Wonder in the Museum

Musée de la Danse’s Levée des conflits extended/Suspension of Conflicts Extended (Photo by Megan Karande)

Musée de la Danse’s Levée des conflits extended/Suspension of Conflicts Extended (Photo by Megan Karande)


“We are at a time in history where a museum can modify BOTH preconceived ideas about museums AND one’s ideas about dance… In order to do so, we must first of all forget the image of a traditional museum, because our space is firstly a mental one. The strength of a museum of dance consists to a large extent in the fact that it does not yet exist.” – Boris Charmatz, “Manifesto for a Dancing Museum,” 2009

It was an innocent game, a follow-the-leader-meets-charades-like escapade. She began to twist from side to side and the children followed. An undulating curve of the spine transposed into two caterpillars on the floor. As the female dancer knelt down on her haunches and wiggled her behind two small dogs emerged, wagging their tales to and fro. The game continued, punctuated by eager pointing fingers to follow the movement and outbursts of laughter at the leader’s absurd choices.

Hearing their tinkling voices I smiled at their eager participation in what many others had silently declared a strange spectacle. Who declared that art (and dance for that matter) has to be so serious? It must have been someone anxious about understanding, someone who quelled the anxiety of the unknown underneath taxonomy, timelines, and pasted labels. I imagine that Charmatz, who sat on the sidelines near these children, must have delighted in their wonder – that eager energy to explore, to play, and to enjoy. Although the performance of his work at MoMA may have elicited the kind of attention yearned for in the artworld, I think the full-faced wonder shown by these children may have been the affirmation he most clearly desired.

This October MoMA hosted the Musée de la Danse for a three-week long series of dance programs entitled Three Collective Gestures. Held over consecutive weekends, the Musée de la Danse presented 20 Dancers for the XX Century, Levée des conflits extended/Suspension of Conflicts Extended, and Flip Book. MoMA wrote that these these projects each reflected, “how dance can be thought through the museum and vice versa.” It is important to note MoMA’s use of the word “thought” in this sentence rather than the more expected: included, performed, seen, or experienced. Instead, MoMA placed the emphasis on the thinking that each of these performances provoked, thoughts specifically attuned to paradigms surrounding how dance exists inside museums and how museums exist inside dance. These questions have been particularly ripe in the past five years, particularly through exhibitions and programming at MoMA. (See Marina Abromovic retrospective, On Line, Some Sweet Day.)

While dance has a history of inclusion in museums, curators have recently become entranced by its ability to rethink the exhibition itself and how institutions relate to visitors, a point editor Andy Horwitz first put forward in “Curatorial Practice and Cultural Production,” as part of his series “The Economics of Ephemerality.” Horwitz took notice of MoMA PS1 Associate Curator Jenny Schlenzka’s statement, at the 2013 Performa panel Why Dance in the Art World, that she found dance compelling because it gave her the opportunity to “re-envision the format of the exhibition.” Three Collective Gestures – curated by Ana Janevski, Associate Curator, with Jill A. Samuels, Performance Producer, and Martin Hartung and Leora Morinis, Curatorial Assistants – pushed MoMA to think beyond a single exhibition though to the museum as institution itself, an issue that is of particular interest to Charmatz.

Boris Charmatz, director and creator of the Musée de la Danse, has reconfigured this institution (if it can even be called that) to insert himself into the thick of these conversations. In 2009 Charmatz was named the director of the Centre choréographique national de Rennes et de Bretagne and immediately renamed it the Musée de la Danse, instilling it as a sight of wonder, dialogue, and creation. During a Modern Monday discussion with Simone Forti, Ralph Lemon, and Ana Janevski, Charmatz clarified that he saw the Musée de la Danse as a collective in opposition to the traditional, conservative idea of the museum as an institution charged to conserve and preserve art. Instead, he harkened back another idea of the museum as a site for artists and all people to train, experience, and create. He referenced the classic example of the Louvre as a place where artists came to be inspired, practice their craft, discuss with other artists, and ultimately produce new work. Charmatz clarified in the lecture that the “museum is not a closed idea” and that he claimed this moniker and the issues surrounding it not as a burden, but as an opportunity for new conversations, partnerships, and paradigms.

After hearing about Charmatz’s ideas about preservation, history, embodiment, and wonder at this lecture, I attended two of his performances at MoMA: Suspension of Conflicts Extended and Flip Book. At both of these performances I was struck by how Charmatz deftly continued to probe these topics – subtly pushing dance and the museum against each other to draw attention to the unseen absent.


