By inviting painters, sculptors and multi-media students from the San Francisco Art Institute to consider how dance could inform their practice, ODC Theater’s engagement program Dance Odyssey actively situated dance within the context of the visual arts last fall.
Boulders and Bones, a collaboration between choreographers Brenda Way and KT Nelson which premieres at YBCA in March, is inspired by the work of sculptor and photographer Andy Goldsworthy. Through a reversal of roles, this new work allows us to consider how the visual arts can inform dance making.
Dance has a lengthy history of partnering with the visual arts. This dialogue has manifested in many forms and continues to evolve in the contemporary context. In some instances, choreographers commission a set to become an integral part of the choreography. Such was the case with Martha Graham’s collaboration with sculptor Isamu Noguchi. In Graham’s Errand into the Maze, Noguchi’s pelvis-like sculpture becomes a stoic partner to the dancer and contributes to the structure of the choreography.
Other choreographers engaged in a dialogue with visual artists emphasize the autonomy of each art form. Merce Cunningham stressed that the dance and the set each have a life of their own: in his long-standing collaboration with painter Robert Rauschenberg, the two forms often became solely integrated only in the moment of performance.
In other instances, a visual artwork can serve as inspiration to a dance. In her memoir Blood Memory, Graham talks about a painting by Wassily Kandinsky that particularly marked her: “I saw across the room a beautiful painting…[that] had a streak of red going from one end to the other. I said, “I will do that someday. I will make a dance like that…And I did.” In Graham’s Diversion of Angels, “a woman in red…flashes across the stage as erotic love…and the girl in red is the Kandinsky flame.” When she choreographed the fiery solo of the Woman in Red, Graham looked to reproduce the movement that Kandinsky conveyed through kinetic line and color.
For Way and Nelson, it’s Goldsworthy’s working process more than his actual pieces that informed the choreographers’ making of Boulders and Bones. What particular elements in his artistic practice fed the creation of Boulders and Bones? How does visual art, a practice mostly associated with permanence, compare and contrast to the ephemerality of dance?
Goldsworthy builds sculptures using only natural elements, such as rocks, wood, icicles, leaves, mud, pinecones, snow, to name a few. Constructed solely with the use of tension and pressure, the bulk of his work is intentionally impermanent and unfixed, thus allowing for a short life span that is left to evolve and decay. As Way comments, “he uses nature, points at nature, returns to nature, so there is this visceral life cycle.”
Through their relationship to time, Goldsworthy’s pieces challenge the tangible permanence of traditional sculpture and painting, and points to the live event, as defined by scholar Peggy Phelan in The Ontology of Performance: Representation Without Reproduction:
Performance’s only life is in the present. Performances cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance (…) Performance’s being (…) becomes itself through disappearance. (…) Without a copy, live performance plunges into visibility –in a manically charged present- and disappears into memory, into the realm of invisibility and the unconscious where it eludes regulation and control.
If their existence in the present moment likens Goldsworthy’s works to performative acts, they are nevertheless usually conducted without an audience, and “left to be discovered” as Goldsworthy explains about a piece he made for the Collins Gallery in Glasgow. The finished work only becomes public by chance, if an onlooker happens to stumble upon the work, or through the photographs that Goldsworthy takes of his sculptures.
Goldsworthy’s approach to his practice echoes the medium of dance, an art “that exhausts itself, disappearing at its moment of fulfillment” as dance critic and scholar Ann Daly states. The flux of Goldsworthy’s work also calls to the overt materiality of a society deeply entrenched in its value of the product. This ultimately questions the dance world and its ambiguous relationship to developing works that may or may not have ‘product-consumer’ appeal. How is dance co-opted by a culture of consumption? What does a dance piece look like when its primary concern is commercial viability?
