The Arts Council sounds off on… Dancing to artwork

Julie Trachtenberg

I entered the Yale University Art Gallery last October not knowing what to expect. I was just excited to get a preview of the December opening of the expansion and restoration. The invitation, as part of *Gallery +, indicated that there would be an “original, site-specific” dance performance in the lobby. There was a crowd of people standing around, with a few scattered chairs, on the periphery of the first floor, waiting for something to happen.

Quietly, nine dancers walked out, found their positions in front of four different art pieces: Sol Lewitt’s Wall Drawing No. 614, July 1989; Lewitt’s Wall Drawing No. 987, July 2001; Al Held’s Pan North XI, 1987; and Ursula von Rydingsvard’s Three Bowls, 1989 (no longer on view in the lobby). With no music, each group began to move in response to the artwork behind them, or alongside the large sculpture. The audience was free to walk around, watching whomever they were interested in. In certain spots, three groups were visible with slight turns of one’s head. I wandered across the floor to see about the refreshments (top notch!) and noticed two other dancers in the hallway leading to the auditorium. Their canvas also included the large window on the other side of the corridor, reflecting and even multiplying their movements.

Dancers at the Yale University Art Gallery. Photo by Julie Trachtenberg.

Dancers at the Yale University Art Gallery. Photo by Julie Trachtenberg.

It was a remarkable performance. I was captivated, changing my position to watch each segment, sometimes sitting down to engage more fully with a specific group. The dancers themselves were all wonderful, strong, and expressive, performing in unison, yet also maintaining their own space. With repetitive movements, the rhythm of the performances echoed the visual energy of the artwork, and I found myself using the artwork as the “music” beneath the choreography.

The event was organized by Elena Light, the co-president of Yaledancers, in collaboration with Elizabeth Manekin, a museum educator at the Yale University Art Gallery. Some of the dancers are part of Yaledancers. An undergraduate studying art history and French, Light is a guide at the gallery, providing tours on the “kinesthetic experience of art.” In her words, she is interested in “how we can move around and use our bodily senses to better understand art. In a way, how dance informs our understanding of art.”

As the choreographer of the event, Light conceived a “structured improvisation” and framed four concepts to direct the performers’ movements through each of their dance pieces; they were to “interact” with the visual as well as the “architecture of the space.” For example, the performers dancing in front of Lewitt’s black-and-white line drawing located in the main lobby were instructed to mimic the lines of the drawing while dancing in front of the wall, and then, facing the audience, to move in response to their memories of the patterns. Another dancer was asked to react to the space between her and the large scale sculpture, which she engaged, gracefully juxtaposing her human scale through exaggerated embrace.

I don’t think I am the only one who felt the powerful impact. The audience enthusiastically applauded, seeing a new way to interact with the amazing collection and finding new inspiration from the dancers’ “real time” interaction with four dynamic, spirited pieces of art. Light reports that she would love to present another performance this semester. Meanwhile, on April 25, stay tuned for “Gallery + Drama,” an annual collaboration with Yale School of Drama who’ll create site installations using the artwork and the architectural space of the galleries as the backdrop.

*Gallery + is an ongoing series of collaborations with campus organizations that invites students to respond to art through special programs and performances.

Julie Trachtenberg is the Arts Council’s development and marketing director. This is her opinion.


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