Dance and the Museum: Reimaging the Museum as a Space Filled with Potential

by Courtney Colón for The Dance Journal  | photo by JJ Tiziou

What would a museum of dance look like? How does one curate movement as artifact? French philosopher-choreographer Boris Charmatz, in collaboration with Drexel University and the Barnes Foundation, expanded on these questions with the Philadelphia Museum of Dance. This one-day event explored the possibilities of dance as simultaneous live exhibition, performative gesture, and interactive game, where visitors could examine their assumptions surrounding what dance is, and where it should live. During my three-hour visit, I felt free to curate my own experience, discovering moments both public and private as I encountered again and again the dancing body.

I walked up to the Barnes Foundation thinking The Solo Forest would be a collection of dancers all housed in one room, with patrons walking through the soloists as if through the trees of a forest. Thankfully, I was immediately proven wrong. There, directly outside of the main entrance, dancer Viji Rao performed a classical Indian dance-only one of eleven solos scattered throughout the building. Solos were happening everywhere, on every floor-inside, outside, you name it. Only able to catch part of a performance? Stay awhile, all dances were continuously recurring. I was privileged to encounter a cheeky Burlesque work, a trip down memory lane with a Balanchine-lens, and an homage to dance pioneer Mary Wigman performed from within the confines of a glass-encased garden, among others. The best part-every patron’s experience had the potential to be completely different from mine, depending on route and intention.

Onward to Something Happens When Everybody Moves. Here, I was able to view viscerally a collection of short dance films that showed movers gathering in protest, in celebration, and in ritual meditation. I witnessed historic moments, such as archival footage of Trisha Brown’s Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, and moments of side-splitting comedy, like dancers of the Pennsylvania Ballet taking their rehearsal choreography to the Philly Streets in The Making of Episode 31. Where else could I observe professional ballet dancers vigorously fist-pumping in unison on the steps of the art museum, or in between pillars on the subway? These films made me think of the power of movement and assembly, and how we can affect changes both big and small, light-hearted and meaningful.

As I emerged from the lower level auditorium that housed the films, I heard the most wonderful sounds: laughing, pop music, clapping and cheering. Curious, I moved forward. And there it was-a soul train line. The place to be seen and to show off those flashy moves, right in the middle of an honest-to-god museum. The interactive Soul Train, led by Clyde Evans Jr, just begged me to step a foot in. Anyone was invited and audience participation was a must. Young, old, experienced, or not, everyone was having the time of their lives.

Immediately following Soul Train was Charmatz’ 1973. The absence of the dance party was immediately filled by approximately two hundred local college students, all processing through their own set of individual gestures at high rates of speed. These students filled the room with their enthusiasm and energy, gesticulating wildly, shouting at intervals, and interacting with the crowd. Wild and raucous, 1973 forced me to reflect on the impermanence of dance, with gestures disappearing the instant after creation.

There were several other showings to choose from during this day of dance. I appreciated that I was given options, and able to create an individualized experience. And about those questions of dance and the museum, I reflect: The Philadelphia Museum of Dance challenged my perceptions of how dance is consumed and experienced. In a gallery setting, it seemed second nature to study the performers as any other work of art-circling them, focusing on small details, retreating to sense the whole picture, and returning. Far more private than I am accustomed to, and a much richer experience because of it.

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