Sunday, November 13, 2016
By Kelly P. Kissel
Long before “Dancing with the Stars,” “Soul Train” or even “The Arthur Murray Party” ever aired on TV, artists and sculptors captured bodies in motion with paint and metal to tell the story of dance.
Some of those works are being shown in “The Art of American Dance” at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art through Jan. 16, 2017.
The exhibition also includes live dance performances on selected days. “When dancers are back in the gallery, it’s like things are whole again,” said Jane Dini, who curated the exhibit initially for the Detroit Institute of Arts and later took the show to the Denver Art Museum.
Ninety works are on display. Half the exhibit celebrates common social dancing – in parlors, in living rooms or by groups – while half looks at celebrated individuals.
While artist George Catlin had permission of 19th-century tribal leaders to depict Mandan ceremonies, including a buffalo dance, later generations weren’t as welcoming even though Catlin had preserved memories of rituals that otherwise might have been lost in a smallpox epidemic, Dini said.
“Catlin was one of our first Western painters,” Dini said as museum visitors jumped into or quietly left an impromptu tour. “This is a buffalo dance that is celebrating the coming of age of the young men of these families of this nation.
“Even though he got the OK, decades later – in the 20th century – native American communities are very uncomfortable with this depiction, white artists looking at and documenting what was sacred and should not have been documented by an outsider,” she said. “That’s the uneasy history we have with some of these objects.”
“The Jolly Flatboatmen,” painted by George Caleb Bingham in 1846, depicts a group of men on a river boat listening as two musicians play and one man dances with abandon. And one can nearly hear the music playing as a young woman sways in John Singer Sargent’s “Capri Girl on a Rooftop,” painted in 1878.
Excluded from the exhibit are minstrel shows and vaudeville performances done in blackface. In a pre-show lecture, Dini takes the screen dark for a moment to decry “grotesque” depictions in dance.
The latter half of the exhibit features individual performances, where inspiration can come from classical Indian dance, ancient Greeks or a gas station – as is the case in Paul Cadmus’ 1937 set designs for the ballet “Filling Station.” The ballet explores attendant Mac’s interactions with truckers, troopers and travelers.
“The dancer excites our senses and our passion,” Dini said.
Television helped promote dance as a cultural phenomenon with shows such as “American Bandstand” decades ago and “Dancing with the Stars” today. But individual dancers first won fame as the 19th century turned into the 20th, Crystal Bridges assistant curator Alejo Benedetti said, stopping during a walkthrough to talk about Isadora Duncan.
“This marks the rise of the celebrity dancer. It’s one of the first times in the U.S. that you have this dancer as icon,” Benedetti said. “Some of these dancers would be used, like modern-day celebrities are, to endorse products. Everybody knew who they were.”
While the core of the exhibit runs through the mid-1900s, the museum also has some more modern works. Online, it features a number of videos that examine dance in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1982), the film “Footloose” (1984), the club dance sequence from the movie “Pulp Fiction” (1994), and Drake’s mesmerizing music video “Hotline Bling” (2015).
“We roughly cut off around 1960, but we have more contemporary works that are sprinkled throughout the show to show that these traditions continue, they expand, they change over time, and dance is still very much alive and going now,” Benedetti said.