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Danser Sa Vie, translated as ‘Dancing One’s Life’ explores the relationship between dance and the visual arts from 1900 to today. It travels through some of the most important movements of 20th century art. The 450 works include the biggest names in art, Picasso, Brancusi, Degas and Warhol – just to name a few.
The show is for dance enthusiasts and debutants alike and explores the impact that dance has had on every aspect of life, whether in theatres, political demonstrations, fields or on the streets. With last year’s success of films such as “Black Swan” and “Pina” (which celebrates the work of influential German dance choreographer Pina Bausch) the exhibition is well-timed.
The first work in the exhibition is a ‘live work’ or performance by Tino Sehgal. It’s clear from the outset that the curator isn’t playing it safe as this performance piece welcomes visitors. The dancer slowly slides around the floor to distant music creating an uncomfortable interaction between the viewer and the dancer which almost distracts attention from the first major painting of the exhibition, the beautiful, ‘La Danse de Paris’ by Matisse.
After this initial surprise the following room provides an introductory guide to the founders of modern dance, who were seen by some as geniuses and others as insane. It also demonstrates the influence they continue to have on contemporary choreographers – Matthew Barney, for example.
The use of film footage in the exhibition is really effective; viewers soon get a feel for the impact of the performances and the music of the time. In addition, each clip is accompanied by artworks, images, theories and surviving objects associated with that dance performance.
Although the ideas of these choreographers seemed innovative and ground-breaking much of their inspiration actually comes from as far as centuries ago, their floaty white gowns and flowery headdresses echo Roman and Greek antiquity. In a period of fast developing industry and capitalism they were looking back with rose-tinted spectacles to a more natural and innocent time.
Dance pioneer Rudolph Von Laban took this to the limit with his dance courses in Monte Verita, Ascona in Switzerland. The school was associated with a utopian commune where members experimented with nudism, sexual freedom and perhaps the most shocking for a French audience, vegetarianism. Photographs of this period by Johann Adam Meisenbach document Von Laban’s students leaping around naked against a luscious backdrop of a lakes and mountains.
The exhibition doesn’t just focus on the professionals; it also looks at the joy and escapism people experience through dance for fun. The bold, bright paintings of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner express the atmosphere of the ballroom perfectly. The inclusion of his work also compliments the current German Expressionist exhibition at the Pinacothèque Museum in Place de la Madeleine, which also exhibits many of his paintings (showing until March 11).
In contrast, the viewer is given an insight into the hard craft that goes into each dance piece. Displayed alongside videos and photographs of the end result are preparatory materials towards the creation of the routines, costume design and scientific theories behind the movement of the body. The show displays the weird and wonderful outfits that were worn in avant-garde performances, from tribal-inspired masks through to futuristic robot suits.
Many of the early dance pieces explore the mystic power associated with folk and tribal dance. Charlotte Rudolph’s photograph of Mary Wigman’s signature piece ‘Hextentanz’ of 1926 does this best. It shows Wigman in a silk kimono and disturbing transparent facemask convincingly demonstrating the ‘dance of the witch’.
The political power of dance is addressed with photos of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, under Hitler’s Third Reich. Although the majority of new art was branded ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, with many artists fearing for their lives, dance
for some reason escaped. Dance routines were choreographed for the games, the most iconic being a performance which ends in an eagle and swastika formation. This is not the only example of dance being used as political tool; the exhibition also includes examples of the role of dance Soviet Russia.
The are strong correlations between the movements in the visual arts and the movements in dance, the reason being that dancers/choreographers and artists socialized in the same bohemian circles with ideas passing backwards and
forwards between the two disciplines. Numerous different artists depicted the same famous dancers of a decade. One example of this is Josephine Baker, who is still a muse for artists today.
From the 1920s Baker became one of Paris’ favorite Americans and eventually became a French citizen. Originally from a poor family in St. Louis, Missouri Baker made her mark with erotic yet comic dancing. Often wearing little more than a string of bananas around her waist and accompanied by a cheetah, she drew in record-breaking crowds to Paris’ best theatres. However, despite her charm and talent she was more than a showgirl, she is also remembered for her role in both the American Civil Rights movement and for her work as a spy for the French Resistance in World War II for which she received numerous honors.
As well as providing a historical context to the relationship between the visual arts and dance, Danser Sa Vie also includes contemporary artworks commissioned especially for the exhibition. Perhaps the most interesting is Olafur Eliasson’s video ‘Movement Microscope’. The Danish artist famous for ‘The Weather Project’, a huge projected sun at the Tate Modern, London filmed this video at his studio. The video shows dancers interacting with employees with the use of body-popping and robot dancing.
The last section of the exhibition looks at dance and performance and provides a valuable opportunity to see the works of Jackson Pollock and Yves Klein’s blue paintings created at a happenings where naked women painted their bodies blue and pressed themselves on the canvas. This was a big influence on Jan Fabre whose eyebrow-raising video shows a completely naked female dancer writhing around in oil. Yet despite first impressions, it’s not a Crazy Horse number, there’s nothing seductive about the piece and the intensity of the dancing actually distracts the viewer from her nudity making the title, “When the leading man is a woman” even more intriguing.
The end of the exhibition brings us to the disco period, with Saturday Night Fever and Andy Warhol’s Factory. An amusing quote from Warhol on the wall reveals an insight into his early ambitions, “I never wanted to be a painter. I wanted to be a tap dancer.”
Whilst heading for the exit, visitors hear David Bowie’s ’Let’s Dance’ and it is impossible not to want to shuffle your feet. For those left wanting more, the Centre Pompidou is running a program of dance performances, talks and film screenings to encourage visitors to ‘Dance One’s Life’. Don’t miss it!
Cover image – Charlotte Rudolph
Le Saut de Palucca,1922-1923
Centre Pompidou Collection, Musée national d’art moderne
Photo : Adam Rzepka,Centre Pompidou Diffusion RMN
© Adagp, Paris 2011
When the leading man is a woman, 2004
Filmé par Charles Picq à la Maison de la danse, Lyon, avril 2004
Direction, scénographie et chorégraphie : Jan Fabre
Production : Troubleyn/Jan Fabre (Anvers, Belgique), co-production with the Théâtre de la Ville (Paris, France), deSingel (Anvers, Belgique), with the support of the Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogotá
Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt
Toboggan Woman, 1923
Hambourg Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (MKG)
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Totentanz by Mary Wigman, 1926-1928
Wichtrach/Berne, Galerie Henze & Ketterer& Triebold