On November 4th, 2012, Sarah Michelson’s Devotion #3 brought a close to “Some sweet day”, an exhibition of dance at the Museum of Modern Art curated by choreographer Ralph Lemon.  It is fitting that Michelson’s choreography, which is so precise in the way it both controls and illuminates the spaces it inhabits, would round out this nearly three-week engagement of dance in the museum.  The exhibition took place in MoMA’s first floor atrium, a large and almost overwhelmingly white space.  As the primary passageway for visitors, the atrium is in many ways the museum’s heart, extending nearly the entire height of the building, traversed above by walkways that connect the various galleries, and filled with the day-to-day noise of the museum itself.

For Devotion #3, Michelson turned the atrium inside out.  Through the formal presence and performance of a group of security guards, Michelson cleared this once-public space, imposing a certain frame around it that also transformed the atrium into a private dance floor — one on which a single female dancer performed a series of repeated movements (mirrored by a male dancer who traveled throughout the MoMA’s galleries).  Dressed in Converse sneakers, a blue polo shirt and pigtails, and performing choreography that, characteristic of Michelson, moved from expressive to formalist in its use of repetition, Devotion #3 simultaneously built up and then broke down the illusion of a teenager dancing alone to music in the privacy of her room.  So much could be said of the performances that allowed this private revelry—from the protection of the guards to Michelson herself, who was DJing the event from a table in the audience—but what stands out most is a striking moment in which Michelson’s dancer (Nicole Mannarino) would seemingly attempt to break out of her carefully constructed container. Running to a point where the atrium’s wall met the watchful eye of the guards, Mannarino paused on this charged threshold between inside and outside, public and private, even visibility and invisibility.  Hesitant about breaking out, Michelson’s male dancer would suddenly break in to the atrium (even if only briefly), the first and only time the piece revealed that it was more than merely that which was directly in front of the audience.  Indeed, as Mannarino continued to hesitate at this border, and only enter or leave accompanied by the guards, it was clear that Michelson’s choreography had already passed beyond these vast white walls. All at once Devotion #3 seemed to not merely frame the MoMA atrium, but to overflow it. 

What seems so fitting about Devotion #3 as the summation of “Some sweet day”—which also featured works by Steve Paxton, Jérôme Bel, Faustin Linyekula, Dean Moss and Deborah Hay—is the way it highlights the question of how dance might inhabit the museum.  Indeed, all the choreographers, in their own ways, ask us to consider what it means to dance in the museum, or what dance might have to offer the art world in general.  Museums often work with fixed objects, whereas dance is a time-based and immaterial practice.  There are notable exceptions to this division, of course, but it’s useful in thinking about how dance might be disruptive to the museum’s traditional function.   Taking MoMA as our example, we can see that the museum produces an experience and a knowledge of art by arranging art objects.  Designed to move us, room by room, through various stages of art history, or into curated exhibition spaces centered in a particular theme or ideology, MoMA relies on its objects to perform as instructed, to stay put with the histories in which they are inscribed. In other words, if fixing, framing and capturing seems to be precisely the logic of the museum, then dancing is exactly what we are not supposed to be doing at MoMA.  We are supposed to contain ourselves, to look-but-not-touch in quiet contemplation.  If you dance in the museum you might break something.  You might also confuse the naturalized movement of the public through this familiar space.  And you might trouble the correlation between art and its material manifestation.  

That said, dance in the museum is not exactly a radical proposition.  Dance has always been part of the modern museum.  In MoMA’s collections we find dancing in such paintings as Dancing (I) by Henri Matisse (ca. 1909); in Barbara Morgan’s photographs of Martha Graham (ca. 1935); and in the film of Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A (1978).  Dancers appear in a number of works by Andy Warhol, and the dancer Fanny Cerrito was the inspiration for Joseph Cornell’s 1945 exhibition “Portrait of Ondine.” Dancers were instrumental in re-performing a number of works in Marina Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective “The Artist Is Present.”  And from 1940 to 1949, MoMA even housed its own Dance Archive, which facilitated a number of exhibitions, including one titled “Isadora Duncan, Drawings, Photographs, Memorabilia.” But dance in this sense appears in the museum’s archive much like “Isadora Duncan,” arguably one of the founders of modern dance, appears in the title for her exhibition - separated from the representations of her work by a comma, one art object among many that could be placed on display at the museum.  In a sense, the Museum’s collection is full of attempts to capture dance, to contain it alongside more material arts.

