The visual art of dance

Visual art curators are increasingly programming dance pieces. Lauren Murphy discovers what’s behind this growing trend

The delectable bodies of dancers have long been a popular subject for visual artists – French impressionist Degas made his livelihood painting ballerinas– and now live performances by dance companies, taking place at the some of the world’s most prestigious art galleries, are turning the tables. Dance is taking place in front of art, rather than on the canvas.

Earlier this year, the English National Ballet took up a week-long residency at London’s Tate Britain, and the company is not alone in expanding the reach of its activity. A current interplay between artists and audiences appears to be driving a trend that is positioning dancers in visual art galleries. The result has been a progressive enlivening of both art forms. More than an altruistic attempt to simply bring dance to the masses, artists and curators are paying thanks to the historic role dance has played in the visual art world.

Visitors to Danser sa vie, a sold out exhibition which ran at Centre Pompidou, Paris, from 23 November 2011 until 2 April 2012, were greeted on arrival by Henri Matisse’s iconic painting La Danse in the first room. On loan from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the painting illustrates five dancing figures holding hands in a circle on a green landscape, set against a deep blue sky, and is representative of emotional liberation.

‘When something like this happens in so many places at the same time, it reflects a climax of our time’

An ideal place then to spark the exhibition’s theme: the common interest shared by art and dance in the moving body. Located in the 4th arrondissement, Centre Pompidou is France’s leading modern art gallery.

Curator of Danser sa vie, Christine Macel, says that her inspiration came from the rising number of contemporary visual artists reinvesting the medium of dance into their works. Though performance art has been around for a century, the current resurgence seems to draw on the spirit of artists from the 1960s and 1970s. ‘When something like this happens in so many places at the same time, it reflects a climax of our time,’ believes Macel. ‘It was such a strong topic that I wanted to explore the roots of this dialogue – of the link between art and dance – so I began a lengthy research.’

The resulting exhibition, Danser sa vie, was an unprecedented documentation of the relationship between visual art and dance from 1900 to the present. It deliberately jumbled disciplines and chronology, pulling together works by the likes of Jan Fabre, Richard Leacock, D A Pennebaker, Merce Cunningham, and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, which had never before sat side by side – including sculpture, paintings, sketches, video installations and live performance. The vibrant and exciting exhibition welcomed 370,000 visitors and sold out within two months.

‘Investment in the body, live events, the crossing between practices and ‘hybridation’ – these things are typical nowadays,’ says Macel. ‘I guess the public want something that gives a direct experience, something like music, dance or performance.’

This desire for intimacy between practitioner and participant could be one reason why gallery curators are keen to bring other art forms into their settings. It also goes some way to explain an increase in the emergence of interdisciplinary works. Performance professionals are making attempts to cross-pollinate art forms and, as such, becoming more adventurous in their choice of venue and mode of presentation. Are visual artists turning to dance for ever-more unique ways of keeping ahead of the game?

Catherine Wood, curator at the Tate Modern in London, agrees that audiences are demanding more direct experiences with art, even when visiting what is conventionally thought of as a visual art gallery. This has led to Wood programming the BMW Tate Live Performance Room, a space designed for performance and interdisciplinary art, which was inaugurated by French choreographer and dancer Jérome Bel with the work Shirtology@Tate on 22 March.

Bel, who lives in Paris, is considered a ‘philosopher of contemporary dance’. His conceptual work requires the individual to grasp at understanding and theory. Shirtology@Tate, a twist on Bel’s 1997 performance of Shirtology, explored the links between choreography and popular culture and featured one performer removing layers of T-shirts, each displaying different messages and slogans.

In what could be seen as a brave move, the BMW Tate Live Performance Room is only viewable online. The idea being that the audience has access to what Wood describes as a ‘secret space’. Her decision to design the BMW Tate Live Performance Room in this way came from a concern that online viewers would feel excluded by the presence of a live audience.The online audience is, therefore, treated to a primary exclusive experience – rather than being plagued by the thought they have missed out on ‘the real thing’by not being physically present in the room.

After the performance, the online community can then interact with the artists via social media. ‘I had been thinking for some time about how we might connect up two things: the primary experience of viewing a live performance and the accessibility provided by the web,’ explains Wood. ‘Also, I wanted to challenge the idea that ‘liveness’ is about being in the same room as somebody. Whether through news media or hand-held technology, ‘liveness’ is constantly being mediated in our everyday environments – and so we wanted to experiment with that.’

Wood explains that public desire has evolved in recent times, though she claims that she does not curate with a view to broadening her audience demographic. ‘I think museums and galleries reflect and are driven by artists’ practice, and so yes, they are presenting more of it in tune with that,’ she says.‘It has never been about audience development for me, although, as I said, I think artists want to find new ways to communicate, and performance is a vital part of that.’

While development is not a priority for Wood, even if it is a by-product of the decisions she makes, the same might not be true of her partners; do dancers and companies choose to take their works into a contemporary visual art gallery precisely because they consider it to be an opportunity to reach out to a wider audience?

Franck Bordese, executive director of the Siobhan Davies Studios, questioned this himself when he hosted a talk on 13 April, How to make dance work in a gallery?, as part of the company’s Dance and Art Forum, and later at the What Matters Festival, presented by Independent Dance.

