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Trisha Brown: Dance in the Museum

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In 1970, choreographer Trisha Brown sent a man down the side of a building. Suspended from a single cable, he descended, not sprawled like Spiderman, but straight and fully perpendicular to the building's façade. The piece challenged our assumptions about the body's relationship to the city (and for that matter, gravity), but it was also a dance. Titled simply "Man Walking Down the Side of a Building," it took place outdoors, had no recognizable choreography beyond the imperative to "walk," and featured a performer, Joseph Schlichter, who wore street clothes. If this work could be considered a "dance," then almost anything could. That, in large part, was the point.

We have come to think of a dance performance as a set of carefully choreographed movements, set to music, executed with superb technique by amazingly sculpted bodies on a theatrical stage. But what if dance could be any movement, executed by anybody, anywhere? Would it still be dance? And how would we recognize it? By completely confounding expectations, Brown posed these fundamental questions, blurring the boundary between dance and the rhythms and movements of everyday life.

Elizabeth Streb discusses Trisha Brown's "Man Walk

Video of Elizabeth Streb discussing "Man Walking Down the Side of a Building" as part of "Off the Wall: Part 2--Seven Works by Trisha Brown" at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2010.

Now, such site-specific works are undergoing another fundamental shift: from the street to the museum. Three of Brown's early dances will be performed in April as part of a retrospective organized by UCLA's Center for the Art of Performance. Two of these will take place at museums: the Hammer Museum and the Getty Center. If taking dance off the stage blurred the boundary between art and life, inserting it into a museum gallery raises other questions. What is the difference between dance and performance art? Does installing it in a museum turn it into a living art object? Or perhaps just an artifact of its former, more radical self?

From March 30 to April 21, the Hammer Museum will display "Floor of the Forest," a work that also dates from 1970. It consists of a grid of ropes from which hang various pieces of clothing. At specified times, dancers will work their way over, across and through this network, climbing on the ropes and stretching out the clothing. Is it dance? Performance art? A sculpture? Or all three?

These questions are intriguing because in recent years, dance has become an increasingly vital part of museum exhibitions. Traditionally programmed as auxiliary events, dance performances are often now the main attraction, taking place in the galleries, not the theater.

For example, in 2010, the Hayward Gallery in London organized "Move: Choreographing You," which turned viewers into dancers with interactive works that explored the relationship between visual arts and dance. The following year, Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art mounted "Dance/Draw," about the relationship between drawing and dance. Last summer, choreographer Benjamin Millepied danced through the galleries at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art in a duet with Amanda Wells. And in the fall, New York's Museum of Modern Art presented "Some sweet day," a series of dance performances in the building's atrium.

Dance's ability to literally activate a space accounts in part for its appeal to museum curators. As museums are under increasing pressure to mount more relevant and crowd-pleasing exhibitions, they are exploring new ways to engage viewers. One strategy is to offer more participatory experiences, such as the Thai food stands, coffee bars, or playground slides created by artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija and Carsten Höller. Somewhat pompously dubbed "relational aesthetics," this work maintains that the art on view is not the installation, but the interactions it fosters between museum goers. In a more contemplative vein, Tino Sehgal turned the Guggenheim Museum into a venue for philosophical debate. His 2010 exhibition featured a work in which each viewer ascended the museum's signature spiral ramp accompanied by a series of interlocutors who ranged from very young to late middle aged. As they walked up the spiral, they initiated discussions on the notion and definition of "progress."

We may not think of these examples as "dance" per se, (and I don't believe the artists would claim that they are), but it is interesting to look at them in relation to the ideas that Brown and her contemporaries advanced in the early 1960s. As a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater in New York, Brown and artists like Yvonne Rainer, Meredith Monk and Steve Paxton asserted that any movement could be dance, that any person, regardless of body type or training, could be a dancer, and that dance could happen anywhere. Performances need not be choreographed, but could be wholly or partly improvised. It was these ideas, freeing dance from the stage, that made it possible to bring dance into the museum. So Sehgal's orchestrated progress up the ramp could be a dance. Perhaps even socializing in the café is a dance, with its rituals of cream and conversation. But what is the difference then, between dance and performance art? The line would seem vanishingly thin, and indeed, the members of Judson Dance Theater were aligned with the Fluxus and John Cage-inspired artists who created "happenings" at Judson Church. These semi-scripted experiments in organized absurdity set the template for performance art as we know it today.

