Making my way into the Contemporary Arts Museum's opening of "Dance With Camera" on Friday was like retreating into a cool, dark cave. Black walls and subdued lighting are the perfect cinema-like backdrops to a stunning variety of photographs, films and videotapes documenting the activities of dancers and choreographers over several decades. Once my eyes adjusted to the light, however, I soon realized that the atmosphere is anything but sedate. Engrossing, perplexing, amusing and dramatic, this exhibit is more like a three-ring circus. Or, perhaps, a better description might be a 30-ring circus.
The first person I encountered was none other than Bill Arning, CAMH's passionate director, who I have always thought of as a sort of dancer. When Bill and I both happened to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was a regular follower of his animated gallery talks at the List Visual Arts Center, a museum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Some people talk with their hands; Bill talks with his whole body. When I asked him about the multi-layered, Merce Cunningham-like environment, he drew my attention to a stunning work in the left of the gallery: Tacita Dean's 2007 16mm film of Cunningham seated in a chair, performing John Cage's legendary 4'33, more widely known as "the silent piece."
"I totally grew up with Merce," said Arning. "He truly understood the limitations and strengths of working with a filmmaker, and he was actively engaged with [film director] Charles Atlas." Then Bill told me something I never knew, namely that Atlas' first film focused only on Cunningham's joints. It was the beginning of an extraordinary collaboration that seems to have its culmination in this exhibit. No matter where I walked in the gallery, I could see Cunningham presiding over the scene like a kind of wise old ringmaster.
So much motion and activity in one space might be challenging for the average viewer, but once you figure out that "Dance With Camera" is geared towards experience rather than information, it is very exhilarating. And the arrangement of the material is quite clever once you settle down to discern it. As I stood watching another 16mm film of Joachim Koester's emphatic 2007 Tarantism, perhaps the most overwhelming piece in the show, I realized it was part of a triptych along with Bruce Nauman's 1967-8 Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square and Eleanor Antin's 1973 Caught in the Act. The traditional triptych had a large middle panel and two smaller related works on either side. This one is a kind of arrangement of landscape, portrait and still life. Antin performs a lengthy series of classical ballet poses she taught herself from books, a "still life" iteration on a standard-size television monitor of what we normally know as sweeping, traveling phrases. Even the credits for her film, written in chalk on a dusty blackboard and slowly erased to make way for the next set of names, are dreamily static. Nauman's "portrait" is obsessive yet compelling, larger than Antin's piece but about half the size of the centerpiece. Staring at it, I noticed a particularly engaged viewer who turned out to be public relations and marketing professional Susan Schmaeling.
"We've been waiting for something like this for so long," Schmaeling remarked. "I never really saw any of the Judson Church performers, and their work was so formative. Finally, I get a chance to see what it was all about." We ruminated about what Nauman might have intended as he repeated the same phrase endlessly and diligently on the edge of a painted square.
"The thing that intrigues me the most," added Schmaeling, "is that when trained dancers look at this sort of work, they either think it's incredible or they say that's it horrible, not even dance at all. I'm fascinated by that reaction." She reminded me that CAMH has also planned a wonderful series of live events along with the exhibit, including Deborah Hay's lecture on "The Performance of Beauty" and a rare screening of Michael Clark's notorious 1987 Hail the New Puritans.
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Philadelphia curator Jenelle Porter was also there, the woman responsible for making this exhibit first happen at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. Her advice to viewers? Don't forget about the photographers and filmmakers. "We need to remember that these are works created between a dancer or choreographer and a camera lens. They would not be possible without the lens," she explained. She pointed me to a film by Shirley Clarke, and said it's also useful to contemplate Clarke's characterization of the movement arts: "Dance is what happens in between the poses."
Further evidence of this idea is contained in the stunning photographs that greet you upon entering the gallery, namely Kelly Nipper's Interval, a series of photographs showing an apparent dancer offering a simple port-de bras in fifth position. A series of vertical beams seem to filter her activity, implying motion that really isn't there. "She may not even be a dancer," said Porter, "but behind the camera, she becomes one."
"Dance With Camera" continues through October 17. For more information and a list of events relating to the show, visit www.camh.org.