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Archaeologies of Form in Ballet

Transmissions is the outcome of Nick Mauss’s time spent as a fellow at the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University. The exhibition hazards refreshing intellectual promiscuity in webs of entanglement drawn out via playful archival displays and live performances. Mauss’s curatorial logic is, aptly, terpsichorean as he coaxes viewers to contemplate modern ballet and its European ancestry in relation to avant-garde visual (and decorative) art production between the 1930s and 1950s. Mauss contends that ballet is part of a larger story, subject to as much revision and cross-contamination as the plastic arts — only its genealogy is more fugitive, and more hybrid.

Scenography in Mauss’s work often manifests as interior architectures in homage to artist-aesthetes like Léon Bakst and Florine Stettheimer. Mauss designs Transmissions around a dance floor, demarcated on one side by a line of scrim panels along which official New York City Ballet photographer George Platt Lynes’s decadently homoerotic photographs of draped dancers’ bodies hang mid-air. Nearby, Dorothea Tanning’s Aux environs de Paris (Paris and Vicinity) (1962), a breathy painting of tumbling animations, rests in the proverbial wings, as footage of George Balanchine in rehearsal refracts from a monitor overlooking Mauss’s own Images in Mind (2018), a reverse glass painting on fifty-six mirrored panels. Occasionally, we hear Balanchine’s voice as he counts for his dancers — and hence, for Mauss’s too.

George Platt Lynes, Ralph McWilliams, 1952
George Platt Lynes, Ralph McWilliams, 1952, 1941. Collection of the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University. Courtesy of the George Platt Lynes Estate.

Each afternoon, rotating groups of four dancers emerge, stretch, and then perform choreographies that convert a Marley floor into the engine of the exhibition, against which Mauss’s notion of ballet “as a kind of body of literature” is actively tested and fulfilled. Heightened by a sense of unfolding kinetic research, the effect is akin to walking into a dance studio mid-class. On a recent evening, a male dancer commences his performance: silhouetted in an all-black unitard, he enacts a series of languid poses, some of which noticeably derive from Platt Lynes’s surrounding photographs, while other postures repurpose Vaslav Nijinsky’s faune character in glyphic profile. The first dancer is soon joined by another, and together they make use of the floor in reclining, piscine configurations, in manners characteristic of Martha Graham’s earthbound technique, Maria Hassabi’s slow, Butoh-like museum sequences, and David Hemmings’s photographic duet with Veruschka in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966). Eventually, rhythms quicken and gender roles shift, as duets become trios become quartets become solos.

The performers’ stop-motion slowness leads sequences to inscribe and incise themselves as pictures in the show, making literal use of the term choreo-graphy — and their evocation of L’Après midi d’un faune is not lost as a leitmotif for the exhibition as a whole. Largely considered ballet’s pivot into modernity, Nijinsky’s choreographic debut for the Ballets Russes in 1912 was characterized by attenuated sequences of immobility, described as a “choreographic picture” in its program, and even called a “danceless” ballet by certain critics.1 Not incidentally, footage of a 1936 iteration danced by the Original Ballet Russe and shot by dancer-cinematographer Ann Barzel is on nearby display.

Prolonged viewing of Transmissions’ live performances instills a sense of ballet’s shared mother tongue, cutting across histories and dance backgrounds (varied here among performers) — its vocabulary actionable as the already-hybrid commons from which Mauss “unfreeze[s] a catalogue of movements,” such that viewers start to pierce modernist ballet’s genome. In effect, he coauthors compositional, moving friezes: formal devices for transmission that complement views held by Jean-Georges Noverre, an eighteenth-century choreographer and early dance theorist, who conceived of ballet proto-cinematically, as living pictures wherein figures would be “painted in” alongside visual imagery and music, but without words.

Transmissions might be read as a provocation to think with the articulative capacities of gesture-speech more broadly. As a medium, classical ballet is mute of voice — indeed, Plutarch called it “a conversation in dumb show,” for it “speaks” silently through gesture — yet it was not always so. While ballet was still a subcategory of opera, early presentations included spoken interludes, sung intervals, and ventriloquy. Ballet’s status as a narrative genre emerged only in the eighteenth century, following dance critics like Noverre, who called for a return to pantomimic forms of gesticulation from antiquity in order to imbue balletic virtuosity with narrative. “The ancients spoke with their hands,” Noverre writes about pantomime, to which Lincoln Kirstein adds centuries later, “in a universal tongue.” In tandem idiom, Mauss’s choreographic pictures, like corporeal cinema, transmit live media archaeology, generating an interpretive space and cross-historical framework for the production of gestural meaning.

[1] Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen, “L’Après-midi d’un faune as a revision of Le Spectre de la rose,” Designing Dreams: A Celebration of Léon Bakst, ed. Célia Bernasconi, John E. Bowlt, and Nick Mauss. Monaco: Nouveau Musée National de Monaco; Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2016, pp. 28–36.


by Emma McCormick-Goodhart

Dance Office is a column dedicated to contemporary dance and performance art.