Levée des conflits extended/Suspension of Conflicts Extended

A dancer walked into the middle of the space and sat, folding her body over to make sweeping circles on the ground with her outstretched arm. This tracing evolved to a concerted scrubbing, as if she were trying to etch the shape into the floor. She moved onto her hands and knees to push bigger arcs, which developed into a crawling sequence. Throughout the next forty-five minutes the dancer passed continuously through a series of twenty-five movements with the weighted quality of a pendulum. This monotonous, heavy quality was entrancing. Dancers gradually began to accumulate in the atrium, each beginning with the same circular sweeps on the floor and continuing through the established sequence. Over time the number of dancers added with each iteration exponentially increased the size of the group and the speed of the sequence – a sense of jittery energy was palpable.

Although the oozing transitions from movement to movement continued, I began to recognize particular movements as different dancers in various parts of the atrium repeated them. What had initially been an engrossing soliloquy became a bubbling assortment of I Spy’s: there’s the butt scoot! – now look the woman in black is doing it! Look they’re doing the drag and fall! My friend and I delighted in spotting the different movements that we had isolated as one of the twenty-five.

Eventually the atrium began to fill with dancers as they subtly emerged from the surrounding crowd to begin the sequence. Although each dancer repeated the phrase, they each looked distinct due to different body types, clothing, and weight distribution. As the number of dancers grew, I became entranced by the fleeting moments of connection between a sea populated by individuals. Each dancer seemed singularly focused on his/her movements, only to be suddenly dragged across the floor by a partner. This dragging section, the only part of the sequence that allowed physical contact, became the link between the entire group. Amidst a seemingly individual focus, the dancer’s strong awareness of the group became increasingly noticeable as they began to move into a series of concentric circles (all while continuing the phrase). This vortex of turmoil and evolution accelerated, increasing in entropy as the dancers gathered in a tight clump in the middle of the atrium. The crescendo of movement built in tandem with the increasingly loud ambient music. It sounded as if a helicopter was descending in the atrium, its wings rotating ever faster as it approached the ground.

This sound and the swirling group of dancers was reminiscent of an unedited film Charmatz had shown at the MoMA lecture earlier that week. Shot from above (likely from a helicopter), it showed dancers edging closer together in a circle and accumulating speed as the wind from the plane’s wings rustled their hair and kicked up the dust of the ground, adding to a sense of chaos and increasing disarray.

We read in the program that at any given moment one of the twenty-five gestures was left “undanced.” This game to discover which movement was being left out became increasingly futile as more dancers were added. I was torn between focusing entirely on one dancer to determine which movement was left out and panning the entire group to catch if a particular gesture was missing. Ultimately I gave up, overwhelmed by the increasing free-for-all and no longer interested in a desire for totality.

Museums, at least large institutions like MoMA, often seek a sense of encyclopedic completion that evokes a sense of total knowledge. Ideally a visitor should be able to walk through the galleries of MoMA and be able to reconstruct a walk through the development of art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And indeed, museums are often taken at face value as fulfilling this goal. Art history, and museums itself, pride themselves on having one of everything – a Matisse, a Picasso, a Rothko, a Bourgeois. Walking through galleries can often initially be more of an Eye Spy – look a Monet! – than an introduction to art history itself. Rarely, if ever, do art museums acknowledge what is not on their walls – “the unpainted picture.” In the exhibition Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, a pioneering exhibition on depictions of Africans in Renaissance Europe recently show at the Princeton University Museum of Art, a small plaque at the end of the exhibition called attention to those pieces that were missing: artworks that had been destroyed, those that were decried, and those that were barred from creation. This exhibition dared to focus on its absence, its inability to tell the entire story through objects. In doing so it recognized its futility as a final word, while highlighting the important role of the museum in continually rethinking supposedly closed past.

Like this exhibition, Charmatz draws attention to what was missing and argues that the choreographed steps themselves are less important than the manner in which they are constructed. Instead of focusing on what is missing, the focus instead is drawn to why it is missing – how is logic determined, who determined it, and why? Instead of slipping into a mania – one particularly fervid when concerning the ephemeral nature of of dance and its seemingly inevitability degradation over time. When reconstructing a dance what perhaps becomes more interesting is not whether the steps are exactly correct, but why they have changed, how they have changed, and what that reveals about the span of time since its first performance.

As museums begin to investigate how they can and will integrate dance into their collections, I hope that the undanced will be considered instead of glossed over or covered up. And perhaps maybe this investigation will spur museums to more openly investigate the artworks that are unpainted/unsculpted/undesigned in their collections already.

