One evening in mid September, some 300 people packed into the Judson Memorial Church for a panel discussion on the rise of dance in the art world. About midway through, Ralph Lemon dropped a bomb: “I wait,” he said, “for the day when a museum acquires a dance.”
Mr. Lemon, a dancer and visual artist who prefers to be called simply a “conceptualist,” didn’t mean the sweat-stained costumes, sets and other ephemera that are often the only relics to prove that a dance has happened, but instead something far more controversial: the dance itself—the, as he put it, “performance as object.”
Dance has gained a solid foothold in the art world recently. Earlier this year, in a performance-heavy Whitney Biennial—one whole gallery was reconfigured as a dance space—Sarah Michelson became the first choreographer to win one of the art world’s highest honors, the Whitney Museum’s prestigious Bucksbaum Award, which is awarded to an artist in the Biennial and comes with a purse of $100,000.
And last week, the Museum of Modern art launched “Some Sweet Day,” a three-week dance series organized by Mr. Lemon in collaboration with MoMA associate curator Jenny Schlenzka that has three pairs of choreographers—Ms. Michelson and Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton and Jérôme Bel, and Faustin Linyekula and Dean Moss—exploring, according to MoMA’s description, “the potentials and possibilities of the museum space.” This week sees Mr. Linyekula’s What Is Black Music Anyway…/Self-Portraits and Mr. Moss and artist Laylah Ali’s Voluntaries. Next week, Ms. Michelson and Ms. Hay will perform.
The museum space isn’t exactly unexplored territory. Most contemporary art museums in New York, including MoMA, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Art and Design, now have dance series. Visual artists with no background in dance, like Elad Lassry, are using it as a new material, and avant-garde dancers are, with greater and greater frequency, collaborating with visual artists on set design. Performance artists are getting in on the game as well: two years ago, Ryan McNamara took dance lessons in public for his contribution to the quinquennial exhibition “Greater New York” at MoMA PS1.
And the modern art world has, of course, always been avidly interested in dance, from the sets Picasso made for the Ballets Russes in 1917 to the fruitful 1960s collaborations between Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham, to the experiments of Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Wilson and others. The recent attraction the art world holds for dancers and choreographers is in keeping with the experimental spirit of the avant-garde, broadly speaking. “The art world invites a radical rethinking,” said RoseLee Goldberg, founder of performance art biennial Performa. “What does it say about space? What am I understanding visually? I’m asking some of the same questions that I might be asking of an artwork.”
But the question of actually collecting dance would seem to be the final frontier, one that Mr. Lemon, as he told The Observer in an email after the panel at the Judson, finds a bit vexing. The “discussion of dance in museums,” he wrote, “has to do with ‘The value of a thing.’ The economy may be our ‘new sacred’ (has been for some time!?), and if so what else is there to worship and or disrupt? A silly and yet worrisome question.”
His MoMA co-organizer echoed his concern about the rules of commerce. “[Dance] was always pushed a little to the side and not paid enough attention to, because by definition it’s something that you cannot collect,” Ms. Schlenzka said.
And yet, there is a precedent of sorts. In 2004, MoMA paid an undisclosed sum (it was said to be in the five figures) for a performance artwork called The Kiss, by Tino Sehgal, a former dancer. It consists of no more than two performers kissing and, like all of Mr. Sehgal’s performances, which now figure in the collections of over 20 major institutions worldwide, including the Guggenheim, the Tate Modern and the Deste Foundation, was sold without any physical documentation.
But dance isn’t performance art, as Jens Hoffmann, director of San Francisco’s Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, well knows; he encouraged Mr. Sehgal to transition out of dance, and pursue an audience in the art world.
“His level of discourse was much broader than what one normally encounters in the dance world,” said Mr. Hoffmann, who was first transfixed by a performance that Mr. Sehgal did in 2001. Naked on a stage, Mr. Sehgal “re-danced” moves from famous choreographers. “I thought it was interesting that he was turning himself into a museum of dance.” Mr. Hoffmann invited him to participate in several shows in Berlin and Dusseldorf.
Mr. Sehgal, who also has a background in economics, is adamant that his work be treated like any other work of visual art—bought, sold and exhibited. To exhibit one of his pieces, an institution must follow certain contractual obligations—the piece must be shown for a minimum of six weeks, during which time it is presented all day, every day, like any other art exhibition.
but When it comes to dance qua dance, which is often presented in museums within one-off special events, there’s more resistance to the idea of its salability or value as a collectible object.
“I’m not so interested in acquiring dance,” said Sabine Breitwieser, who is leaving her position of two years as MoMA’s chief curator of media and performance art to become director of the Museum der Moderne Salzburg. In addition to The Kiss, MoMA has in its collection other ephemeral pieces like a theatrical work by Guy de Cointet that the museum owns the right to stage. “The dance community,” Ms. Breitwieser said, “have developed ways to document their work.”
Nancy Spector of the Guggenheim, which owns Tino Sehgal’s work The Progress—it was a hit with audiences in the artist’s rotunda-filling 2010 exhibition there—said that Mr. Seghal’s work did pave the way for helping curators conceive of collecting ephemeral work, which is applicable to dance, and that she’s interested in stepping into the “fraught” conversation over ownership of dance and legacies of choreographers.
According to Ms. Breitwieser, the rise in interest in dance does parallel a similar rise in interest in live art, or art like Mr. Sehgal’s. Since visual art has become so conceptual and predicated on a kind of “de-skilling,” live art, including performance, dance and theatrical works, she said, present an element of “re-skilling” that audiences crave. Awwnd dance presented in the white-cube context of a museum presents a new challenge to both choreographers and viewers that dance in conventional theater doesn’t offer. “The museum’s position is to write history,” Ms. Breitwieser said. “This makes one look at a piece of live art differently.”
But it’s not just the intellectual and philosophical challenges of museum spaces that are attracting dancers and choreographers. They are also drawn to the visibility and remuneration that the art world potentially offers. “They are tired of struggling and are trying to get a piece of the cake,” said Mr. Hoffmann.
That cake won’t necessarily be sliced up equally. According to Judy Hussie-Taylor, the director of Danspace Project, there is chatter in the dance community over whether museums are co-opting dance without fully understanding what it takes to support dancers. There’s also concern that financial resources that now go directly to choreographers and dance organizations may be diverted to museums and visual arts institutions.
“Selling a dance performance as a work of art is an interesting proposition,” she said, “primarily because it’d be great for choreographers to have the same kind of economic control of their work and its distribution [that visual artists have].”
Curators insist that they go to great pains to properly contextualize dance and don’t add it willy-nilly to their programming. “We don’t just kidnap a discipline,” said Ms. Breitwieser.
For young dancer and choreographer Jonah Bokaer, a graduate of Merce Cunningham’s company, distribution is key. “To me, he said, “the question of sale is secondary to, how does this even continue?” He takes different iterations of a dance to different venues—and increasingly, for him, those venues are museums. His piece Replica, for example, was presented at the New Museum, Athens Festival, Greece and the MAC in Marseille, and at each space he made site-specific alterations, adjusting the sizes of the sets and picking dancers of varying heights. He thinks of his dance pieces very much in visual art terms.“What do you do with the floor?” he said. “That’s a very different proposition for the body. Scale is another question.”
The videos and animations Mr. Bokaer creates for his choreography have been acquired by art collectors and public institutions. But he views them as ephemera and documentation, rather than as artworks. “My work is commissioned, produced, repeated, archived,” he said. “But I remain a choreographer.”