The use of space within Goldsworthy’s work also reveals some structural similarities with choreography. His eucalyptus branches which run through the Presidio of San Francisco recall the aesthetic concerns of contemporary sculptor Richard Serra, who, in a recent interview, stated: “I use steel to organize space.” Similarly, Goldsworthy’s wood, stones and other natural elements are used to modify and carve space, evoking what choreographers are able to do with bodies. In Goldsworthy’s description of his work, one can substitute the word ‘body’ for ‘rock’ and visualize the relationship a choreographer may have with dancers while crafting a piece:
A rock is not independent of its surroundings. The way it sits tells how it came to be there. The energy and space around a rock are as important as the energy and space within. The weather – rain, sun, snow, hail, mist, calm – is that external space made visible. When I touch a rock, I am touching and working the space around it.
Comparatively, Boulders and Bones highlights how choreographers organize and define space with bodies. In the excerpts shown two weeks ago during Unplugged at ODC Commons, a single dancer walked perpendicularly into her fellow performers, evenly arranged in a straight line across the stage, slowly compressing the row of bodies in front of her with the weight of her arched torso. Through this movement, she made the malleability of space become visible and visceral, disclosing the very nature of the choreographic act.
The working of material
Both pressure and tension are evident in the dancer’s gesture when pressing the row of bodies, subtly allowing effort to conceal itself, although at the same time appearing through in the overall work. When interviewed about the making of Drawn Stone, a site-specific piece commissioned by the de Young museum in San Francisco, where a fine fault line runs through a landscape of stones, Goldsworthy explained the sense of effort that is part of his making process. He stated how he needed to break the stones in a very specific way so that the split in the stone would hold an intended “energy” to it. In the end, the crack in the stone appears as a “simple crack in the pavement but the effort, the huge amount of effort, to make that line appears effortless.”
It takes years of training for dancers to make movement appear effortless. Yet, Way and Nelson wanted to render effort visually in Boulders and Bones. “We were working with the ideas of effort and pressure, similar to what you are making when you are in the construction world,” Nelson explained. These are also the exact concerns with material that Goldsworthy is engaged with when executing one of his stone works, such as Stone Sea, which stands solely with the use of pressure fit.
The dance showcases the choreographers’ material –here the body and the dance phrases- as having a life of its own. A dancer moves through the stage in a solo, suddenly a second dancer abruptly runs to her and carries her to another part of the stage. Completely undisturbed, the first performer continues through her movement phrase even while being relocated. As Nelson states, “the material fights back.”
Goldsworthy’s relationship to his material, whether it is a rock, mud or soil, is always a visceral one: “I want an intimate physical involvement with the earth. I must touch. I take nothing out with me in the way of tools, glue or rope, preferring to explore the natural bonds and tensions that exist within the earth.”
His exploration echoes some of Way and Nelson’s own interests in investigating the intricate webbing of human relationships, considered in many of their recent works, including Nelson’s Cut-Out Guy, and Triangulating Euclid, the collaborative work of the two choreographers with New York based choreographer Kate Weare. As nature is both the context and subject of Goldsworthy’s work, it also mirrors the choreographers’ research and concerns about the interaction of man with the environment, which they explored in Nelson’s Listening Last and Way’s Unintended Consequences: A Meditation. “We often think of people like hunters, or fishermen, as bad for nature, but people like that, as much as they can, dive into the flow of the forest, or the river,” Nelson explains. “They try to be inside and part of the natural landscape. When Andy goes in nature, he has the same kind of sensibility. It is about trying to become part of the landscape, not imposing something on it. Andy is asking questions: What is human interaction with nature? What is tolerable?”
Describing her collaboration with Way in the making of Boulders and Bones, Nelson added: “We wanted to change our experience of making the work. We wanted to challenge ourselves.” This collaborative desire to alter their choreographic process parallels the potential relationship between dance and the visual arts, and thereby offers the possibility of creating works that transcend both medium and context. RJ Muna’s film about Goldsworthy’s work and process will be shown at the beginning of the evening-length piece. It will allow the viewers to further measure the many layers of collaborations involved in Boulders and Bones, and the specificities of the dialogue between the dance and visual art practices, one reiterated on the screen, and the other performed on stage.