Dance and the Museum: Helene Lesterlin Responds



Agnes Martin’s brand of minimalism isn’t for everyone, but I am always star-struck when I come across one of her drawings or paintings. Like a gust of chill, fresh air, with a view of some wide, empty expanse, her work gives me a settled, alert feeling. The shimmering surface has an authority, a presence, and at the same time a little shyness, some space for me to enter. It took me a while to figure it out, but I think what vibrates with such vitality in her work, despite its elegant spareness, are those living lines, slightly shaky, varying in tone, drawn by hand, a manifestation of concentration, deliberate gesture, and a faith in meditative repetition. Is that why I am also drawn to dance, visual art’s fleet-footed cousin? —The human body transforming our capacity for basic physical movement into an encoded, practiced, startling presence, complete with deliberate gesture and manifest concentration?


As I consider dance’s place in the museum, the big questions that arise for me are: What is dance’s place in our culture? What place does the museum hold? How is dance being framed for the public by the museum? Why do we keep defining artists by outdated genre categories? What are the practical and economic models of production that these categories imply and what happens when there is significant and ongoing crossover of genres? What kind of performance or body-based work thrives in a museum setting?


To start, I’d like to address the outdated discipline of classifications used to describe artists, as this has implications for the role of museums as well as other arts organizations and dance venues. At this point, it seems clear to me that there is a trend: many, many artists are making work at the intersection of genres. The old labels keep needing qualifiers, or we have to resort to that clunky term “interdisciplinary”. What does this signal?


Contemporary art-making is a huge, humming spectrum of activity. Visual artists are crossing into time-based and performance forms on a regular basis and with relative ease as their comfort in bucking the strictures of genre becomes a given, and as technologies such as video become ubiquitous and simple to access. Dance artists are equally versatile, jumping into new terrain, building collaborative and conceptual frameworks, employing a heavy dose of visual design and non-dance content/form as part of their practice. Collaborative art-making, always part of performance-based work, is becoming more prevalent among all artists as the mythos of the individual artist/genius dies a long overdue death and they rediscover that teams are more effective once you launch into work that requires other people’s expertise (i.e. film, performance or installation).


But more than all that, there seems to be a desire to process the multiplicity of what constitutes contemporary life: the tidal wave of data, the human and environmental costs of our policies and customs, the shifts in national or personal identity, the accessibility of information, the blurring of fact and fiction. Source material for new works is wildly diverse as artists attempt to parse this world of too much information. Processes of creation are also proliferating. Out come the raging critiques, and the desire to create artworks that have relevance, power and meaning for specific communities, rather than works that uphold and decorate the status quo. And in the midst of it all, the artist must be a savvy businessperson, able to respond to opportunities and access scarce resources, rally their own base and stay attuned to the vagaries of institutional needs. Yes, the study of a single discipline, its history, and the accumulation of its skills are essential to the training of an artist, and so most artists will identify with a certain pre-existing art form. But this continuous exchange between visual art, dance, theater, music, and performance has opened up new forms. Institutions, venues, funders and fans have been taking note.


The role of the museum, and more specifically, its role in relation to the increasing desire to have dance as a visible part of its new programming, seems to be shifting too. I can only intuit that current museum strategy is driven by the following convoluted assumption: potential museum goers are looking for social and interactive experiences, events, and spaces that bolster a sense of community while providing content based in art, that somehow are able to compete with the many entertainment options available elsewhere and at home. In short, the programming should provide connection, meaning, fun, and an aesthetic experience. In the past, museums were celebrated as places of quiet contemplation. You can still find that experience if you look for it, but more often museums bank on blockbuster (aka marketable) exhibitions to provide a celebratory, jostling voyeurism.


In addition to pouring resources into major shows in the hopes of creating a phenom, museums are also offering a variety of programs to continuously draw in a broader, more diverse audience: thematic and curator-led tours, online access to collections, video content created to elucidate the collection, kids programs, lectures, parties, event rentals, galas, etc. The museum’s goal is to sweep in as many people as possible, especially if the institution is federally or state funded. The museum can no longer be an unassailable guardian and bastion of high culture and visual artifacts, but aims to be an essential center of urban cultural life.


