Kyle Marshall
photo courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art

Rhythms of Dance: Kyle Marshall engages with Matisse at PMA

Kyle Marshall Choreography presented Ruin—a new dance commissioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in cooperation with its popular “Matisse in the 1930s” exhibit—in a series of performances over the past weekend (January 20-22) in the Great Stair Hall of the museum. Matisse’s design for the “Dance” mural for Albert Barnes’ house outside of Philadelphia is a focus of the exhibit: Marshall’s choreography for the piece expands upon Matisse’s love for dance and the transcendent vitality of his dancing figures. Ruin was performed by New York City-based Marshall along with company members Bree Breeden, Jose Lapaz-Rodriguez, Nik Owens, and Cayleen Del Rosario.

There’s a similarity between Matisse’s ingenuity with visual rhythm and Marshall’s choreography. Ruin unfolds like a moving painting, with rhythmic swells of movement applied like bursts of color. His dancers play off of one other, sometimes joining together in loosely constructed unison. In a subtly recurring motif, harkening back to Matisse’s “Dance,” the group forms an open circle with arms outstretched towards each other. Other lovely moments occur when the dancers run in a circular path and take flight in swirling revolutions in the air.

The Matisse exhibit also explores the collaboration between Matisse and choreographer Leonide Massine on the ballet Rouge et Noir (1939) for the Ballet Russe. The pair co-wrote the ballet’s scenario and Matisse designed the costumes and stage set for the “vast mural in motion.” Ruin is an interesting parallel to this collaborative process, featuring artists working together in different mediums. Marshall joined forces with sonic wizard Cal Fish and visual artist Edo Tastic to create an organic fusion of dance, sound, and design. The various elements are interdependent, yet make breathing room for each other—and for the audience too.

Fish developed “dynamic listening instruments” for the piece, which include hand-held buckets that the dancers swing to generate sound. Fish also embedded copper plates into the floor, turning the entire stage into a soundboard as the dancers step on the plates to trigger recorded sound samples. During the performance, Fish was stationed on the side of the stage, mixing the ambient noises from the museum’s public space together with the sounds produced by the dancers.

The dance itself arises from the rhythms of the dancers’ stamping feet, with the gradual addition of hands clapping and slapping their bodies. It feels like the movement and percussion are in their bones. The dance builds up in waves—an ebbing and flowing of percussive and silent passages. In one intensified section, the dancers gather into a close bunch to create a complex percussive unit and then advance toward the front of the stage in syncopated formation.

Ruin’s visual design and choreographic elements combine to create a strong sense of the body as a figurative subject. Tastic, the company’s Visual Director, applies red face paint and drapes the performers in red and yellow hand-painted tunics which transform them into individual works of art. The dancers conjure images from ancient civilizations, posing like figures on vases—sitting sideways with an elbow on the knee or holding up a bunch of grapes to eat. In promotional materials for the production, Marshall said he was interested in Matisse’s travels in Northern Africa and that he followed his own curiosity about humanity’s ancient African origins as he worked on the piece.

Matisse returned over and over to the act of painting the human subject (almost always female), whose essential character he believed could only be “found through an act of artistic imagination.” In Ruin, Marshall and his dancers reach for a similar sense of heightened reality and reveal the extraordinary beauty of the human form in movement.

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