Thursday, May 21, 2015

Dance Work/Work Dance at the Audain Gallery, SFU

By now there is a long tradition of dance in gallery and museum spaces. The Judson Church artist-choreographers pioneered this concept back in the 1960s. And, more recently, Ralph Lemon curated the series Some sweet day in 2012, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first Judson concert with a series at MoMA that paired works by founding Judson artists like Steve Paxton and Deborah Hay alongside pieces by a younger generation of choreographers, including Jerome Bel and Faustin Linyekula. (Hay's "Blues" created something of a minor scandal with its unexamined racial and gender politics, but that's another story.) Often, however, in jettisoning the concert stage, these artists merely re-erected the proscenium inside the gallery: whether seated on the floor in a storefront space in Soho in 1962 or on tiered chairs in the atrium of MoMA in 2012, the audience continues to be disciplined by the time-specificty of the traditional dance program (first this piece and then this piece, each followed by applause), and so is not encouraged to think very deeply about the relationship between the dance and the institutional politics of the exhibition space.

It is just this kind of thinking that dance artist Emmalena Fredriksson is trying to activate in Dance Work/Work Dance, which she has created in partial fulfillment of her MFA requirements in the School for the Contemporary Arts at SFU, and which is on at the Audain Gallery at SFU Woodward's through this Saturday. Fredriksson has composed four durational pieces, each based on an improvisational looping score, which her roster of ten dancers (herself included) performs on a rotating basis over the course of the gallery's opening hours. The works are set in distinct yet proximate sections of the gallery's white cube, and apart from two drawings on the floor in the central exhibition space, a few found objects in one of the adjacent rooms, and a conceptualist map-cum-table of the dancers' scheduled rotations through each piece on the wall facing Hastings Street, no art objects per se are displayed. Visitors to the gallery must actively wander through the exhibition space in order to encounter each work, always aware that however absorbed we become in watching one piece, another is happening nearby--and aware as well that the longer we stay and watch each, the more texture they will gain (by virtue of the different dancers bringing their own distinct physicality and movement vocabulary, not to mention aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities, to each score's set of instructions).

Add to this the fact that we are also watching our fellow spectators watching and that, depending on when and in what manner we enter the exhibition space, we might be wont to mistake a cluster of carefully posed and intent audience bodies as part of the work, and one begins to see just how complex Fredriksson's piece is. (It is not for nothing that one of the books included in the display case at the gallery's entrance is Jacques Ranciere's The Emancipated Spectator.) Shifting our disciplinary frames of reference by placing dance in a gallery setting, Fredriksson is asking us to rethink the ways we have been trained to receive dance as art (the "dance work" part of her title). But, in so doing, she is also confronting us very materially with the labour that goes into making dance dance--as both a noun and a verb. To "work dance" is to call on a repertory set of skills that are intuitive and deeply felt; that have a starting point in time and space but not necessarily any fixed end; that repeat but also respond to variation; that are unique and individual but also fit into a larger pattern. All of this is evident in the written scores Fredriksson has composed for and with her dancers (and which we are provided in the exhibition catalogue), and the cumulative effect of watching the execution of movement last night--both the moments of stillness and the moments of more accelerated energy--was what so often gets obfuscated in traditional concert dance, especially ballet: the time and effort that goes into making dance look timeless and effortless.

That goes for the audience as well. To do justice to the work of Fredriksson and her collaborators, we need to put a requisite amount of time and effort into working through all of the different kinds of dance that are going on, including our own. As Fredriksson writes in the catalogue, "To dance like no one is watching and everything is seen, to watch like no one is dancing and everything is dance."


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