Histories of Dance

<em class="italic">Histories of Dance</em> is a major group show that was scheduled to open on June 25th 2020 at MASP. Due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, the exhibition—which would have gathered more than 250 works by 160 artists and performers from different periods, geographies and typologies—was cancelled due to budget cuts, international travel bans and related logistics complications. This website presents a very partial record of what the exhibition would have been, with a selection of works divided into sections and short versions of the corresponding essays. The full-length texts as well as a complete list of works can be found in the comprehensive catalogue edited by Adriano Pedrosa, Julia Bryan-Wilson, and Olivia Ardui. </br></br> *** </br></br> Rather than an encyclopedic or chronological history, <em class="italic">Histories of Dance</em> poses key questions about the interlocking relationships between visual culture, art, politics, and dance. Previous exhibitions have surveyed historical moments in which dancers and artists closely collaborated, such as the Ballets Russes or the Judson Dance Theater. This show takes a more metaphoric approach, asking how dance and its intrinsic characteristics of dynamic movement have been translated across a range of diverse practices. Histories of Dance is structured around the vocabulary of dance itself, such as improvisation, tension, composition, and gravity, using dance as an expanded framework for motion of all kinds. </br></br> Approaching dance in its broadest understanding as socially constructed and codified movement, <em class="italic">Histories of Dance</em> includes gestures not necessarily associated with dance: transgressive expressions by marginalized subjects, multi-sensory pleasurable encounters, coordinated and disciplined locomotion, insurgent gestures, and the subversive occupation of public space. Looking within and beyond the strictly “fine” arts, it includes vernacular, street, and protest actions that circulate as viral YouTube videos. The exhibition also highlights the importance of Latin American kinetic and Brazilian neo-concrete art within these debates, investigating the political stakes of collective movement. </br></br> In fact, from pre-Columbian ceramics, to abstract early 20th century canvases inspired by rhythms, to contemporary activist choreography, <em class="italic">Histories of Dance</em> illuminates the potential of dance to express physical joy and desire—and also collective anger—in the face of oppression and crisis. While traditional representations of dance histories frequently focus on ethnographic depictions of spectacularized, exoticized <em class="italic">Others</em>, this show emphasizes self-invention and the assertive claiming of territories of Black and Indigenous people moving together in space. In addition, <em class="italic">Histories of Dance</em> foregrounds the contribution of women, with special attention to feminist and queer work; Chilean women mourning the disappeared under Pinochet with la cueca sola; and research around pioneering female dancers, such as Brazilian Analivia Cordeiro and African American Josephine Baker. By looking at how bodies move together within specific political, historical, and economic contexts, the exhibition reflects how dance functions as a form of exuberant resistance. </br></br> Central to the show is an open space, or arena, commissioned by Carla Chaim, that would have hosted a rotating series of live performances, presentations, rehearsals, and workshops by local dancers, choreographers, artists, and performers. Placing active bodies at the heart of the exhibition allows us to critically question the possibilities, dialogues, and disruptions that may arise from the presentation of movement and bodies in motion in the museum. </br></br> CURATED BY Adriano Pedrosa, Artistic Director, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Adjunct Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Olivia Ardui, Assistant Curator. This group exhibition is contextualized within a full year dedicated to the Histories of Dance at MASP; the program in 2020 includes solo shows of Hélio Oiticica, Trisha Brown, and Edgar Degas, among others.



1. improvisation

Essentially relational in character, improvisation is a constantly evolving dialogue between many moving parts. In dance, improvisation is marked by a fluid, rather than scored or routine, responsiveness that shifts based on ever-changing situations. Indeed, improvisation, although it is associated most often with spontaneous, unchoreographed action, is by no means without its own internal logic and system of rules. In many regards, a dancer or musician must be even more skilled and have an even more refined set of techniques in order to improvise, for they must be closely tuned to the unexpected choices their dance partners or the music might come up with in the moment, and be able to adjust their steps or chime in appropriately. </br></br> Because improvising is by definition about creativity and defying orders, it provides a model for self-expression and bodily freedom, and can also be used to upset or rupture strict social norms. Therefore, it has long been understood as a minoritarian strategy—a feminist strategy, a Black strategy, an Indigenous strategy, a queer and trans strategy—for finding ways to resist limiting and codified rules. Indeed, “breaking the frame” is an accurate way to describe how improvisation can function as an act of transgression, a strategy to confront power and be wielded as a liberatory tactic of survival. The works in this section are often joyful, unruly, and nonconformist, using improvisation to shimmy outside of boundaries and borders.


2. duets

This section presents works that approach the politics of affect and desire underlying the dancing couple—that is, the rules, dynamics, and contracts implicit in the forms of coordinating the steps between two partners. The same action of synchronizing movements between duos can have different implications, from playful mirroring games that express the satisfaction and pleasures of intimacy and togetherness to the mutual restriction of dyadic movements. From a Western perspective, the duet was a privileged territory that affirmed and disseminated a gendered division of roles through a clear definition of steps to be performed by men and women. Partner dancing was long established and spread as a socially constructed practice, in the sense of defining a unilateral and hierarchal choreography of heterosexual gendering. </br></br> The feminist and queer works in this section confront these ideologies, and show how the space between two bodies could be metaphorically understood as a battlefield—from duet to duel— in which one partner challenges the other. And many of the pieces in this section take up Indigenous symbolic and dualistic perspectives that show how the duet, as an embrace or collision between two bodies, can also be understood as a dance between interdependent poles in dynamic and cyclical alternation.