Musée de la Danse's Flip Book (Photo by Aryeh Stein-Azen)

Musée de la Danse’s Flip Book (Photo by Aryeh Stein-Azen)

Flip Book

“And you – you’re going to be this picture. Big laugh – very loud. OK let’s go again from the beginning” –Boris Charmatz

  1. Merce Cunningham laughing
  2. Run into a straight line
  3. Merce Cunningham as a little boy
  4. Merce Cunningham sitting on a chair
  5. My solo debut at MoMA

I got to the museum around 1pm to watch what had been billed as a “rehearsal” with Boris Charmatz and “an ex-Cunningham dancer.” Valda Setterfield, who danced with Cunningham from 1964-1974, narrated the rehearsal activities of Charmatz and six dancers as they reviewed the sequence of Flip Book. After going through a few poses instantly recognizable as Cunningham – angular arms, jumps in attitude, tilts on relevé – the dancers drifted offstage.

Charmatz took one of the copies of the book Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (2005) that had been sitting on music stands on opposite sides of the stage. He called this book, written and compiled by the Cunningham Archivist David Vaughn, “a compression of time.” He went on to explain that he considered the book “a piece in itself,” a work of art that conveyed the history of Merce Cunningham through family pictures, performance stills, casual snapshots of artistic collaborators, and extensive texts. Intrigued by this combination of materials, Charmatz created Flip Book by memorizing and recreating its more than 300 images and performing them in sequence.

After this brief explanation, Charmatz looked into the audience and gamely asked for volunteers to join him onstage in what he called a “visitors’ version.” Charmatz first created Flip Book with German students in 2008 and has since done several versions with different casts. Excited by the opportunity to enact the Flip Book experience and to work with Charmatz, I raised my hand and was called onstage with eight other visitors.

We crowded around Charmatz and looked at the first group photograph on the inside cover of the book. The dancers, depicted as black silhouettes, are spread across both pages in a string of poses and shapes. Charmatz assigned each volunteer a position and we tried to conform our bodies to the photograph’s outlines.

After practicing our entrance from the stage sidelines, Charmatz stopped us and told us to look at the photograph again. He urged us to look closely to glean more than the positions and see the “affirmation” of American dancers. Looking at the picture, particularly the silhouetted outline, I found it difficult to get this sense of energy and weighted confidence. The picture clearly demonstrated the shapes of the dancers, but could it really give any more than that?

Going on through the book, Charmatz assigned individuals to be Merce: Merce performing, Merce sitting at a rehearsal, Merce enjoying the company of friends. Throughout the piece, multiple people portrayed Merce, both male and female. In presenting each picture, the goal was to most carefully capture the shapes and emotions displayed, not specific gender, age, or even stylistic details. When one volunteer was assigned a large stag leap, Charmatz urged her to be confident, “even if you don’t know what you are doing, keep going!”

Charmatz asked me to be John Cage shown in a 1972 photograph included above Vaughn’s dedication of the book to his memory. After a rather feeble attempt at laughter, Charmatz again asked me to return to the photograph to notice how John’s eyes are closed, how his mouth is wide in a hearty expulsion. Each time thereafter I tried to laugh louder, but always found I couldn’t sustain it long enough. An awkward silence filled the atrium in the space between my laughter and the next leap. Like the photograph, I felt stilted, obviously posed and flat. Participating in Charmatz’s Flip Book, I questioned the ability of photographs to fully convey the life and energy of their subjects to new interpreters – or was it just me?

While watching Charmatz and his dancers perform Flip Book later that afternoon, this question about the photograph’s ability to capture a sensation fully enough to allow a separated individual to represent it continued to plague me. And even then, is a copy ever the same?

Charmatz’s use of photographs to create dances is certainly not a new practice. Photographs are often used in dance reconstructions, perhaps most famously in Millicent Hodson’s reconstruction of The Rite of Spring for the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, which many scholars have argued did not lend enough legitimacy to this revival (add link http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2001/05/07/010507crda_dancing). Watching Flip Book I also thought of Bill T. Jones’s 1977 piece Continous Replay, based on a set of forty-five photographs taken by Arnie Zane. Jones took the poses depicted in these photographs and strung them together into a phrase that was repeated forty-five times as the dancers traversed the outer edge of the stage. As the piece progressed, dancers improvised variations on the poses to create a gradually crescendoing cornucopia of connected movements. Jones’s piece focused on the space between faithfully recapturing a pose and a recognizable referent.

Although Charmatz did not encourage similar distortions, he too explored the idea of what it means to demonstrate an exact copy. Although more than three hundred photographs in Vaughn’s book were embodied in Flip Book, the manner in which they were engineered differed. Transitions between photographs varied – at times multiple photographs were danced simultaneously, while sometimes a single photograph stretched over many minutes. The transitions into and out of photographs also shifted throughout the piece sometimes dancers melted from one photograph to the next, while other images were punctuated by discrete entrances and exits. Charmatz also took the liberty of animating photographs with movement, making them more into memes than snapshots. In one photograph of John Cage playing a piano, a dancer deftly mimed him plucking individual strings, leaning over them to more closely sense their vibrations.

