At the Denver Art Museum, Dancing on Thin Air
The Denver Art Museum’s “Summer of Dance” is a good example of the power that big cultural institutions have to bring meaning to our lives. And, also, their limits. Like everything at DAM, it’s a high quality effort, with four bang-up shows spread across several excellent collections and each, influenced by movement, is thorough, scholarly and, in its own way, entertaining.
But the whole thing feels remarkably out of touch in the moment. As a theme, “dance” is, frankly, thin, a fringe topic that’s wholly without risk and lacks the kind of gravitas that a serious museum has the skill and resources to tackle. Museums are allowed to have fun, of course, but the timing here is off.
The world is, in the summer of 2016, going to hell in a handbasket. On topics of race and place, of oppression, justice, identity, liberty, violence, protest and fear, we are all ready for serious discussions. Art provides a starting point for all those subjects, though not at DAM in these crucial months.
There is, to be certain, a role for escapism, for a light touch to get us through difficult days. I went to DAM last week, fully glum in the wake of the unfathomable shootings and unending protests of late, and left feeling better than when I entered.
The main reason was the clever “DanceLab,” a massive, interactive installation created by the animators at Denver’s Legwork Studios and members of the local Wonderbound dance troupe. Participants spend two minutes in front of a small monitor mimicking dance moves that appear on the screen — mostly arm waves and shoulder dips, a few side bends; all easy. A few minutes later, their work appears larger-than life on a giant video wall, full of groove and set to a funky beat.
It’s great fun, and also the most successful of all the exhibits at the museum. The whole challenge of importing the spirit of an in-motion art form into a brick-and-mortar museum is keeping it from feeling static and maintaining the visceral, human essence that keeps dance so appealing. “DanceLab” makes the connections while deepening an appreciation of both movement and movies.
There’s a great spirit, as well, to the exhibit “Why We Dance: American Indian Art in Motion,” assembled by in-house curators Nancy Blomberg and John Lukavic. DAM’s collection of Indian art is deep, and this exhibit is a chance to show it off. There’s a notable display of early 20th century watercolors documenting the movements of traditional native dances witnessed by artists of the era. Visually, they are humble works, but they were an attempt to record important regional customs.
“Why We Dance” does come close to giving us something to think about in our summer of trauma. There are examples of the current costumes worn by dancers at the pow wows held regularly around the country, colorful, crafted treasures, and they are accompanied by videos that have dancers talking about how movement helps them understand and maintain their cultural past. It is a place worth lingering amidst the museum-wide hoopla.
Based around DAM’s annual pow wow, the exhibit offers local interest, as does “Performance on Paper: The Posters of Phil Risbeck and John Sorbie.” Risbeck and Sorbie created placards for most of the dance, opera and theater productions at Colorado State University from the 1960s through the 1990s. Their work is clever and intuitive and a nostalgic reflection on the styles of art and design popular over recent decades.
These exhibits, though, are a sideshow to the main event, “Rhythm & Roots: Dance in American Art,” a touring version of an exhibit produced by the Detroit Institute of the Arts, and curated by Jane Dini of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It’s a star-studded show, full of paintings, representational and abstract, of dancers famous and folk, captured both still and in motion, with a few exceptional works from sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who had a keen ability to capture fluidity in his art. There’s also a resurrection of Andy Warhol’s “Silver Clouds,” a room full of floating mylar balloons where visitors are invited to enter and “dance.”
Additional celebrity juice comes from depictions of dancers revered in years gone by. There’s some marveling to be done at Werner Philipp’s 1943 portrait of Katherine Dunham; at Stanislaus Julian Walery’s 1926 monochromatic photograph of Josephine Baker; at John Singer Sargent’s 1913 pencil drawing of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney dressed in pantaloons created for the Ballets Russes.
And if the two-dimensional work isn’t enough, there are a few key artifacts to stare at, such as legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova’s delicate white costume from a 100-year-old production of “The Dying Swan.”
A tutu? In any other summer, it might take the edge off of a hot August afternoon. This year, its feathery fluffiness feels like a metaphor for the whole lineup at DAM.
Multi-media exhibits like “Summer of Dance” take years to pull off — at least in the current way museums do business. The glacial pace at which they organize, negotiate, travel here and there, design, install, catalogue and write guarantees the quality we’ve come to expect, and which we demand in return for the millions of dollars in public funding we give them each year to make our cities richer places.
But it can keep them from being nimble when we need them the most, not just to distract and divert us, but also to bring us together, to teach us, enlighten us, sharpen our understanding of the world, to serve as that thing we need our institutions to be the most: neutral ground for deep thinking.
Museums can’t predict the future. Who knew nightclubs would become killing grounds about now, or that politicians would adopt hate speech as a habit, that all we would be talking about is guns? But this is the case.
Our art, history and nature museums need, in addition to long-range planners, tactical response teams that can shake things up, even at the last minute, when duty calls. The world is changing quickly these days. It is in motion, like a dancer whose music never stops, and museums can’t sit the moment out.
Rhythm & Roots: Dance in American Art and DanceLab run through Oct. 2. Why We Dance closes Aug. 14 and Performance on Paper continues through Jan. 8. Denver Art Museum, 13th Avenue between Broadway and Bannock. $10 for Colorado residents. 720-865-5000 or denverartmuseum.org.