I once participated in a re-enactment of a Judson Church happening in the mid 1990s. This involved throwing toilet paper rolls in the air, playing kazoos and other assorted mayhem. The details are a bit foggy now. The Fluxus artist Al Hansen had just passed away, and his grandson, the musician Beck, played a song. Another artist performed a Hansen work in which he wrapped his own head in tape. While I sensed it was an honor to be a part of this memorial, it also felt strange, as if I, and the other art students who participated, were inhabiting someone else's skin, someone else's memories. Perhaps at one time it was a radical absurdist gesture to stand on a stage and throw toilet paper into the air, but it no longer seemed so. It occurred to me that perhaps the thing about happenings is that they really only happen once.

Looking back on it now, I see that I was a dancer, following a choreographed sequence, albeit a very loose, provisional one. But the conditions under which that choreography was created are long past. That's why the re-enactment felt inauthentic and nostalgic. (It was after all a memorial.) But that feeling perhaps points to a difference between dance and performance art. Traditional dance has always provided an empty form -- the choreography -- that could be occupied by any number of bodies. Ballet companies have been performing "Swan Lake" in more or less the same fashion for over a hundred years. But because of the era in which it arose -- the 1960s, when much emphasis was placed on breaking out of stale conventions and living in the moment -- performance art has been more closely tied to the identity and presence of the artist. Witness the title of legendary performance artist Marina Abramovic's 2010 MOMA retrospective: "The Artist is Present." (And indeed she was, literally sitting across from viewers at a table for the duration of the show. What kind of retrospective will be possible when she's gone?)

Although Brown's work is not so personality-driven, the early dances especially are tied to a very particular, exploratory moment. In fact, Brown soon moved on from her emphasis on the everyday and went on to an illustrious career choreographing works for stages all over the world. Re-performing her early pieces now is of course a homage, but it is also a sign of renewed interest in those formative days.

Beyond the need to bring more feet through the door, museums' current fascination with dance is also simply a function of time. Postmodern dance, as the work of the Judson generation is often called, is on the cusp of no longer being "contemporary." As it becomes a canonical part of the historical narrative, we want to know what it meant and how it relates to other forms, both past and present. In other words, it is ripe for museum-ization. But unlike a painting or a sculpture, which might survive the ravages of time relatively intact, dance only exists if someone performs it. Of course there is sometimes film, video, and other documentation, but the only way to give audiences a sense of what a live performance was like is to re-enact it.

Of course, the new performance can never be exactly like the original. Dance critic Marcia B. Siegal writes that much is lost in these re-stagings: "The ideas still hold, and it's good to have them before us, but I miss the blemishes, the uncertainty, the secret pleasure of eluding the formula." There's no substitute for having been there, of course, but museums preserve culture; they are not time machines. Even artifacts that have remained unchanged for thousands of years are continually seen in a different light by new generations. In some ways, dances are like ancient books that have only reached us after being copied by hand over and over again. There will have been countless omissions and errors, but we can only interpret the copy that we have in hand.

Yet sometimes a museum exhibition can give a piece new life, such as the adaptation of Brown's "Roof Piece" at MOMA in 2010. Originally performed in 1971, the work involved the transmission of dance movements from one dancer to the next, each standing on a different rooftop in New York's Soho neighborhood. Transplanted to the museum's six-story atrium, the dancers stood on different floors in a spiral formation. They were visible through the space's windows and openings, but also individually to viewers meandering through the galleries. Although the smooth white spaces of the museum were a radical departure from rough Soho rooftops, the piece reshaped itself to the site and still conveyed a lovely image of communication and communion as the dancers' movements rippled through the galleries. (It will be performed again, in yet a different context, atop the travertine buildings of the Getty Center on April 6.)

Performance 11: On Line/Trisha Brown Dance Company

Video documentation of "Performance 11: On Line/Trisha Brown Dance Company" including the work, "Roof Piece Re-Layed" (2011) (based on "Roof Piece" [1971]) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2011.

When museums invite dancers into the galleries, ideally they are trying to understand how dance relates to visual art, how it reflects the same concerns, and fits into a shared cultural narrative. But sometimes it feels like visual art is an ever-expanding field, sucking everything willy-nilly into its gaping maw: dance, conversation, Thai food are all art simply because the museum says they are. But if we look back at what Brown and Rainer and many, many others were doing in those fertile, febrile years, we see a utopian belief that the lines separating all of these cultural forms could be stripped away. Perhaps the museum's expanding purview is not a callous land grab, but simply the late-dawning recognition that all forms are one.

March 30 - April 21, 2013 | Hammer Museum Courtyard
Free and open to the public

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