‘I wanted to challenge the idea that ‘liveness’ is about being in the same room as somebody…’liveness’ is constantly being mediated in our everyday environments’

His purpose was to examine the modern context of dance in an art gallery. ‘We looked at whether dance comes in response to an exhibition,’ explains Bordese, ‘or whether dance was the exhibition, or whether sometimes there’s more of a relational context – that it’s to do with the community or the audience that both the dance artists and galleries are interested in engaging with.’

From the point of view of a dance company, visitors to a gallery could be deemed more challenging than the usual ticket-buying theatregoers. Dance audiences are often knowledgeable about dance, whereas the fluid nature of an audience in an art gallery gives rise to a potentially more critical and demanding reception – observers can wander off at will. On this point, Bordese calls for a differentiation between dance work that is choreographed for theatre and transposed into a gallery setting, and dance work created or commissioned by a visual artist with a gallery context already in mind.

Referring to dance works created especially for a gallery, Bordese says the onus is very much with the audience. ‘It’s a dance that’s very much represented as an artwork, meaning that the labour is with the audience, with the visitor. The visitor has to walk in, the visitor has to walk around the dancer, probably has to walk up and down the length of the gallery,has to spend time in the gallery,’ he says. ‘The visitor is active and the visitor makes all the decisions. They decide whether they want to stay at one end,whether they want to stay two minutes or four hours. That’s why we sometimes think of it as more relational art because of this interaction between the audience and the artists.’

But are there practical concerns for the crew and dancers involved, especially when moving works between venues? Essential lighting, flooring and staging equipment might not be as readily available at a gallery, in which case is a gallery setting actually restrictive to dancers and choreographers?

‘Putting seating in the gallery and having a floor area in the middle of the gallery and then doing a performance at seven o’clock every night is one thing,’ explains Bordese, ‘but doing an exhibition of dance using the floor as it is, if it’s concrete – well, it is concrete – as a dancer, you wear trainers, and you try not to jump too much or land on your knees. But some galleries have very nice wooden floors,which is good. Obviously if you make a work for a gallery that has a concrete floor, then you make a work that’s suitable to be done on that floor.’

Perhaps the resultant pared-down works actually appear more authentic? After all, visitors to a gallery are not necessarily looking for a complete experience, but for a performance with meaning – even if the staging is relatively makeshift. The trend appears to be far from simply a clever marketing ploy. A dance company performing in a gallery might chance upon a receptive person who would never before have considered paying to see a performance – and the individual might consequently decide to pause, observe and reflect with a view to one day attending a show., or not.

Wood’s online audience for the BMW Tate Live Performance Room, for example, goes out to a faceless crowd and stems from a desire to simply further the creative possibilities of visual art. Taking over the space in the Tate Modern on 31 May will be American artist and writer Emily Roysdon, whose method involves curating and collaborating with a range of performance, photographic installations, print-making, text and video.

As part of the 2010 Whitney Biennial, Roysdon exhibited a series of photographs curated to portray a historical narrative at the Whitney Museum in New York, a space dedicated to performance art.At BMW Tate Live Performance Room in the Tate Modern she will explore the intersection of choreography and political action through live performance and installations.

‘We hope to explore Emily’s engagement with activism’, says Wood. ‘YouTube, via which the project is broadcast, is an extraordinarily open medium, not the protected space of the art museum,and so the artists we invite may want to think about how that connection with an unknown, ‘non-art’ audience may happen, and what it might mean politically.’

‘I think artists are trying to find new ways of generating communities and collective experience that isn’t just to do with looking at an object in isolated contemplation,’ adds Wood. And the trend shows no sign of abating. Such was the success of Danser sa vie at the Centre Pompidou that The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Spain’s leading modern art gallery located in Madrid’s golden triangle of art, home to Picasso’s Guernica, hopes to replicate the exhibition, says Macel.

Over at the BMW Tate Live Performance Room,more work is lined up: the Argentine artist Pablo Bronstein will take over the space on 26 April, followed by American artist Joan Jonas, who specialises in video and performance art, followed by Emily Roysdon and American artist Harrell Fletcher.

The Tate is also in the process of converting two unused subterranean oil tanks behind the Tate Modern, which will be used as ultra-modern gallery spaces for installations, film,performance and discussions.The first phase of the conversion will be unveiled later this year, and the entire project will reach completion in 2016.

The movement is seemingly transatlantic: The Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) Department of Media and Performance Art has an ongoing performance programme. One resulting project was the exhibition On Line: Drawing Through The Twentieth Century, which ran from 21 November 2010 – 7 February 2011. This exhibition examined the radical transformation of the medium of drawing throughout the century, particularly in relation to gesture and form.

Since the dancing body has so often been the subject matter for drawing – take Matisse’s La Danse as a prime example – the exhibition saw several artists, including American artist and choreographer Ralph Lemon, present dance works that examined the relationship between the two forms. MoMA’s performance programme also resulted in its affiliate art institution, MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, commissioning Lemon to create a three-week programme of dance performances.

The exhibition, Some Sweet Day,will take place in the museum’s atrium from 15 October – 4 November and intends to demonstrate how dance can engage with a range of topics, including aesthetics, race, gender and history.

Jérome Bel will present his 2001 work, The Show Must Go On, using a cast of New York City dancers. Overall, there is a thriving scene that benefits dancers, artsists, dance companies and visual art galleries. This inseparable dialogue between art and dance, in an era that demands instant gratification via film, television, gaming and music, will also do much to keep the growing number of omnivorous cultural consumers satisfied.

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