3. gravity

Gravity is a physical force to which all bodies are inevitably subjected and, as such, is a consistent problematic for dancers and choreographers. This section addresses how different bodily practices address gravity by denying it, obliterating it, or by actively engaging with it. Explicit responses to the effect of gravity on the body and its weight were intensified in the 1950s and 1960s with postmodern dance and Japanese butoh, practices that grapple with gravity by putting it into play in different negotiations with unbalance, inversion, and falling. In other works gathered in this section, states of vertigo and suspension associate the momentary loss of physical faculties of locomotion or location in space with concrete situations of decline or imminent danger, so characteristic of the present moment. </br></br> In this section, African diasporic and Indigenous engagements with gravity are also highlighted: this is an engagement that considers the horizontal realm of the earth, connecting the idea of gravity with notions of heaviness, seriousness, and rootedness. From Capoeira to pieces by Tanya Lukin Linklater and Denilson Baniwa, performers and artists embrace the fleshiness and the materiality of both land and bodies, standing in stark distinction to the vaunted weightlessness of European ballet.


4. tension and resistance

Within the vocabulary of dance, “tension” is the state of being stretched tight; it signifies bodily tautness or constriction, and describes what happens when you hold your muscles with some pressure or strain, rather than letting them slacken or hang loosely. Used in a more metaphoric sense, tension can also signify conflict and friction. Similarly, resistance relates both to the energies of opposing forces (say, when two dancers push off of each other’s bodies, using momentum to propel them in different directions) as well as struggle during times of adversity. The works in this section illustrate how agitated bodies can be a tool of dissent during tense times— moments of crisis or emergency such as war, climate change, pandemics and economic disaster—with an emphasis on distressed dance as a form of protest. </br></br> In some parts of the Global North that were culturally and religiously shaped by Christianity, dance was historically viewed with some suspicion, for it was affiliated with disease, chaotic populations, compulsion, intoxication, or delirious trances. Beyond these histories that link dance with death and wickedness, other lineages posit dance as a vital life force capable of catalyzing great transformation. As many of these works demonstrate, jagged, angry, or furious dance can be a model for how racialized, gendered, and queer bodies can come together to discover and unleash their latent potencies, and tension can be an urgent, focused way to push back during desperate circumstances.


5. Training and composition

If dance can be a spontaneous and libertarian way to express collective joy and pleasurable sociability, it can also be a site of strict discipline, regimentation and control. By referencing some of the systems of organization, composition, notation, and pedagogies of dance, the works brought together in this section demonstrate how the standardization of subjectivities can imply the measurement and ordering of bodies in space and time. </br></br> On the other hand, repetition and transmission of dance opens up to new possibilities, new meanings and afterlives as a piece is performed by different bodies in different contexts. By approaching processes of learning and disseminations of dance, these works also point to the gaps and breaches in these different compositions and frameworks that emerge as a pledge that bodies can never be fully apprehended, trained into submission, or captured by rigid straight lines.


6. Rhythms and synchronicities

The feeling, when it happens, verges on the indescribable: you are on the dance floor, shoulder-to-shoulder with other bodies, the beat of the music pounding through all of you, and the crowd begins to move as one. Praised as a euphoric phenomenon that, in some spiritual traditions, even approaches the divine, rhythmic synchronicity among throngs of dancers, whether it be at a rave or during a ritual, is notable for merging an assembly of individuals into a single coordinated mass. What other kinds of havoc might be wreaked when we dance together, syncopating our actions to form a powerful unit? What force, or transcendence, or chaos, might ensue? </br></br> The works in this section examine what happens when bodies sync together to dance. Here the jostling assemblies of dance are both literally depicted as well as allusively rendered as groupings of shapes and visual pulsations; some of the works show common motion synced to music using painterly and representational means, while others are abstract or oblique and utilize optical pulses, rhyming their motions in harmony to create new ensembles. Feminist and queer artists have often looked to the synchronicities of dance as an almost utopian space of community building that has the potential to temporarily suspend some hierarchies of difference, to bring together disparate identities and create a kind of harmonious haven.



This section focuses on the presence of dance in art institutions, including MASP itself. It contains two complementary components: a selection of dance videos filmed in fine art exhibition spaces and a comprehensive program of live performances and presentations to be held in the Arena para cercar o território [Arena to Surround Territory] (2020), a specially commissioned work by São Paulo– based artist Carla Chaim. Many of the performances selected for this section establish a close dialogue with the visual arts, as well as with displays, presentation and exhibition modes and museum protocols. A further axis of interest for this section are dance performances that cite, revisit, reenact or reconsider dance genealogies and histories from a more plural and polyphonic perspective. </br></br> Placing a large arena for dance in the middle of the museum, instead of confining live movement to a peripheral or parallel performance program that occurs in many institutional sites, is a way to critically question the possibilities, dialogues, and disruptions that may arise from the presentation of movement and dancing bodies in a museum and, more specifically at MASP, in a site that was originally conceived by architect Lina Bo Bardi as a civic hall.