Bringing performance programming into the museum is a natural offshoot of this expanded mission. However, it means museums are no longer trading on their expertise in the visual arts to create more interactive content. They are now importing different art forms, and they may not have the expertise on staff to make the right choices or to be able to grapple with the implications and the practicalities of their choices. Now my first question is this: of all things, why are they importing contemporary dance? Why not stick with the basic fare that appeals to marketing departments, like VJ/DJ events, puppet theater for kids, or string quartets? Artists whose work is based in the live presence of the human body performing dance-based, non-virtuosic, non-narrative, and unintelligible (to most people) movement is not exactly going to bring in the crowds. At least it hasn’t for dance venues. Contemporary, experimental dance is so marginalized by our culture that it is barely on the radar. So why would museums turn to this esoteric genre to enliven their programming?


The answer might be something more existential. If we start with the premise that we live in a complex, commercial age of endlessly reproducible visual media and that people are being cheerfully bombarded with visuals constantly, judging, commenting, posting, retweeting images that are moving and still, user-generated, professionally refined, for entertainment, for advertising, for art, then we come to a point where we have to ask, in this melee, what is the role of visual art? Or rather, what is the larger role of the visual art market—a market whose purpose is to circulate original and historically important images that can appreciate in value and are limited in number? Besides the obvious tasks of creating and protecting the value of visual artworks, does the art market desire to be culturally relevant, to drive innovation, to capture and express contemporary concerns? Museums play a crucial role in this ecosystem of course. Is it possible that they are feeling in danger of obsolescence? If they are not the keepers of and guides to important images anymore, then what should they do? We already addressed the museum as an urban cultural center, but is there a role to play in providing new experiences to a jaded public weary of looking at crafted images?


Enter dance. If people really are craving original experiences rather than more images, dance can provide an unrepeatable, unique experience that is at once heightened and, for many people, downright strange. By virtue of its very precariousness, its ephemerality, its inherent non-commercialism, its rigorous physical demands made manifest, I think dance is being brought in as a tonic to soothe an art world that has overindulged and that, in the end, can’t really compete with the flood of images stretching out in every direction of our visual horizon. “Dance is the poetry of physical labor”, to quote Noemie LaFrance’s recent article. Like an Agnes Martin’s painting, it thrills with its presence, but without the resulting value-accruing artifact.


The art world seems fascinated by dance as an artistic practice that has no viable market and yet that continues to thrive (at least in terms of birthing new works every year, as well as new MFAs). In addition to its economic precariousness, dance has a radically different approach to presence and the body to that of visual art. Performance artists, in general, are not performers. They are engaging in a visual arts-based practice that hinges on the idea that their body, or the body of others, is their material. Therefore, they are not so much “performing” their work as “being” their work. Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at MOMA was a case in point. Her work over the years has remained powerful and important, but the re-creation of her pieces, by hiring dancers and performers, created a firestorm within the dance community, along with serious contract disputes. There was so little understanding on both sides of what it meant to embody these personal performance art works in the museum versus hiring dancers to perform task-based activities choreographed by someone else. It is not the same, to state the obvious.


In The Paper Canoe: A Guide to Theatre Anthropology, Eugenio Barba writes beautifully on virtuosity in performance as opposed to performance presence. He proposes that virtuosity gives the audience a “wow factor” which generally can be distilled to the feeling “She’s good! I can’t do that!”, whereas  performance presence transfixes the audience and transports them into an imaginary world where literal thinking falls away and the audience is no longer mentally comparing the performer with “normal” people. Presence is what distinguishes an accomplished performer and it is what gives even their most mundane movements a sort of hyper-clarity, an energy that compels you to attend to it. It transcends style and technique. So, for me, dance has something that visual art does not, which is this presence, which is able to transcend the seeming limits of a situation, and which can communicate forcefully and directly. A manifestation of concentration, of deliberate gesture, alive, with faith in repetition and heightened awareness. People need to experience it, live. Like a fresh, cold gust that clears the air and opens a space. I don’t mean to suggest that performance artists can’t access this presence; simply that in dance it is one of the baseline goals of a performance, no matter the style.


