Dancing Light / Let it move you… at Huis Marseille Museum for Photography, Amsterdam (2014/2015)
Huis Marseille was shaken to its foundations on 13 September 2014 during the opening of Dancing Light, when Dutch dance group Hollands Laken performed pellizcos flamencos, ‘snapshots’ consisting of short flamenco choreographies. The heavy stamping and the raucous cries of the dancers, singer and guitar player made the small, crowded room tremble. The exhibition was curated by the museum’s new director, Nanda van den Berg, in cooperation with the Dutch Flamenco Biennial 2015. This dance genre – which regards dancing as a necessity arising from within and inspired by duende (the Spanish word for ‘having soul’) – was chosen as a starting point for the exploration of the representation of (dance) movement and expression in photography and film. The image chosen to promote the exhibition could not have been more suitable: a close-up of the expressive yet inward-looking, intensely concentrated face of the deaf gypsy dancer Antoñita La Singla, photographed with her arms thrust upward in a classic flamenco dance pose. The photo belongs to a series that the Spanish photographer Xavier Miserachs made in 1962, featuring La Singla passionately dancing to a rhythm she sensed intuitively – the ultimate duende.
By relating Spanish flamenco to Japanese butoh, a genre developed in the second half of the twentieth century, the museum has made an original choice. The movement vocabularies of these two dance genres – the one characterized by fierce rhythms, the other by a slow evolvement of movement – may at first seem an unlikely pair. Yet both can be described as earthly, animated, expressive and intense. Both communicate a certain feel of urgency that comes from within. Neither eschews representing the grand themes of life, e.g. joy and sorrow, hope and despondency, often balancing on the boundary commonly drawn between two such highly divergent emotions. Flamenco icons such as La Argentina (Antonia Mercé) and Vincente Escudero are represented at the exhibition, as well as Kazuo Ohno, one of butoh’s founding fathers. The strongest link between the two genres is embodied in the latter’s persona: in 1926, Ohno attended a performance of La Argentina, which led to his own decision to become a dancer. In 1977, Ohno created the dance piece Admiring La Argentina.
As reflected in the general museum descriptions and press promotion, the emphasis of the exhibition lies on flamenco and butoh and their similarities. In the physical installation, however, the comparison between the two genres hardly plays out. Moreover, several other kinds of dance genres are represented in the exhibition, performed by both professionals and non-professionals. All of the works on display share a common theme: dance – or rather – (human) movement (focusing on the aspects of either time or space) and expression (of either duende or one’s identity as a dancer).
The works are carefully installed in the labyrinthine topography of the building’s interior. On its website, Huis Marseille states: ‘In terms of the installation of exhibitions, the unique structure of this house plays a significant role. Each of the thirteen exhibition spaces has its own specific character, yet all of them relate well to the work on display.’ This is certainly true for Dancing Light. The curator has made clever use of the space, without one work distracting from another. As a result, each work gets the attention it deserves. The most remarkable curatorial choice is the installation of Paolo Porto’s photographs in the red period room with its gilded and painted ornaments. On the one hand, his images of fragile (semi-) nude bodies of dancers photographed at various abandoned, crumbling sites in the medieval Italian town of Aquila – Porto’s place of birth, which was heavily damaged by an earthquake in 2009 – stand in stark contrast to this lavish, immaculate room. On the other hand, this somewhat bombastic space heightens the drama and theatrical quality of the series. Presented as such, these photographs become modern-day memento mori.
Somewhat curious are the keywords one finds scattered about the exhibition, related to the ‘symptoms’ or effects of dancing: miracle, expression, motion, vertigo, labyrinth, concentration, rapture, and emotion. While most likely intended to provide the viewer with a framework for interpreting certain clusters of works, such terms serve merely to confuse rather than elucidate. The works are too intricate to be reduced to only one category, with the combinations seeming a bit artificial. All of the exhibited pieces are accompanied by a descriptive museum label located on the wall. The same texts – written by the museum’s director Nanda van den Berg and the assistant curator Anna Kruyswijk – are brought together in a modest, nicely designed catalogue. This booklet also contains some additional texts, including artist interviews with David Michalek and Tejal Shah.
