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Dancing in Museums: A Decade of Movement

Siobhan Burke

Once about ten years ago, I danced in a museum. I had forgotten about this until recently, when, in gathering material for this series, I came across a YouTube video of the choreographer Melinda Ring’s Mouse Auditions at the 2010 Whitney Biennial. The footage shows performers taking turns in front of a mirror, fashioning plastic bags around their heads in the shape of mouse ears. This transformation was part of the show, a staged audition for an imaginary adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, interpreted by a cast of mouse-people. The deliberately chaotic work took place atop the platforms of Martin Kersels’s 5 Songs—a sculpture built as a site for live performance—in the museum’s lobby gallery, where visitors could pause on their way to somewhere else.

I don’t remember the details of my role, just that it involved as much improvised squealing as movement (if not more), and that as a twenty-three-year-old freelance dancer, I was happy to add to my résumé that I had performed at the Whitney Museum. The roughly two-hour gig wasn’t paid, but I had a full-time day job, so the experience or exposure or prestige, I must have told myself, was compensation enough. I imagine that by staging an audition for unpaid performers, with no rehearsal time required, Ring was seeking a creative way to work within whatever limited budget the Whitney had provided. (The biennial is not known for its generous artist fees.)

I realize now that Mouse Auditions embodied many of the power imbalances inherent to dancing in museums, just as dancing in museums was emerging as a newly popular practice, not yet widely discussed. There we were, our bodies and voices “activating the space” (to use a ubiquitous, often misleading curatorial term), conjuring up an ephemeral experience—in contrast to the collectible artwork of our sculpture-stage—for the non-monetary reward of association with a wealthy, high-profile institution. These and other dynamics of presenting dance in the museum, not unique to Ring’s work, were ripe for conversation; they have since become subjects of panel discussions and symposia, academic articles and books, online commentary and mainstream press coverage.

Dancing in museums has flourished over the past decade, evolving from what seemed like a potentially tenuous trend into a reliable, integrated feature of many major institutions’ programming. In this video series, I’ve highlighted a few key moments in that evolution and the frequently anxious discourse surrounding it, with a focus on the perspectives of dance artists, scholars, and presenters, who have often been appropriately wary of the art world’s attraction to dance. My choices are New York–centric only because New York is where I live and have most directly observed this process play out.

The series opens with a glimpse into Merce Cunningham’s Beacon Events, performed between 2007 and 2009 at Dia:Beacon. This video reminds the viewer that dancing in museums is nothing new: Cunningham first tailored his work to a gallery space in 1964. Still, it was around 2007 that the twenty-first-century vogue for dance in museums began taking hold, resulting in part from efforts to draw in new visitors with the allure of live events—easily recordable and sharable in a dawning age of smartphone use.1 (Paradoxically, live performance promises an antidote to digital oversaturation, even as it beckons to be documented.) The videos progress in roughly chronological order, touching on works by Trisha Brown, Sarah Michelson, It’s Showtime NYC, and Yvonne Rainer, as well as commentary by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Thomas F. DeFrantz, and (indirectly) the dancer and choreographer Sara Wookey, whose widely circulated “Open Letter to Artists” ignited conversation about fair compensation for the work of dancing.2

It happens that the winter of 2010, when I found myself performing for free at the Whitney, was a time of great momentum for live performance in the art world. In February, the Museum of Modern Art announced the renaming of its Department of Media (founded in 2006) as the Department of Media and Performance Art, with a press release declaring the museum’s “deepen[ed] commitment to collecting, preserving, and exhibiting performance art through a range of pioneering initiatives.”3 (The department has since dropped the “Art” from its title.) From March through May of that year, the museum hosted “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present,” a major retrospective of Abramović’s work. While its in-demand centerpiece was the artist’s daily vigil in the museum atrium, where visitors could sit silently across from her for any amount of time, the show also featured “reperformances” of her early works by a cast including many members of New York’s downtown dance community. These grueling pieces required long spells of standing, sitting, or lying down in stillness, often naked: an extreme vulnerability that raised questions about how best to ensure performers’ health and safety in a museum context. Museums, after all, have historically been in the business of exhibiting objects, not people; the learning curve was steep.

