How does one capture the spirit of American dance in a static medium like painting?
The answer is carefully, spread out over 200 years of work.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American on Saturday (Oct. 22) became the third and final destination for the exhibit “The Art of American Dance,” originally organized and displayed at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The exhibit, which features more than 90 works, also was displayed at the Denver Art Museum before arriving in Bentonville.
The exhibit serves as a kind of “greatest hits” collection of works that focus on dance, said Jane Dini, former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the curator of the exhibition.
George Caleb Bingham, The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846, Oil on canvas, 46 x 56 5/8 x 4 1/8 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington. Patrons’ Permanent Fund
Dini, then working for the DIA, said she first started organizing the show in 2011 as Detroit was facing extreme financial uncertainty. She believes she was able to secure the rights to borrow and show masterworks by artists such as John Singer Sargent, Robert Henri, William Merritt Chase, Diego Rivera and more because of the project’s origins in Detroit.
“It was so moving to me, when Detroit really needed a boost,” she said.
Through a combination of curatorial collection and determined research, “The Art of American Dance” showcases the form in two primary ways: works focused on social scenes with mostly unprofessional dancers and those that highlight the medium’s greatest practitioners. The collection of paintings, videos, sculptures and dresses was further broken down into groups such as works studying inequality, the colorful dances of Native Americans and those that describe America’s identity. One example the third of those categories is the work “Dancing Lessons” from 1926 by Raphael Soyer. Captured in the work are two people dancing near the center of the scene while we see a newspaper – written in Yiddish – and a portrait of family clearly from the old world. Through pop culture, a change occurs.
“The dance speaks to how we become American,” Dini said.
There’s also a focus on both women as subject matters and artists. Many female artists are included in the exhibit. And many prominent female dancers are highlighted among the collected works as well. Dini said the works show the advent of the female superstar. Illustrating this idea are two works of the same dancer painted during the same session by two much-respected and collected artists. A visit by the Spanish-American dancer Carmencita inspired both John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase to compose a work. Sargent’s work “La Carmencita” shows the dancer posing. Chase’s painting catches her mid-dance.
“They are two very different takes on a single dancer,” said Alejo Benedetti, assistant curator at Crystal Bridges.
Augmenting the collection of paintings are costumes, such as a Haitian-inspired patchwork dress worn by dance star Katherine Dunham and purposefully distressed nude suits designed by abstract artist Jasper Johns for the Merce Cunningham show “RainForest.”
Flanking these works at every turn are videos, sourced by Dini during her research into the art of dance. Included are videos of Detroit hip-hop dancers, a Native American dancer in full regalia and examples of modern ballet. The videos, projected onto the gallery walls, show the dance styles represented in the static artworks nearest to them.