As a performing art, dance is more frequently aligned with the disciplines of drama and music than visual art: when we go to see a dance work, we’re more often than not heading to a theatre than a gallery. Yet contemporary dance has long sought to question dance’s kinship with the traditional theatre setting, and analyse how it can be considered alongside art-works of alternative mediums. Recent examples include American-choreographer Trajal Harrell – whose seminal work Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church was the result of a residency at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and has since toured to galleries across the world – and Dancing Museums, an EU-funded research project to develop collaborations between dance organisations, museums, universities and local communities across Europe.
Instead of dance organisations coming up with an idea and trying to take it round to various galleries, why don’t we work together from the very beginning?
The Continuous Network – a UK collaboration between Newcastle’s BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and London-based Siobhan Davies Dance – is one of the latest additions to this line of questioning. The four-year project aims to ‘create a new approach to commissioning, producing, and touring experimental dance within contemporary visual art spaces,’ according to BALTIC curator Katie Hickman. Choreographer Siobhan Davies adds: ‘We thought, instead of dance organisations coming up with an idea and trying to take it round to various galleries, why don’t we work together from the very beginning?’
To kick off proceedings, the Continuous Network commissioned two choreographers – selected through an open call – to create work to be shown at The BALTIC. The first was Lucy Suggate, who premiered her work Spirit Compass at BALTIC in October 2019, followed by presentations in Glasgow and Margate; and the second will be Zinzi Minott, who will present her finished piece in April 2020. ‘By then, we will have chosen two more artists for the next swathe. We will also be introducing a larger circle of galleries to choreographers who have already made works that we feel will suit gallery spaces very well,’ says Davies. ‘We’re trying to get a capillary action of dance and choreography reaching into galleries,’ she continues. ‘By the end of these four years, the galleries will feel far more comfortable, and more articulate about what they are doing, as will dance artists. From then on they will be able to broker relationships on their own.’
Davies herself is no stranger to exploring the gallery as a platform for performance. Having initially studied art and history in the late 1960s before ‘dance took over’, the British choreographer believes that ‘even while I was making [my] early dances for the theatre, the way I was using space, energy, and mark-making stemmed from my understanding of the same in visual art.’ Davies became a seminal figure in British contemporary dance, making theatre-based choreography for more than 30 years. But more recently, she has moved away from the theatre stage, and has presented her work in galleries including the Whitworth in Manchester, Turner Contemporary in Margate, and London’s Whitechapel Gallery. Her organisation has also published the book Who Cares? by Sara Wookey, a collection of conversations with artists, curators and directors, who share their experiences of presenting or performing dance in museums and galleries.
For Davies, moving into gallery spaces is ‘more of a natural move rather than a complete unrooting’, but she does acknowledge that challenges occur when the dance and visual art worlds collide. ‘Both gallery spaces and dance initiatives work in methods that the other doesn’t know about,’ Davies admits. ‘For example, galleries have no idea how long it takes to make a performance work. Years ago they would say, ‘we’ve got £200 and we would like a work that lasts three hours in a gallery space, and there’s a week to make it.’ They weren’t being disrespectful, they just didn’t know what it takes,’ she continues, explaining that this is one of the key aims of the Continuous Network: to promote understanding between disciplines to allow all partners to do their best work.
But how does altering the performance space influence the way dance is made and experienced? In galleries, audience members are allowed to get closer to the performers, establishing a different relationship between observer and observed. ‘When I work in the studio I am privileged to see the work of dancers up close, and I know the level of detail that is inhabiting their bodies. That gets lost over distance and in theatre,’ says Davies, noting that this is a personal opinion, and not that of all choreographers. ‘You also have to make a choice about whether you want the audience to stay with you, or if you want them to be fluid and be able to come and go as they please,’ she adds. ‘That has a large influence on how the work is structured. You don’t want them to feel as if they’re missing out on something if they arrive half way through.’
Furthermore, unlike a black box theatre, gallery spaces may already be filled with other pieces of art. This is not to say that the dance should reflect or react to the visual art – Davies is careful not to say ‘relate’, as the word can suggest hierarchy between forms – but it does allow audiences to make their own connections between pieces on display. ‘I think there’s a lovely way in which different disciplines can exist in the same space,’ says Davies. ‘When an art exhibition is curated, various works are put together. Those works didn’t necessarily have each other in mind when they were made. And yet, collectively or in juxtaposition, they start to make a different form of sense,’ she explains. ‘[Similarly], I think I’ve approached dance-making in relationship to other work as being in juxtaposition, in courtesy, and in excitement with, but not necessarily trying to take on board everything that it is doing.’
Liberated from traditional theatre settings, galleries may enable artists to push the boundaries of dance as an art form
Liberated from traditional theatre settings, galleries may enable artists to push the boundaries of dance as an art form. ‘Audiences to contemporary galleries often encounter work of various media and may have a less defined concept and understanding of different disciplines. Therefore, accepted notions of dance can be expanded,’ says BALTIC curator Hickman. Audiences, too, can expand. ‘My desire is that audiences who might not go usually go to see dance will come across the artform in a gallery situations and therefore enter into it in a way they might not have done if they encountered it elsewhere,’ says Davies.
This commitment to audience development can also be seen through the Continuous Network’s circle of partner galleries, which currently include Bluecoat (Liverpool), Nottingham Contemporary, The Tetley (Leeds), Tramway (Glasgow) and Turner Contemporary (Margate), as well as dance organisations Dance4 (Nottingham) and Yorkshire Dance (Leeds). ‘Having a regional context for the work is extremely significant in creating wider an understanding of dance across the UK,’ says Hickman. Davies is equally committed to disseminating dance across the country. ‘We don’t want to feel like this [London] is the only base we have, because we want to radiate out of here as much as anything else,’ she explains. ‘You can’t do everything here. There are a lot of artists who aren’t based in London. We like to make relationships with them and find out if we can achieve more together rather than always be independently minded.’ It’s a heart-warming, collaborative sentiment,and suggests that contemporary politics could learn a lot from artistic thinking. ●
Lucy Suggate’s Spirit Compass is on next at Nottingham Contemporary, UK, 01–02/02/20, 1430–1645
This text is part of a series of articles about dancing in galleries, considering its implications for choreography, performance and spectatorship.
Already published: Beatrix Joyce on Montag Modus in Berlin
Coming soon: Gaia Clotilde Chernetich on Dimitris Papaioannou at Collezione Maramotti, Italy