So what happens when you bring this level of physical presence into a museum? Can it survive in conditions that were not created to support it, and which in fact can undermine its ability to act? While many dance artists are successfully working in site-specific ways outside of theatrical spaces, there is also a reason all of those conventions of the theater, the architecture, the acoustics, the floors, the tools and techniques, came into being: to allow the performer as well as the audience to focus solely on the demands and effects of the art. If museums want to present dance work, they are going to have to ask themselves if they are prepared to create the right conditions for it. They will also need to cultivate and support the next generation of dance artists whose work fits naturally in the gallery context.


Dance artists that thrive in the environment of a museum or gallery are ones who are able to navigate a hybrid form that accounts for the specific conditions of that type of venue. This may seem obvious, but concept and implementation are two different beasts. A few contemporary dancers and choreographers already do this as part of their practice, using some of the following strategies:


  • Creating physical environments for the work by reframing or overtaking existing architecture/space.
  • Inviting audience interactivity into the work. This runs the gamut from direct participation by the audience in the creation or performance process, to allowing freedom of vantage point and movement through the space for the audience, to giving multiplicity of content to attend to, so the audience must make a choice in how they relate to the work.
  • Including a strong element of visual design in the work, either through collaboration with other artists and designers or within their own practice.
  • Putting aside physical virtuosity in the dancing in favor of a hybrid approach, playing with the combination of movement/dance, sound design/music, visuals, interactivity and/or participatory structures.
  • Facing head on the problem of performing in a loud, ambient, public space by designing specific choreography, structures and activities for the performers and the audience.
  • Creating works that might not be classified as “choreography” or “dance” at all, but rather use choreographic principles in their creation, resulting in forms as disparate as websites, installations, films, videos, apps, and public interventions.


Museums are excited by this work because it is fresh, vital, and pairs the undeniable power of live performance and a choreographic sensibility with a sophisticated processing of audience, environment and art. If they want to include it in their programming, as a way to acknowledge the interdisciplinary nature of current art making (i.e. to stay relevant and on top of cresting trends), then they would be wise to help create fertile conditions for its growth. The only way to bolster the development of this work is for museums and funding institutions to refine their approaches, and deepen their knowledge and curation of dance-based work and of the specific ways it needs to be supported and presented. As the artists whose work falls outside of a theatrical context grow in their scope and practice, they will seek out and create opportunities for their work to be seen and supported, which in turn will encourage newer artists or collaborations to explore this rich terrain.


I’d like to highlight a few recent examples of artists working in this direction, many hosted by MOMA of late:


In choreographer Sarah Michelson’s works, including recent projects at MOMA, she not only tackles the challenges of framing, architecture, visual design and a potentially wandering audience, but employs tactics in her work that resonate with visual arts curators: her body of work rigorously reexamines itself, its relation to art and dance-making, to institutions, even as it cannibalizes past works to create new works, appropriating her own and others’ choreography, over time weaving a web of interconnected and living material (side note: David Velasco wrote a fabulous essay on Michelson’s oeuvre in Art Forum called “I’ll Be Your Mirror”).


Ralph Lemon’s work has always been able to glide from theater-based to gallery-based, and he has very consciously created a space in his practice for both, often creating offshoots of different forms from the same originating content, as in his work “The Geography Trilogy”. With a typical creation process that involves a long period of research, he gathers a wide range of material from historical, literary, and personal sources, develops movement material for specific contexts which again, like Michelson, might be repurposed later in a different context or form, and is as capable of writing a book, as making a theatrical dance, as putting up a solo visual art show. In addition, he engages in this conversation of the convergence of dance and visual art with institutional partners, such as in recent curatorial projects (MOMA and Danspace Project). This kind of approach leads to an engagement with the issues surrounding dance in the museum context, and gives him a particularly clear-eyed vantage point from which to assess the effect of his work in various contexts.


