Certain modern-day museum exhibitions taking cultural heritage as their subject depict a painful history, driving viewers to cringe or embrace. For instance, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Propaganda exhibit, focusing on Nazi Germany’s propaganda, has strongly affected me. Beyond recognizing direct lessons from the repulsive ramifications of propaganda on Jewish culture in Nazi Germany, I am struck by a personal acknowledgement of what cultural struggles do to drive audiences to public spaces.
Enter the question: How are museums and galleries selecting dance to activate their spaces, and how does dance change when its context comes artistically charged with a particular point of view? I have had two experiences presenting my own works in museums. The first museum work was Mixed Messages at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in 2011, made possible by The San Francisco Arts Commission, Zellerbach Family Foundation, and Dancers’ Group’s Lighting Artist in Dance Award, based on my own experience with Mixed (Race) Heritage and underrepresentation. My more recent museum work was Dances for Trayvon in 2012 commissioned by dance anywhere® at the Oakland Museum of California.
As an artist, it’s possible to burrow yourself inside the cultural importance of a project, never letting anyone else into the creative process. Conjuring up a cultural dance at a museum requires willpower not to get stuck in your own cathexes, and instead to consider how the structure of your work can facilitate an audience-driven experience. Herein lies the beautiful surprise of introducing my dances to a museum venue: My process did not predict how the presenter, the audience, or I would react in the aftermath of the production; what was clear, though, is that we all wanted to feel something.
What enhances the performance experience in museums are people, who often mill around the dance space. Dances for Trayvon at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) was a lesson in transforming people or sculpting the audience into art spaces. With thanks to OMCA’s outdoor chair exhibit, I pulled chairs hanging on a wall into a skewed seating arrangement for those audience members wanting to sit as they watched an off-beat dance improvisation about the untimely death of teenage Trayvon Martin. Whether it was the children playfully imitating me or adults brewing over the Trayvon Martin case, seeing the many ways the audience interacted with my work brought my attention to unexpected outcomes garnered by museum dances.
Looking again at MoAD, I want to return to this thought on proximity to audience and emotional sensation. Distance permitted me to play sound on the museum’s second level, provoking the audience to follow the dancing to the staircase where recorded dialogue became more audible. Sometimes cryptic, interviews from Multiracial Community members were complemented by dancers moving in various hidden spaces that made for greater human connection when watched from afar. Close up, audiences could examine the performers’ racial composition and their articulated movement against the museum’s structure.
An allowance of more than one day of performances permitted me to build dancers more efficiently into the workings of the museum space. They danced between barren walls, beside glass windows, and within a strategically placed seating arrangement for audience members. Museum-goers were ushered along three levels of a transformed environment. On the staircase, my perspective of the voyeur experience onto Mixed Race identity changed as outside, passersby gazed at the performance from Mission Street.
It is apparent and soothing for me that crafting dance in museums follows my instincts to bring people together through performance. Without the amenities of a theater, relationships that I hope to build through bodies interspersing through crowds or architecture become reality. For museums it is an opportunity to showcase the inner workings of their space as well as to gather a large concentration of attendees for a given performance.
An intoxicating component of the experience of creating a cultural dance in a museum was an honest discourse on race relations in addition to how cultures and subcultures are presented. Did the museum provide this experience of discourse? I think this cultural or racial discussion is more implicit in the format of gallery-type viewings. A shared experience passed on from one generation to the next creates a culture. For us watching dance in museums, I think ritual gatherings create culture around the presentation of art. The more we gather for dance in museums, the more these experiences will be part of our culture.
Raissa Simpson Hailed by Dance Spirit Magazine as “Reflective Contemporary Choreography,” multi-disciplinary choreographer Raissa Simpson has presented her works in over 50 venues across the United States. She began training in San Jose, California at Dance Art Studio and later continued onto San Jose Dance Theatre, Cleveland Ballet, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the Paul Taylor School. After receiving her BFA from the Conservatory of Dance at SUNY Purchase, Simpson had an extensive performance career in the San Francisco Bay Area dancing with Robert Moses’ Kin and Joanna Haigood’s Zaccho Dance Theatre, among others. As a freelance artist, she danced with Lucas Films, Tori Quinn at Bay Area Producers Conference, Alleluia Panis Dance Theater, Capacitor, Flyaway Productions, Liberation Dance Theater, Michael Mayes, and Peninsula Ballet. Along with serving as Assistant to the Director to Zaccho Dance Theatre, she is featured in the film “Never Stand Still,” at Jacob’s Pillow. Seamlessly integrating multimedia with cutting-edge choreography, Simpson’s pieces do not reside merely on stage—they are also site-specific installations in public spaces like museums and city centers. Her work is sweeping, vibrant, multi-layered, and socially relevant often involving multiple aspects such as video projection, live music, and Aerial Dance. She currently teaches and guest choreographs her unique style of movement to all types of movers.