In a line of exploration similar to Lisa Drostova’s article on site-specific theatre (Theatre Bay Area magazine, November/December 2012), dancer and choreographer Jetta Martin writes here on performing dance in another nontraditional space - a museum. Martin’s piece expands the question of what artists working in performance-based forms can learn from the constraints and variables of spaces not specially designated for performance, by bringing together two seemingly extreme opposites: dance, which is almost the definition of ephemerality in the arts; and the museum, which has historically served to celebrate the enduring nature of great works. Originally published in ArtPerformanceNow.
The Unexpected Viewer: Dance in a Museum
By Jetta Martin
While many dance makers have embraced the idea of staging their work in nontraditional venues, I have presented work almost exclusively in the traditional theatre setting. Yet, over the past few years, my choreography has been graciously supported and encouraged by my continued relationship with the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. This partnership has been a wonderful way to challenge myself as both a performer and choreographer.
I have become more adept at presenting pieces in spatially challenging areas. My dancers have had to avoid power outlets in the floors, wall displays with alarms, spaces with very unconventional dimensions, even museum patrons unintentionally walking through performance areas. This keeps us all on our toes and gives the work a fresh quality.
On the other hand, we were provided with marley [flooring] when needed, a beautiful sound system, and adequate seating for the audience. The challenges were merely a part of the fact that the original intention of the space was to display static works, rather than moving ones. Yet, this presentation shapes the work in exciting ways. It also challenges me to view my choreography with a new eye for staging.
Usually, I choreograph pieces for a theatre stage and I decide the form, length, and content. At the museum, each piece was commissioned for a specific purpose with a program or exhibit in mind. I conceived, shaped, and adjusted the pieces in consultation with the museum staff. I was initially intimidated by this framework, but have come to enjoy the freedom within the structure. My pieces have become more robust as a result and have included lectures, video presentations, and extended question and answer sessions that have worked well for the museum setting.
My first piece, “Langston Suite,” was a dance for three women. It was a half-hour piece, and I crafted it around the African Diaspora, the main premise of the museum. My next piece, “Sweet Nina,” was an educational performance for children with vocalist Kwama Thompson. We danced and sang with the enthusiastic children in an interactive context, teaching them about Black history, through a call and response format. This performance coincided with the Free Family Days held in museums throughout the city.
Most recently I choreographed “My Life as a Bird,” a piece about jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. I sought not only to celebrate the life of my favorite jazz musician, but also to link this performance with the art on display. The performance coincided with the “Jazz and the Fabric of Life” quilt exhibit at the museum. We staged the work within the quilts, which amplified the piece’s energy and vibrancy.
The single most valuable outcome of these experiences has been increased and varied exposure for my work. I believe that performances in non-traditional spaces are vital to building new audiences and increasing interest in dance. I have loved working in a non-traditional space and creating dances that are historical, contextual, and tell a story. This coming February, I will present a piece on the 60s Black Power Movement to augment the 60s exhibit coming to the museum during Black History Month.
After the shows, my dancers and I distributed surveys and had a question-and-answer panel with the audience. We found out that many of the attendees had not known about the shows in advance. Most were walking past or passing through the museum and were drawn into the piece. These spur-of-the-moment viewers are of great interest to me as an artist. Many of them were from other states, even other countries.
This audience could not have attended the same performance in a conventional setting because traditional theatre does not encourage this type of spontaneous viewing. In this way, new audiences can discover dance in a setting that fosters a serendipitous opportunity to enjoy both visual and performance art. I think the kind of exposure that dance can have in spaces where people are allowed to enter and exit, to experience and share, to view with a different lens, are all situations that can help our art form grow and evolve.
Dancer and choreographer Jetta Martin graduated cum laude from Harvard University and has performed professionally with Ronn Guidi’s Oakland Ballet, the Mark Foehringer Dance Project, Push Dance Company, Liberation Dance Theater, David Herrera Performance Company, and the Natasha Carlitz Dance Ensemble, among others. Currently she is on faculty at Brisbane Dance Workshop, East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, and The Ballet Studio. She is the administrator for Western Sky Studio in Berkeley and a writer and editor for “Conscious Dancer” magazine. See her complete bio and learn more about her work at jettamartin.com.
The views represented in this Chatterbox Art & Opinion post are those of the individual author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Theatre Bay Area or its staff.