As dance in museums proliferated, so did concerns about curatorial intentions: Did museums have dancers’ best interests in mind? Did they value the ephemeral labor of performing as much as the labor of caring for more easily collectible art objects? (Live art can be collected, just with less straightforward protocols, as seen, for instance, by MoMA’s 2015 acquisition of Simone Forti’s early-1960s Dance Constructions.) Was live performance merely part of a business strategy to get admission-paying visitors through the door? How could dance be made integral to museum spaces, rather than merely plunked in as a kind of novelty? Without the trappings of a theater (lighting grids, dressing rooms, sprung floors), to what degree did dance and dancers suffer? As Thomas DeFrantz notes in his 2019 essay “Dancing the Museum,” parts of which he delivered in a 2017 talk at Montreal’s Musée des Beaux Arts (included in this series), museums have been known to overlook even basic dancer necessities like water or a suitable place to change.

The urgency of some of these questions has subsided as museums have gained more experience presenting dance and, at places like the Whitney and MoMA, built dedicated spaces for performance. But other imbalances persist: Who, for example, gets to dance in the museum? As DeFrantz asserts in his lecture, “The few allowed presentation within a museum roster arrive within an unassailable, hand-chosen elite.” Dancing in museums often aligns with largely white traditions of conceptual, minimalist art, though perhaps this is changing as well. One refreshing aspect of “Donald Byrd: The America That Is to Be,” a current exhibition at the Frye Art Museum curated by DeFrantz, is its celebration of a kind of physical maximalism, an expressivity informed by lineages of black concert dance and the virtuosity of ballet technique.

At a time when cultural institutions are under increased and necessary ethical scrutiny, discussions of dancers’ labor are also gaining traction. The Dance Artists National Collective (DANC), a network of freelance dancers working in earnest to unionize, recently organized a focus group for dancers in museums, a sign of lowered tolerance for the notion of prestige as compensation. An insistence on fair labor standards is also an insistence on a more equitable field, open to more than the privileged few who can afford to work under precarious conditions. In 2012 in Dance Magazine, Wookey wrote to her fellow dancers, “As long as we take underpaid work, there will be underpaid work.” This remains true; the power not to take it will be collective.

Further reading:

Claire Bishop, “Black Box, Gray Zone, White Cube: Dance Exhibitions and Audience Attention,” TDR: The Drama Review, Summer 2018

“Critical Correspondence: Dance and the Museum” (various writers, curated by Nicole Daunic and Abigail Levine), Dec. 4, 2015, https://movementresearch.org/publications/critical-correspondence/critical-correspondence-dance-and-the-museum

Thomas F. DeFrantz, “Dancing the Museum,” Curating Live Arts, Berghahn Books, 2019

Dorothy Dubrule, “What I’m Doing When I’m Selling Out,” Open Space, April 25 2019, https://openspace.sfmoma.org/2019/04/what-im-doing-when-im-selling-out/

Claudia La Rocco, “Some at MoMA Show Forget ‘Look but Don’t Touch,’” New York Times, April 15 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/16/arts/design/16public.html

On Value, ed. Ralph Lemon and Triple Canopy, Triple Canopy, 2015

Abigail Levine, “How We Remember: Judson Dance Theater at MoMA,” PAJ: Performance Art Journal, May 2019

Hilarie M. Sheets, “Dance Finds a Home in Museums,” New York Times, Jan. 22 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/25/arts/design/dance-finds-a-home-in-museums.html

Sara Wookey, “Rant and Rave: Collective Thinking,” Dance Magazine, Dec. 2012, https://www.dancemagazine.com/rant_and_rave_collective_thinking-2306901135.html

Sara Wookey, Who Cares? Dance in the Gallery and Museum, Siobhan Davies Dance, 2015

—Siobhan Burke

Siobhan Burke is a dance critic for The New York Times and a contributing writer for Dance Magazine. Her work has also appeared in The Village Voice, Open Space, Cultured, The Brooklyn Rail, and Artforum.com, among other publications. She is the recipient of a 2018 Arts Writers Grant and teaches at Barnard College.

1 For an in-depth analysis of the relationship between dance in museums and changing technology, see Claire Bishop, “Black Box, White Cube, Gray Zone: Dance Exhibitions and Audience Attention,” TDR: The Drama Review, Spring 2018.

2 See https://theperformanceclub.org/open-letter-to-artists/.

3 See http://press.moma.org/wp-content/press-archives/PRESS_RELEASE_ARCHIVE/PerformanceRelease.FINAL.pdf.

December 11, 2019