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The Master and Form

As a child, my biggest dream was to become a ballet dancer. Fascinated as I was with ballet’s extreme bodily self-discipline and ethereal elegance, for years I begged my mother to buy me a tutu and bring me to a class in a nearby town. When she finally caved in and brought me to my first rehearsal, I was terrified by the whole situation; the tyrannical teacher as much as the athletic demands that was suddenly put on my body. I didn’t stay for more than 10 minutes, and I realized that my affinity for classical dance was predominately aesthetic, and later, highly erotic.

I was reminded of this as I admired the elegant choreographed movements of five young ballet dancers as they perused in unison through the ornamented wooden interiors of the Graham Foundation in Chicago, as a part of Brendan Fernandes’ latest performance-installation The Master and Form. As hinted at in the title, the work takes the masochistic power dynamics of ballet into the realm of sculptural formalism, presenting the dancer’s athletic bodies as para-objects that nonetheless forever exists in organic flux, dynamically negotiating space, desire, and physical endurance.

'In Cambré à Terre,' study for 'Brendan Fernandes: The Master and Form,' (2018)
‘In Cambré à Terre,’ study for ‘Brendan Fernandes: The Master and Form,’ (2018) at the Graham Foundation, Chicago. Collage: Norman Kelley

A series of exquisite dark-tainted wooden structures with added leather fittings, designed in collaboration with architecture and design collaborative Norman Kelly, occupied each their own room of the Prairie-style building, acting as “training stations” for the group of dancers. Not unlike real-world instrument such as ballet foot-stretchers—meant to minutely enhance the arch of their foot—these structures, some anthropomorphic in shape, serve to extend, improve, but also support the dancer’s body as it poses, leans, or stretches. Catching a ballerina in rehearsal is a big faux-pas; and not surprisingly, the effect is one of deep and projected masochistic fascination. Several delineated, cage-like structures serve as “safe spaces” for the dancers to decompress if and when needed, which only further complicates the standard representation of the dancing body.

Fernandes’ wide-spread theoretical interests skillfully extended this highly site-responsive scene construction, set in a former family home, into a larger web of social and aesthetic references, including post-colonial identity, queer domesticity, and BDSM culture. Ballet’s courtly bows (a derivate of greetings for Louis the 14th), consensual Dom/sub sexuality, and the politics of fetishising the bodies of others: Fernandes shows that despite the complexities of power, it always manifests through the body as it interacts with space.

by Jeppe Ugelvig

Dance Office is a column dedicated to contemporary dance and performance art.

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Curator on the Move

Marc Streit has been an associate artistic director at Tanzhaus Zürich since 2011, and has worked as a cultural entrepreneur and artistic organizer for several institutions dedicated to contemporary dance and performance art. In 2012, he founded the zürich moves! festival for contemporary arts practice in performing arts.

In the first installment of Dance Office, he discusses his recent projects and the ongoing evolution of how curators, practitioners and audiences understand dance and performance art.

Your practice is multifaceted; how do you define your curatorial focus?

Marc Streit: I understand myself as a networker, organizer, contextualizer, producer, artistic director and host in the field of contemporary performance and dance. This description is important to understanding what it takes to put together contemporary performance projects in today’s art world.

How did you start being interested in such a specific field?

What fascinates me most is the fact that we are dealing with real bodies, humans, and an audience which has to be taken into account, not only in the artistic creation of pieces but also in the mediation and presentation of these artistic works.

Live performance rooted in dance and theater has always been my main interest, and the recent development and shift in the field keeps nourishing my interest. I am very much driven by the creative process in performance practice, in which failure and slippage are integral parts as well as vulnerability and precariousness due to liveness and ephemerality. Precariousness is also reflected in the programming of contemporary performance and dance, as the perception of the audience is as individual as its diversity.

I am interested in hybrid forms of contemporary performance, and a key aspect is to always try to put a work in the right context or format. By contextualizing and queering both bodies and spaces, I am looking for experiences that push boundaries and investigate our contemporary society beyond physical performance. I usually work around a different topic. My research and the process of constructing a certain program is always inextricably tied to an overall discourse and the content of the respective artistic works that are being presented alongside each other. It is always a balancing act in order to make an attempt to frame an artistic work and yet give the work itself enough room and let it speak for itself. I like to incorporate a discursive dialogue, which should support the accessibility of an artistic practice and use theory to juxtapose ideas and interpretations.

How has the field of dance and performance production changed since you started curating?

Over the last two decades, it has certainly found new modes of production and new formats for presentation. Not only is there a new audience, but the people contextualizing these platforms have experienced a shift in their role, as their so-called “curator profiles” keep evolving.

I believe that the transition of Tino Sehgal’s work, in the early 2000s, from the classical stage to the museum — namely, after (untitled) (2000) — has contributed to this change and opened a new field of opportunities for dancers and performances. This has also opened the field to an exploitative and populist approach to dance, seen as a form of mere entertainment or decoration of the space without a particular curatorial reason. How many times in the recent past have we seen dancers crawling down the stairs of a museum? I blame it on a lack of education and understanding of the field, but also on a pure desire to exploit a field that is new and therefore “cool.” What is your stance?