While these liberties with the pictures were understandable, other surprising additions throughout the piece were inexplicable and ultimately strange. Sharp yells, growls, and yips punctuated the dance, adding a startling layer to the otherwise silent photographs. These emissions from the performers made them seem as if they had suddenly become small dogs rather than enlivened Cunningham dancers. Charmatz and others also added series of swiveling hips and gyrating bodies that seemed more akin the popular culture of today than to Cunningham. The complete divorce of these noises and gyrations made me question Charmatz’s intent – was he making fun of Cunningham?

While watching Flip Book these subtle differences were noticeable only in constant reference back to Vaughn’s book. Two copies were set on music stands on opposite sides of the stadium seating and were flipped through as dancers moved through the book. Watching the piece in concert with the book engineered a split understanding of the work that was both satisfying and frustrating. Like Charmatz’s previous work, Suspension of Conflicts Extended, it was gratifying to identify a gesture being reproduced and to recognize it in a dancer. However, the constant shuttling between book and dance also engendered a sense of anxiety when I was unable to determine the connection between the photograph and the book.

This anxiety grew strongly palpable as the woman who was flipping the pages of the book closest to me left before the end of the piece. A woman sitting behind me gestured to the book franticly and told me “Turn the page! Turn the page!” Caught in the confusion of complying with her request and trying to watch the dance I failed to flip the back cover of the book in time for the last picture: an iconic shot of Cunningham jumping. After a dancer jumped, the stage cut to an immediate blackout as the woman reached over me and slapped the back cover of the book over. “There, that’s how it’s supposed to end.”

A persistent desire to cover everything and to know it all pervaded much of my first experience of Flip Book. Watching this piece in the wake of Cunningham’s death and the dismantling of his company, it was nearly impossible to understand this piece as something other than a comment on time, preservation, and the longevity of the ephemeral. Even though Charmatz created its first iteration while Cunningham was still alive, much of it questions the practice and means of preservation. Charmatz seems to argue that even though Cunningham is dead, his work continues to live on through its remains as documented in photographs. However this is a layered record that includes photographs of Cunningham’s personal life, his company, his artistic collaborators, and the pieces themselves (both in rehearsal and performance).

In a post-performance discussion led by Claire Bishop, Charmatz focused on the accessibility of Flip Book and argued that creating this piece was more an exploration of the possibility of transmission than a quest to fully encompass Cunningham’s history. I was intrigued by his claim that these pictures and the practice of embodying them made Cunningham accessible. This argument contradicts the traditional, almost fetishistic idolization of retired-dancers, one that has been particularly strong with Cunningham dancers. Indeed, the MoMA brochure failed to identify Valda Setterfield, instead labeling her only as an “ex-Cunningham dancer,” as though her connection to this icon was more valuable than her own knowledge and history. Charmatz’s argument that the embodiment of Vaughn’s photographs make Cunningham’s work accessible to anyone also challenges the long-held idea that Cunningham choreography requires a highly trained body with strength, dexterity, and mental agility.

After Cunningham’s death and the closure of his company, there was, and arguably still is, considerable fear that his work will be lost and forgotten. Cunningham’s legacy plan argued that it was better to accept the impossibility of the work’s survival without him at the outset rather than see it gradually disintegrate without his direction. Flip Book does not seek to counter Cunningham’s legacy plan, but rather honors it by making the pieces accessible through fragments, aspects themselves that will change over time. Flip Book takes it departure from Vaughn’s collection of photographs and moves beyond them to bridge the gap between the preserved past and the yearning present. Charmatz places this piece as a bridge specifically within the museum, arguing that as an institution it has the responsibility to help preserve, maintain, and enliven art history. Embodying Vaughn’s photographs literally brought them to life, and with them a new insight into Cunningham’s history that also acknowledging what is lost in translation between the book and the movement, the faded picture and the living body.



Charmatz clarified in his 2009 Manifesto for a Dancing Museum that he included the word museum to emulate its interdependent structure that linked conservation, creation, exhibition, research, programming, and public outreach aspects. Throughout Three Collective Gestures he demonstrated that dance can lend museums new paradigms. While dance certainly offers much for museums to consider, a process of sharing and collaboration that I hope will continue in perpetuity, Charmatz argued most strongly that museums should follow dance’s example and shift away from its object-based collections. Museums should take a cue from dance and its own history as places to cultivate discussion, learning, and new creation to shift their focus to collecting, providing, and creating experiences. In a lecture held in conjunction with Three Collective Gestures, Simone Forti said that she hoped that as museums acquired dance and performance that they would “take on the responsibility to keep things alive.” Charmatz, through these performances and his continued challenge of conventions in both museums and dance, has breathed new life into the often-stagnant atmosphere of the museum. He has imbued it with a new sense of wonder.


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