Obviously, the title Dancing Light is an allusion to photography and film: both mediums are defined by the impression of light on a material that has been altered to become light-sensitive – after all, the word photography literally means ‘writing with light’. The element of light also plays an important role in dance performances, as it greatly influences the look and atmosphere of a piece. In most of the exhibited works, however, light is not the central theme. Perhaps the term ‘dancing light’ is most applicable to the series Slow Dancing (2007), in which the American artist David Michalek explores the aspect of time in relation to the performance of movement sequences. In a darkened room covered with heavy curtains, three vertical larger-than-life screens are placed adjacent to one another. Short dance phrases performed by professional dancers are projected on each. Michalek has recorded them at one thousand frames per second, transforming five seconds of movement into ten minutes. In total, the triptych shows more than forty dancers of varying dance styles, body types, ethnicities, cultures, ages, and genders, presented in random order. These hyper-slow-motion videos have a hypnotizing effect on the viewer, who becomes entranced by the slowly evolving movement. Conversely, Dansa I en Ring (2013) by the Dutch artist Carlijn Mens preserves physical traces of dance as opposed to projecting intangible, floating bodies: on the floor lies a square sheet of paper with the outline of a circle, consisting of layers of small charcoal footprints. These imprints literally embody movement that has been performed in the past. However, because they form a circle, the work becomes a perpetuum mobile: it is as if these children’s feet are dancing eternally. The accompanying photographs on the wall show dark silhouettes of children, slightly blurred by the movement of their dancing and strongly contrasting with the light-hued background, making it hard to discern the actual bodies from their shadows.
Less convincing in the context of this exhibition are the somewhat static photographs of large groups of birds in flight. A more intriguing choice would perhaps have been to include more historical representations of dance. For example, the beautifully composed La mano de Camboya [Danza Khmer] (1996) – a close-up of a dancer’s graceful, but fierce hand gesture, shot by the Spanish photographer Isabel Muñoz – would pair seamlessly with a close-up of the hands of Ruth St. Denis, the famous American dancer whose repertory primarily consisted of oriental-inspired dances, photographed by the Hungarian-American photographer Nickolas Muray in 1925. Drawing such a parallel might have reminded the viewer that, in the first decades of the twentieth century, hands were regarded as crucial vehicles of expression by several exponents of what we now call modern dance. Moreover, hands play an important role in flamenco as well: (rotating) wrists, (clapping) hands, (snapping) fingers, and, of course, the use of castanets. Salient detail: in the last years of his exceptionally long life, butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno – compelled by his advancing years – limited his means of bodily expression to the use of his hands. To elaborate on such similarities would most certainly have been worthwhile.
Additionally, although some of the artists in the exhibition make use of performative strategies in their artistic practice, none have any background as a professional dancer or choreographer. Dancers are merely represented by their countenance, captured both in still and moving images. Investigating the work of dancers and choreographers who have themselves been involved in experimenting with photography and film (in choreography) would have given the exhibition added depth. For example, in 1979 the Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen, who has also been active as (dance) photographer, created Live, a ‘videoballet’ performed by two dancers and a cameraman. A more seminal type of work – meaning that it would have been perfectly suited for an exhibition entitled Dancing Light – is lacking. In the late 1970s, the American dancer and choreographer Simone Forti employed a series of holograms to ‘move’ the observer. Only when one begins to walk around the transparent cylindrical ‘lampshade’ on its wooden pedestal does the particoloured holographic image of Forti gradually begin to execute a short movement phrase. This is true dancing light that literally ‘moves’ you. At the intersection of performance, photography and film, works of this nature would have served to enhance what was nevertheless a captivating exhibition.
Nicky van Banning received her BA Art History at Leiden University and her MA Museum Curator at the University of Amsterdam. In 2013, she conducted research on the dance photographs of the Amsterdam-based Studio Merkelbach (1913-1969) at the Amsterdam City Archives. In 2014, she was granted the Heiting Scholarship, which enabled her to conduct further research on early twentieth-century dance photography, particularly the work of Arnold Genthe (1869-1942). This endeavor will yield a new volume as part of the Rijksmuseum Studies in Photography book series.↑
1. This booklet (edition of 1200 copies) is available at Huis Marseille’s museumshop for 8 euros.↑
2. Three artist interviews are available on Huis Marseille’s website [accessed on 14-04-2015]: http://www.huismarseille.nl/nl/nieuws/dancing-light-interview-with-david-michalek; http://www.huismarseille.nl/nl/nieuws/dancing-light-interview-met-tejal-shah; http://www.huismarseille.nl/nl/nieuws/dancing-light-interview-met-camille-mutel ↑
4. In 2011, Slow Dancing had already been on display in the Netherlands, on the occasion of the Holland Dance Festival. At the time, the screens were installed in a public space, at The Square in The Hague. It was the initiative of the Holland Dance Festival to have Michalek make three Slow Dancing videos of the Dutch dancers Sabine Kupferberg, Besim Hoti and Stijn Hoogendoorn, which were subsequently added to the exhibition.↑
5. In 2014, the Viennese Photoinstitut Bonartes presented the exhibition Tanz der Hände. Tilly Losch and Hedy Pfundmayr in Fotografien 1920-1935, which was accompanied by a publication bearing the same title.↑
6. With the exception of the live flamenco performances by Hollands Laken during the opening of the exhibition, and the live performances by Dutch artists/performers Anna de Rijk & Kim Snauwaert, and the Japanese butoh dancer Riko during the finissage on 8 March 2015.↑