This past October, I was hired as a performer at New York City's Museum of Modern Art for a three week exhibition by the French choreographer, Boris Charmatz. During my last week at the museum, I was standing and watching a group of performers in motion surrounded by hundreds of museum goers.
A woman in her early twenties standing next to me asked her friends,
“Do they get paid to do this?”
I immediately tuned my ear to hear one friend’s reply,
“No. Definitely not.”
I turned to them and I said,
“They do get paid.”
The young lady who had asked the initial question said to me,
“Really? Oh. What are they doing?”
(My jaw may have dropped right about this point)
“They are dancing. They are dancers. This is their career.”
I went on to explain the piece, it’s concept, and how they could probably get a better view from the other side of the museum’s atrium. I was in shock that a group of young people, born in to the age of YouTube and So You Think You Can Dance, didn’t know dance when it was right in front of them. Considering that dance has so many permutations and manifestations these days, I wish I could have given them the benefit of the doubt, but what was happening in the museum that day was dance, plain as day.
There are many people who will say they just don’t get dance. They can’t talk about it because they don’t know enough about it or they don’t go to see dance because it’s too expensive. Making my living as a dancer and choreographer in New York City, I am very cognizant that dance in the city has a way of primarily reaching only those in the dance world. NYC is a hub for the performing arts and there is an overwhelming amount of work made and performed at any given time. Given this, one would imagine that dance would reach a more diverse audience than it actually does. While the programs and exhibitions at MoMA reach hundreds of people a day, my experience there has made me more conscious than ever of the large gap between the dance world’s potential audience and it’s actual audience. The thought that a genuine program for dance in museums might be a solution to this is invigorating, to say the least.
So what if it were commonplace for a museum to be a venue where one could create AND experience dance?
For three consecutive weeks, MoMA was home to Musee de la Danse: Three Collective Gestures and its several dozen performers from the US and Europe. I spent two weeks out of three performing in sneakers on the atrium’s marble floor, warming up, and rehearsing in front of hundreds of people on a daily basis. What I found so compelling, inspiring, and insightful about this time, was the exposure to dance that it afforded all who visited the museum. It seems that many came to MoMA in those weeks (possibly unaware of our presence) with the expectation that they would see the conventional museum paraphernalia; art hanging on the walls or art set behind glass. What they encountered was art splayed out on the floor, art jumping up and down, art moving all around; art that sweat, art that breathed, art that made them move; art that called upon more than just their eyes to perceive what was there. The awe and excitement that with which our presence was met on such a large scale made a huge impression on me. If dance were presented in museums more often, it could be used as an educational tool for thousands of people without sacrificing artists’ creative intentions. Dance in museums would be a way of maintaining the integrity of past (historical dance/dance history) and current dance works and create a broader, supportive community comprised of a more casual arts appreciator, something that is lacking in dance audiences today. The scarcity of education, accessibility, and visibility is a huge contributor to why more people are not interested in an art form that throughout history has primarily been housed in the the privileged courts of kings and large opera houses. Thus, is it not surprising that dance, our most ancient art form, remains lowest on the food chain? To be interested and subsequently, feel comfortable to freely form an opinion on any given art form follows requisite exposure. Museums offer great exposure and instant credibility to their audiences. They are this Age’s theaters for the masses.
Dance in museums is not a new idea, but it is an idea that needs to be given more attention. The choreographer behind the dance program at MoMA has a provocative ethos: As explored in his Manifesto for a Dancing Museum, Boris Charmatz seeks to ‘transform’ the ‘institution’; stripping dance of its ‘center’ and the need for choreography. In conjunction, Charmatz explores stripping the museum of tradition and expectations of what a museum is and presenting new ideas of what it could be, like a museum of dance. This past Fall, Charmatz offered visitors at MoMA the notion that the museum for dance can be found in the body of the dancer, literally bringing the “Dancing Museum” to the museum.
In New York City, The New Museum, Museum of Art and Design, The Guggenheim, The Whitney, and the MoMA have all had performance come through their doors more than once in the last five years. From Tino Sehgal, Trisha Brown, Marina Abramovic and many more; these institutions have the ability to bring a new perspective to the way dance is presented and viewed. Offering a platform for dance to be experienced in 360 degrees or over a series of hours, days or weeks rather than in the traditional theater format; opens up more possibilities for a viewer, the choreographer, and the performers to explore and live inside of a work. Along with this platform, museums could offer residencies- “creation exhibitions”, if you will, to dance makers, performance shakers, and risk takers. They wouldn’t just be storage facilities and collection warehouses anymore, but platforms for creative processes to expand, and exposure for a broader audience; places where people could learn about the history of this pervasive form and in the next room over become acquainted with the work of current artists, performing live. Giving artists space, time, funding, and putting their work in to the public eye for weeks or even months at a time would provide an amazingly rich dialogue between the artist, the audience, and the museum. The benefits would be huge on all fronts. The shape and the caliber of the work would change, the accessibility to the public would educate audiences, generate a larger community for dance, and with that, viable support and funding would follow.
The issues in the dance world are by no means separate from what is going on in the broader spectrum of society, but the dance world perpetuates it’s propensity towards exclusivity. Dance is expensive to create, to upkeep, and to present. When it comes to paying dancers decent rates or getting theater seats filled, more often than not, we forfeit one for the other. As a whole, we can’t seem to figure out how to sustain any sort of larger economical infrastructure and this inevitably affects the type of audience we reach and how we reach them. Educating and exposing people to dance is one of the most effective ways to create and preserve interest and support. Putting dance in to an institution that has the ability to sustain it will create jobs and offer lasting infrastructure for the artists who are so passionate about sharing dance with the world.
Before this experience in the Fall, I would have argued that dance in the museums perpetuated an elitist culture that has followed it throughout history. But I have since come around to a different way of seeing this situation. I am touched by the intrigue, excitement, and ignorance that I encountered from the audiences while performing at MoMA. No where else have I danced and come across such an eagerness and refreshing curiosity for the work. No where else have I been able to perform and felt an immediate sense of participation or response from those watching. Dance was meant for this communal exchange and it deserves to be supported by our state of the art cultural institutions. For three weeks at the MoMA I lived a piece of what this could be like and I imagined a new state for this art I have been so passionately involved in since childhood. Museums may not be the final resting place for the dance world, but they are definitely the next stop.