Contemporary dance and performance in the visual arts context is about witnessing the here and now, about sharing time and space. The fact of exploiting an artist or performer is a question of how you frame a certain situation or performance and how precisely the space and the respective audience is taken into account. What one needs to understand is that there is no scheme that can be applied to all the various forms of representation in contemporary performance practice. Therefore each work of art has to be treated individually and dealt with as a very unique construction with real bodies in real time requiring a very particular sensibility.

Can you give an example of this from your recent curatorial projects?

A very good example is the performance Supernatural (2015) by Simone Aughterlony, Antonija Livingstone and Hahn Rowe, which I first saw in the studio during rehearsals in Zurich. It immediately appeared to me that the work needed a certain proximity in order to speak to me. Even though the piece was originally created for the theater, I proposed the artists present the piece in a white cube during the zürich moves! festival, and later in an outdoor parking lot in downtown Los Angeles, during the Queer Biennial II.

You co-curated the Queer Biennial II in 2015 in Los Angeles. Among the performances, I’d like to mention François Chaignaud’s Dumy Moyi (2013), a powerful work about identity and the pleasure of performing. I consider François to be among the most talented performers of this generation, with a physical and intellectual dedication to exploring the meaning of movement on stage that is astonishing. The last time I was so moved by a dance piece was in 2002, when I saw Pina Bausch in Café Müller (1985). After that, for me, it was like a desert. I thought I would never again be moved by dance in such an intense way; then came François…

Indeed, François is an exceptional thinker, creator and performer, with a practice that challenges themselves every single time anew and yet facilitates the spectator and catapults them into another universe. An exceptional example of an honest, intimate, complex, stylized and yet disturbing artistic practice.

You also founded the zürich moves! festival, an annual platform breaking boundaries between different contemporary practices in the performing arts. Can you talk about it?

Every year the festival program is done around a different topic and builds a different curatorial context. The artistic work is presented in various spaces and through multiple collaborations ranging from site-specific projects, the black box, the white cube and off-spaces. The multifaceted platform creates time-based experiences, engages and challenges the embodied presence and abstraction of the body. The very core idea of the festival is to bring contemporary performance to more hybrid spaces, disrupting the distance between performer and audience, creating an artistic flow and breaking the traditional and classical idea of normative thinking. During the past six editions, I forged the festival into a happening of artists and spectators, an intersection between art and life.

In order to put together the programming for zürich moves! not only does the individual artwork have to be taken into consideration, but also the overall dramaturgy of the entire format, in the sense that the artwork itself and the experience created by the work — the geographic location of the venue, the time and duration of the work, the number of people — have to be taken into account while organizing the festival.

What are the key questions you have to keep asking yourself in the course of your practice?

Where and when is it most appropriate to present a piece, and what effect will that have on the perception of the work? What is the aim of the artist? How much attention can be given to a piece as a spectator and how much attention is needed? What is the maximum number of spectators in a space? What experience is conveyed through the work? Do I allow people enough time to reflect on a piece? Therefore it is essential to see each work before inviting an artist to collaborate.

How do these questions and answers apply to a pragmatic curatorial choice?

When I saw the work #NEGROPHOBIA (2015) by Jaamil Olawale Kosoko for the first time, the space seemed too big to me and I asked Jaamil whether he could agree to show the piece in the same setting but in a much smaller venue. It seemed to me that through the dimension of the space the spectator was able to dive into this very important and powerful artistic creation, which is disturbing and soothing at the same time.

Another example was the one-on-one encounter with artists in “Eternal One-Night Stand” in collaboration with Random Institute for zürich moves! 2015. A wooden labyrinth construction led the visitor through eight different spectacles and private encounters with the artists. The evening entailed one-on-one performances in which each visitor experienced each performance on their own. Each spectator got to spend ten minutes with the eight participating artists before moving on to the next “box” along the wooden maze. Once in the sequence the visitor could only move forward and had to commit to the eighty-minute cycle. The installation ran over the course of five hours.

Finally, can you talk about your position at Tanzhaus Zürich, one of the most important centers for contemporary performance and dance in Switzerland, and its current architectural development and renovation?

Tanzhaus Zürich was founded in 1996 as Tanzhaus Wasserwerk and is mainly funded by the city of Zurich. In 2012 one of the buildings at Tanzhaus Zurich was destroyed by a fire. A new, state-of-the-art facility is being constructed and should be finished by the end of 2018. The new building will improve conditions for dance professionals (studios, a main stage plus a professionally equipped studio stage) as well as the general workflow (larger technical service spaces and storage facilities). Tanzhaus Zürich will definitely gain more visibility and further broaden its reach beyond Switzerland.

by Patrick Steffen

Dance Office is a column dedicated to contemporary dance and performance art.

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