But if dancers and dancing are the foundation and content of so much of the museum’s archive, dance as its own practice seems to be precisely what eludes these material works of art. In terms of dance photography, critic Edwin Denby once wrote that there was a distinction between a photograph that merely “represents a dancer” and ones in which the dancer looks “as if his body remembered the whole dance, all the phases of it, as he holds the one pose in the picture; he seems to be thinking, I’ve just done that, and then I do that, and then comes that [i].  Like Denby, I am curious about the kind of pose that radiates so strongly it might give a sense of moving past the picture’s edge.  And like Denby, I’m particularly curious about the way dance’s capacity to exceed the still image inheres within a negotiation between dance and the material document itself. Simply put, dance as a way of engaging with and considering the museum might offer us something images and histories don’t.  How, for instance, might dance allow us to see the act of descent behind Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, or where the “action” is in Pollock’s “action” paintings?  As the radical act that both produces and eludes the material work of art, dance in the museum seems to call on institutions like MoMA to reconsider the way it use materials to write history, to guide its visitors and to define art works themselves. 

I get the sense of such a radical work in watching Voluntaries, a thirty-minute excerpt of a larger work-in-progress called johnbrown, conceived and constructed by choreographer Dean Moss and painter Laylah Ali, and performed as part of “Some sweet day.”  Moss and Ali make brilliant use of a white stage constructed in the center of the atrium.  Standing on one of the walkways high overhead and looking down, their work almost resembles an abstract painting.  The stages looks like a large canvas, covered in red dots (partially inflated red rubber balls) and black or mirrored squares (double-sided boards familiar to several of Moss’s previous works). Amidst this setting, a collection of dancers move about, performing certain interactions that seem to have their own logic. Indeed, Moss is particularly keen at staging these interactions as relations that narrowly move between narrative and abstraction, troubling any sense of a natural or given interpretation. For instance, in one moment the dancers collect the black/mirrored boards in order to smack each other down to the ground with them, but the sequence happens so fluidly that the smacking itself moves in and out of violence, in an out of intimacy.  It’s not the movement, however, that makes Voluntaries so compelling, but the way this movement frames and unfolds moments of stillness, in which these interactions themselves are arrested.  Whether it is watching as dancer Asher Woodworth hangs on top of Moss himself in a tangle of limbs, or as Kacie Chang and Cassie Mey push against one another to find a balance between them, or watching from above as Sari Nordman is lifted high in the air, almost reaching out to the audience above—one has the sense that stillness no longer means repose, it means a precious and precarious balance between dynamics that are always circling underneath, always threatening to topple these singular moments.  If Moss and Ali are asking anything through the choreography and the content of the piece (which is infused with the radical spirits of John Brown[ii] and Harold G. Moss[iii]), it is, How do we collect these radical moments of stillness, these interruptions to violence and intimacy, to the movement of the dance itself?  I am calling these moments radical because they do not easily choose sides between one and the other, but are already on the outside, like the pose that is in the photograph and yet somehow thinking beyond it.  Moss does what he does best in Voluntaries by creating a dance that eludes its best-laid plans, that always interrupts itself, shaking the very foundation it takes place on.  And it seems particularly prescient that this canvas just so happens to be on the floor, at the center, of the Museum of Modern Art. 

[i] Edwin Denby, Looking At The Dance (New York: New York, Horizon Press, 1968), 290–291.

[ii] John Brown is a white abolitionist widely cited as a major catalyst for the Civil War.  The charge he led on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, designed to collect weapons to arm the enslaved, infamously failed, and Brown’s subsequent trial and execution catapulted him into the status of martyrdom for the abolitionist cause.

[iii] Harold G. Moss is a civil rights organizer and politician from Tacoma, Washington.  He established the first Urban League there, and served as the first black member of the city council as well as the city’s first black mayor. He is also Dean Moss’ father. 

Some sweet day at MoMA

By Joshua Lubin-Lev1

Performance of Dean Moss’s Voluntaries (2012) at The Museum of Modern Art, October 2012. Part of “Some sweet day” (October 15 to November 04, 2012). © 2012 Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.