meg Stuart’s Blessed,  Reid Farrington’s The Passion Project or, more recently, Bill Morrison’s The Shooting Gallery as finely calibrated time-based multimedia sculptures. But the other scribbled note was “all performance is site specific” and that really bears repeat examination. I have been thinking quite a bit about context – more on that soon – and the expectations and assumptions that come with place. Galleries, theaters, performance spaces, streets, houses, offices – all places, all sites, all physical or virtual locations – have their own meanings and resonances and every performance, every work of art, exists in relation to those site-specific conditions. A work presented at The Joyce is received differently than a work presented at The Kitchen is received differently than a work presented at NYLA  is received differently than a work in Paula Cooper or Eyebeam or an alley, park or office. It seems obvious but it is rarely actually interrogated in any kind of profound or meaningful, effective way. Which is why I have renewed respect for Sarah Michelson.

Of all the pieces included in “Some Sweet Day” Michelson’s seemed to be the most intent on interrogating the space and its meanings while also engaging with Ralph’s prompt. Looking back on the Michelson projects I was involved in – Shadowmann and Daylight – and subsequent shows I’ve seen, I’m awed by the sheer force of will she exerts to transform and control the narratives of physical space. She is, in fact, dancing about architecture. Or more accurately using dance to challenge architecture, its power and assumptions. I still can’t tell if it is more Triumph Of The Will (she does put her face on every costume and creates a daunting cult of personality) or Spartacus, or some incredibly complicated hybrid of the two, but of all the pieces she is the one that seems to have really taken things on head to head, moving her dancers outside the proscribed area, truly occupying, infiltrating and subverting MoMA’s narrative.

In terms of engaging with Lemon’s prompt, it seems that Deborah Hay’s Blues was the most provocative. I was unaware of the dust-up until Rashaun Mitchell starting talking about his qualms about performing in the piece and trying to negotiate the politics and practice of a racially divided cast. Eventually Niv Acosta to talk about the process and the conflict. Niv, in turn, invited Kathy Wasik to tell her side of the story as chronicled over at P-Club. I don’t know nearly enough of the story to recount it here, go to P-Club and read up or to Claudia’s review in the Times, google around too, apparently it was blogged about quite a bit.

 All in all the discussion at Danspace Project on Saturday was spirited and informative and it was a welcome opportunity to see all of these curators, thinkers and artists in conversation in one place. I left feeling that even though the challenges are immense and daunting,  there is still a lot to be learned from meaningful conversation and exchange between disciplines ad institutions. Hopefully we can find productive, equitable and actionable ways to keep moving forward.

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