A recent video went around of Heather Hansen, a New Orleans-based artist who creates large-scale charcoal drawings by dancing on the paper. She reaches and sweeps across the paper, the symmetry of her body and movements creating a kind of mandala. It made the Facebook rounds, and I was surprised and interested to see how much people responded – not only the dance community but the general public. I have not experienced the work live in a museum, and maybe it functions better as a viral phenomenon, I don’t know. But it was interesting to see how effectively it swept through the blogosphere.


Yanira Castro has been making site-specific dances for years, but her most recent project “The People to Come” was by far the most adapted to a museum context and relied on direct participation of viewers. The solo dances that you could see in the live performance were created in front of you, by dancers responding to source material culled from submissions solicited from the public online. With an interactive website and archive, the piece continues to resonate after the actual live performances end, leaving a tangible trace – that could easily be installed in a gallery for visitors to peruse.


The recent show that Boris Charmatz mounted in MOMA (I didn’t see it) was designed to engage in the concept itself of dance in a museum, and was up front about the performer as both archive and living art. But I wonder how effective it was if you had to happen upon the dancers – I heard of several people who went specifically to see this show and felt frustrated by its lack of information on where or when you could see the solos, especially given the crowded conditions. Perhaps its intent (to be almost like pop-up events) and clear conceptual language undermined it as an experience.


Of course, we have seen many a performance programmed in various museums of Merce Cunningham’s work. This is as it should be, as it reads very well in a gallery setting, but it is also an unsurprising choice given the visual arts status of his collaborators and friends.


Tino Sehgal is an intriguing example to discuss with dance artists, often eliciting strong reactions. With a background in choreography and economics, he has forged an identity as a visual artist who makes “constructed situations”, essentially choreographing museum-goers by having interpreters trained to interact with them, in order to create art works that are purely experiential. There is no object, nothing to collect, just a memory of a situation or conversation. But then he is represented by galleries (e.g. Marian Goodman in NYC) and sells his works to visual arts institutions (by oral contract in limited editions) for significant sums. His work is intriguing precisely because he has figured out a way to retain and yet market the ephemerality of his works, and how to make the relationship with the museum visitor an essential part of the structure of the work. As Jörg Heiser writes “Sehgal’s work is driven by one question: are there ways to create something while circumventing the usual cycles of production and consumption?” Creating something that is not meant for consumption implies that there is no market for it, an oxymoron when we are looking at something created for a major museum.


It is hard to know which way this wind will blow. Dance in the museum might be a passing phenomenon, or it might be a sign of a major shift. In either case, the dance community and visual art institutions need to open communication pathways to address the challenges that arise when they partner. Many in the dance community have written about the economic imbalance inherent in the relationship as a major issue. Others point to the danger of dance’s own history being subsumed by the visual arts narrative. But this is an opportunity to bring greater visibility to contemporary dance. Museums must bring in large number of people to survive. Dance has not done that, maybe as is natural, but perhaps it is time to see what happens when it plays on a bigger stage, even if it’s not a sprung-wood one.




Hélène Lesterlin is an artist, curator, performer and instigator of collaborative projects. She creates performances and time-based art works, drawing from dance, visual art, literature, folklore, music and interactive technologies. Studio Reynard is her home base. Currently immersed in French medieval sources, she is working on a series of projects: a satiric puppet show based on the story cycle of Reynard the Fox; a dark, transmogrifying solo dance performance with live interactive video; and a walking sound work that visits ghosts using low power FM radio transmitters. From 2005 – 2011, she served as founding curator for dance and theater at EMPAC – the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – an institution dedicated to the production and presentation of adventurous contemporary work spanning performance, media, installation and art. For more info:


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Patricia Bulitt
11:42 am
August 8, 2014


Beginning in 1974 I began MOVING WITH ART, an ingallery exploration and series of workshops and presentations in Berkeley Art Center, Berkeley, CA. Making kinetic responses to all the changing exhibitions in the art center, I continued to train docents at the San Francisco Museum of Art, Palo Alto Art Center and several others. MOVING WITH ART has continued into the present with responding to visual language through my dance movement improvisation.

At DC’s Kreeger Museum in 2011, I danced a Picasso Painting and instructed/ inspired docents working with you. Glad to see this continue in museums!

Patricia Bulitt

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