Going for the Gold: The Upstart Opportunity of Dance in Museums | By Lex Leifheit

Photo from The Book, performance 2 of 5 in SOMArts Cultural Center’s Main Gallery.
Performed by Avy K Productions. Photo by Elena Zhukova.

I’m writing this piece in August and everyone has Olympics fever. All I can think about is this: if dance-in-theaters were competing against dance-in-galleries in the men’s 100-meter final, dance-in-theaters would be Usain Bolt, and dance-in-galleries would be Yohan Blake.

Bolt is the dominant, popular favorite—an established world champion who can reach epic heights of excellence. But Blake is an upstart, an athlete who beat Blake in the Jamaica trials and gave him the wake-up call he needed to train harder and truly be at his best.

Much is made of Bolt and Blake competing … but they are also on the same team. And so it goes with dance in theaters and dance in galleries. We’re all supposed to be on the same team, but trying to differentiate between the two is anything but safe.

Ask an arts worker about the difference between dance in galleries and dance in theaters, and you veer quickly into a murky field of jargon, assumption, ethics and policy. An informal poll of my colleagues revealed that the gallery curators and art history majors felt the biggest difference between the two was context. I agree, but their explanations were loaded with assumptions about theater that are true of some theater but not all theater. For example, one commented that dance in the theater “has more of a history trying to remove the artist from the present situation,” while dance in the galleries “tries to locate the viewer and bring awareness of the moment and the space.”

Photo from The Book, performance 2 of 5 in SOMArts Cultural Center’s Main Gallery. Performed by Avy K Productions. Photo by Elena Zhukova

I understand what he means within the context of post-modern artwork, but when I apply this juxtaposition with my recent experience of Cara Rose DeFabio’s She Was A Computer at CounterPULSE it does not compute. She Was A Computer was constantly calling on the audience to reference current memes, interact, photograph and be present. The same is true of Picture Jasper Ridge Ann Carlson’s 70-minute performance hike through the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve near Stanford University. Picture Jasper Ridge was not in a theater or a gallery, but in structure and process, the ticketed performance had more in common with a theater experience. It was entirely about the history and context of a space, the audience was intensely attuned to their surroundings, and it was not in a gallery.

If I protest too much, perhaps it’s because in my heart, I’m loyal to dance-in-theater but when I examine how I “vote with my feet” these days, I prefer dance in galleries. The intimacy, energy and versatility of performance in the gallery space are irresistible, as are the possibilities for connection and learning. People will open their minds and see dance in a gallery that they would never commit to if it meant two hours in a theater seat. I love seeing the gallery come to a standstill when a dancer commands their attention, and I love the feeling when a performance that is “outside the box” is a success for the artists.

Getting back to the Bolt-Blake analogy, there is a tension that exists as dance takes root in gallery and museum spaces even when we are on the same team. Within this tension lies opportunity:

For organizations that support emerging artists, communication between a curator speaking the codified language of museums and a choreographer with a previous experience in performance spaces provides a tremendous opportunity for learning.

For presenting institutions that support more established artists, the expanding opportunities for dance provides an opportunity to be flexible and rethink their contract requirements. For example, many institutions require that the artist not perform nearby for six months before and three months after an appearance. This should be reconsidered for artists who have performance opportunities at visual or multi-disciplinary spaces.

Funders, galleries and museums are challenged to think about impact. It’s hard to survey audience members who come and go as they please and dance-in-theaters has a strong advantage in this area. Surveying for the kind of demographic information that many large funders desire is both unpleasant and unwelcome in a gallery setting.

Audience members have the fabulous opportunity to take risks and to break out of their comfort zone, whichever it may be.

I use the word “opportunity” with the full knowledge that this comes hand-in-hand with many challenges. But if Bolt and Blake can compete while urging each other on to greatness, we can seize these new opportunities for performance and go for the next golden age of dance.

Lex Leifheit is the Executive Director of SOMArts Cultural Center, co-host of Feast of Words: Literary Potluck, and has an insatiable appetite for art. She lives in San Francisco.

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