Experiencing the work of composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and visual artists Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg all in one space could very well be described as Dancing around the Bride, a fitting exhibition title. Shaped around Duchamp’sBride, the exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art depicts artists in conversation, as they play, push, pull, inspire, and honor one another.
Zigzagging through the exhibition is best, I think. Just as there is a logic to the placement of each piece, experiencing the rooms out of order takes you deeper.
“Ma’am, you are too close to the artwork,” a guard leaned in and whispered politely to me on one visit.
It’s like slowly being let in on the inside joke, and at that moment, I got it.
You’ll find a sense of movement in the space at anytime.
Without the dancers, you dance.
With the dancers, you might feel even the paintings on the walls breathing. The dancers seem to invoke an aliveness in the other works of art and sound, and the performances themselves are thrilling.
Each time, it seemed I could not take my eyes off of Andrea Weber until the door closed behind her and I had no choice. She performed solos as well as duets with Rashaun Mitchell during one of my visits.
I could try and describe their movement here, but Alastair Macaulay has captured it all so well, why bother —
Many moments in these solos are like the sudden exclamations and figures of speech that make some Shakespearean soliloquies so present-tense. As a dancer re-examines a step or a position — although there’s nothing that could be labeled acting — we might be watching the movement equivalents of Angelo’s “What’s this? What’s this?” in “Measure for Measure” or Hamlet’s “Ay, there’s the rub.”
Macaulay attended one of the same performances as I did. Tucked in a mostly glowing review, he notes the scheduling of the dances, with gaps lasting several minutes inbetween, does not match the energy of performers nor the audience, and that some of the activity in the exhibition space during his visits was distracting. I wonder, would we feel the dances in the same way if we were seated in rows of a black box theater watching them one after the next?
The dancers push museumgoers, even in ways we might find agitating. Yes, we sometimes-annoying people, with our chatter and cell phones and movement — are part of the exchange. We crowd around the platform during the action, as if gathering for an impromptu street performance, and just as quickly withdraw our gazes when the dancers leave the floor, turning back to our friends and the still pieces throughout the gallery. We occupy the space with our thoughts. Does the light switch on Jasper Johns’ Field Painting actually power the glowing neon letter “R”? I wish the bicycle wheels between the chairs were slowly spinning. We circle the dancers, moving around them. We collaborate as we linger on the stairs talking quietly in the minutes between dances. Was that your conversation I overheard, or part of the recorded soundscape bouncing around the speakers hanging from the ceiling? I can’t be certain.
“I believe that art is not only a selfish act, but also an attempt to create something bigger than you,” says Philippe Parreno, the metteur en scène, or orchestrator of Dancing around the Bride. One could say he is the exhibit’s sixth artist. Is the audience the seventh? Why not.
We are part of the show and together, with the works by Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp, we fill the room.