Sunday, May 12, 2013

Today at the East Building

Today marked the opening of the Ballets Russes exhibit at the East Building and a quick walk-through revealed that it is an impressive look at this company, especially the artists and conversations that surrounded and contributed to its innovative productions.

Today also marked the closing lecture of a series called “Out of Site in Plain View: A History of Exhibiting Architecture since 1750” by Barry Bergdoll, The Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at The Museum of Modern Art, and a professor at Columbia University. 

Every week I attended, Bergdoll delivered a talk that not only revealed a connection between the development of design and techniques of display but also made me think about connections between architecture and dance. In the first lecture Bergdoll spoke about the impossibilities of “collecting” architecture: how exhibitions transfer designs intended to be viewed in their environments to objects that are framed and hung. The correlations with performance and choreography seemed clear: these forms are often preserved or “collected” by being transferred to film, photographs, and written words. When Bergdoll spoke about architecture being exhibited through its simulations, I considered its resonance with dance.

What made the lectures by Bergdoll so brilliant was his constant acknowledgement that these impossibilities did not mean exhibiting architecture was useless but rather that these exhibitions transformed both our awareness of the role of architect and construction of a history of architecture: “exhibitions enable reflection.” During the last lecture of the series Bergdoll spoke more personally about his role at MoMA, describing museums as not only mirrors but also incubators, places that propose and generate ideas. In other words, exhibitions are not only reactive but can also play an advocacy role. Recent examples of these types of exhibitions are Bergdoll’s Rising Currents and Home Delivery.

This brings me back to the Ballets Russes exhibition taking place in the same building where Bergdoll lectured. It does a magnificent job of gathering and displaying objects and reproductions that tell the story of this incredible company, but where are the exhibitions that reflect more recent innovations in dance? Or where are the D.C. museums that not only reflect but also activate and catalyze innovative concepts regarding dance and performance?

Perhaps the answer is obvious: dance as an art form may rely on other systems and places for reflection and generation. In the New York Times today choreographer Pam Tanowitz said, “Dance is really an oral history, and it has to get passed down. There’s no product; all we have is our progress.”

This is why I view universities as places that both catalyze and reflect: able to introduce students to current choreographers as well as those who have shaped the field for today’s dance-makers. One of the best performances I saw this year was George Mason’s Gala Concert which included guest artists Camille A. Brown, Diane Coburn Bruning, Stephen Petronio, Kate Skarpetowska, plus Mason alumnus Billy Smith who is currently a member of Mark Morris Dance Group. GMU students were not only engaging with a spectrum of choreographic ideas but also gaining insights into different ways of working and making.

As Bergdoll reflected today on the role of museums in the development of design, I find myself thinking about universities’ roles in engaging with innovative ideas in dance and performance. Do university dance faculty consider exposing students to a spectrum of approaches to choreographing and performing important or even necessary? Often dance department professors teach and create performances of their own, and hire their company members as part-time faculty or guest artists. Rather than expanding students’ awareness of innovative ideas, I see these patterns as limiting exposure to other ways of choreographing and performing. 

The question “what encourages creativity?” occupies much of my thinking about teaching. About a week ago I was in Brooklyn at CPR to see a performance that featured choreography by GMU graduate Maya Orchin; I hope to write about her work and her path to making this work in my next blog post. Her choreography inspired me the way Bergdoll’s research inspired me.

Bergdoll’s lectures were impressive: displaying his fierce intelligence and his rigorous examination of the role of institutions in supporting and nurturing innovative thinking. He did not hide his own complicity with a particularly powerful institution in the history of architecture – MoMA – but currently engages the museum as an instrument and agent, a place that shows a range of approaches rather than defines a style. In Bergdoll’s words, he thinks of museums as incubators. For students of dance, I see universities as places that can be cauldrons of creativity.

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