Contemporary dance is somewhat in vogue in the art world at the moment: Yvonne Rainer is a hot ticket; this year’s Whitney Biennial was full of dance and movement-inspired artist video; while, over at the Guggenheim, former dancer Tino Sehgal staged his canny and unsettling mise-en-scènes. What is notable about this current artistic and curatorial interest is the way it expresses nostalgia for a specific art-historical moment, one marked by collaboration – a schemata in which Judson Dance Theater is a holy grail equivalent to Black Mountain College.
That nostalgia was striking in ‘Dance With Camera’ at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Focused predominantly on the American tradition of modern dance, the exhibition, curated by Jenelle Porter, looked at the formal quandaries of capturing dance on film. It also, subtly and probingly, considered the individual subject that emerges through what Susan Sontag memorably described as ‘a spiritual activity in physical form’.
The survey began by plotting the connections between some of the key figures responsible for developing the relationship between dance and film, such as Charles Atlas’ long collaboration with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and artists like Maya Deren. Together, the works made the distinction between dance staged for the camera (as with Atlas) and dance made via the camera (as in the case of the radical cuts by which Deren shapes Study in Choreography for Camera, 1945). From here, the exhibition went on to question the reliability of documentation – particularly in relation to gender and ethnic politics. In Caught in the Act (1973), Eleanor Antin – dressed in tutus and tulle skirts – reproduces classical ballet poses; a series of photographs show near-perfect dance positions, whilst an adjacent video shows Antin ‘cheating’ the poses. The photographs depict a woman moulded by discipline and sacrifice (significantly, one of the costumes Antin wears is from the 1841 ballet Giselle, a story of female betrayal and self-sacrifice); the video presents a woman gleefully ‘getting away with it’.
Caught in the Act asks who is looking and what they are looking for, but it also demands to know for whom we are posing, and why. Similarly, a 2002 diptych by Christopher Williams returns the gaze to the photographic subject: twin photographs of Balinese dancers illustrate the way a shifting gaze can formally reorganize an image. The two images are virtually identical, save for the direction of the young dancer’s gaze, which shifts from left to right. Here, Williams locates the act of looking within a (ethnic) female subject, more traditionally the object of the gaze than an active subject.
Dance and the location (and formation) of the subject was an underlying theme of the exhibition. In one deftly installed section, three video works entered into dialogue about subjectivity and the social state: Bruce Nauman’s Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square (1967–8), Uri Tzaig’s ∞ (1998) and Joachim Koester’s Tarantism (2007). Tzaig’s video, projected high on the gallery wall, features two teams playing a manic game of ball. With the players dressed in vaguely institutional uniforms, the work – which has the grainy texture of surveillance footage – communicates the role of institutions in the organization of bodies. Tarantism, meanwhile, features dancers enacting the convulsions of a ‘dancing cure’ for spider bites originating in the Middle Ages, while a near-autistic quality is evoked by Nauman’s repetitive movements. Together, the three works indicated the subject that is variously autistic, damaged and transcendent – the obscured by-product of an apparently functioning society. Of these, the transcendent was the exhibition’s more dominant strand. An early music video by Bruce Conner – BREAKAWAY (1966), featuring Toni Basil – is punctuated by the recurring lyric: ‘I’m going to break away / Break away from the everyday.’ The spiritual, in various guises, haunted ‘Dance With Camera’, and in certain ways dance – from the posing of Antin to the convulsions of Koester’s troupe – is simply a desire to escape the constraints of the body.
Tacita Dean’s Merce (Manchester) (2007) communicates the split between body and – for lack of a better word – spirit. A one-screen version of the work that premiered last year at Dia:Beacon in upstate New York, it features an extended static shot of the choreographer – like a living sculpture – sitting in a chair. Around the corner, a monitor screened a selection of related film and video, including Atlas’ Roamin’ I (1979–80), which features a young Cunningham at work. On the one hand, the two works simply represent the process of aging, and the opportunity of witnessing an artist discovering new ways of working, in and for the camera. But the two representations haunted each other, and it was difficult to know which was the more ghostly – the young man or the older. Both were vital, but equally had a quality of absence – the possibility and quandary of capturing performance on camera.