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All Your Dance Are Belong To Us

Thomas Cott recently included a link to a story about dance and visual arts that I found extremely intriguing. The article starts with a quote from Ralph Lemon, “I wait,” he said, “for the day when a museum acquires a dance.”

My first reaction was that this could be valuable for cross audience pollination. I thought back to an entry I did last February where the coordinator of a visual and performance art festival observed that there was little cross over between her audiences and that of a theatre oriented festival even though they had many of the same artists in common.

Then I started wondering about the logistics and arrangements involved for a museum to acquire and present dance. Fortunately, the article addresses all these things.

Apparently dance and museums are not strangers. A choreographer received top honors at the Whitney Biennial this year. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is featuring a 3 week dance series organized by Ralph Lemon. I was surprised to learn that both MoMA and the Guggenheim own several dance pieces and have paved the way for museums to collect “ephemeral works.”

Apparently working in a gallery space challenges choreographers to think in new ways about the visuals and use of space. Museums find they need to think differently about performance arts. (my emphasis)

“But dance isn’t performance art, as Jens Hoffmann, director of San Francisco’s Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, well knows; he encouraged Mr. Sehgal to transition out of dance, and pursue an audience in the art world.

…Naked on a stage, Mr. Sehgal “re-danced” moves from famous choreographers. “I thought it was interesting that he was turning himself into a museum of dance.” Mr. Hoffmann invited him to participate in several shows in Berlin and Dusseldorf.

Mr. Sehgal, who also has a background in economics, is adamant that his work be treated like any other work of visual art—bought, sold and exhibited. To exhibit one of his pieces, an institution must follow certain contractual obligations—the piece must be shown for a minimum of six weeks, during which time it is presented all day, every day, like any other art exhibition.


According to Ms. Breitwieser, the rise in interest in dance does parallel a similar rise in interest in live art, or art like Mr. Sehgal’s. Since visual art has become so conceptual and predicated on a kind of “de-skilling,” live art, including performance, dance and theatrical works, she said, present an element of “re-skilling” that audiences crave. Awwnd dance presented in the white-cube context of a museum presents a new challenge to both choreographers and viewers that dance in conventional theater doesn’t offer. “The museum’s position is to write history,” Ms. Breitwieser said. “This makes one look at a piece of live art differently.”

How the dance is treated and viewed is of some concern to those in the dance community. If the relationship is to continue, the situation will likely have to move beyond one-offs and short run exhibitions. Tino Sehgal’s insistence that his work be experienced by visitors with the same degree of persistence as any other art work in the museum may become something of a precedent.

According to Judy Hussie-Taylor, the director of Danspace Project, there is chatter in the dance community over whether museums are co-opting dance without fully understanding what it takes to support dancers. There’s also concern that financial resources that now go directly to choreographers and dance organizations may be diverted to museums and visual arts institutions.

“Selling a dance performance as a work of art is an interesting proposition,” she said, “primarily because it’d be great for choreographers to have the same kind of economic control of their work and its distribution [that visual artists have].”

As I said, for me this whole discussion is intriguing to me. I haven’t even been able to imagine all the implications. What does it do for museums which have heretofore always been the site of static art work if they are regularly offering art that is transitory in nature?

One of the big selling points for the performing arts has always been that it happens only for a moment in time. What is the impact of being able to see it 9-5, Monday – Friday in a MoMA gallery? Even though there is still a higher degree of randomness inherent to 50 live performances than 50 viewings of the same YouTube video, do all those repetitions diminish the value of the performance?

On the other hand, does the fact that MoMA has exclusive rights to an exciting, highly acclaimed dance piece and no amount of begging and money can get it performed in Minneapolis enhance the value of both the museum and the company?

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