Museums, Dance & Historical Legacies

A recent event in London discussed the relationship between dance, museums and the broader contexts in which cultural values and projects are produced. 

Dance & Art Forum: Why Dance in Museums?, Siobhan Davies Dance, 9 November 2017.


Entering the elegant roof studio of Siobhan Davies Dance in South London, attendees were requested to remove their shoes. This was understandably to protect the sprung floor of the studio. The mass of shoes which awaited the entrance to the studio, an architectural beauty, was however a sight that recalled a scene that was too familiar to me to go unobserved. It reminded me of the sea of shoes that awaited the entrance to temples I had entered all over the world.

Every gesture, even the removal of shoes, has a weight of history behind it and every space and  artistic practice has the potential to be reimagined, intentionally or otherwise.

These were some of the themes that emerged from Dance & Art Forum: Why Dance in Museums?, an event convened by Siobhan Davies Dance bringing dancers, curators, performance scholars and other artists together to examine the trend of dance being performed in museum spaces. The forum ran over a single afternoon and stemmed from various museum-based dance projects including the three-year Dancing Museums collaboration funded by the European Union. The forum considered broadly what dance brings to museums, what museums bring to dance and an opportunity to examine a particular museum-based dance project through a case study. 

The museum as an institution

The first panel was represented by curators and dance artists Marie-Anne McQuay, Lucy Suggate, Catherine Wood and Sara Wookey, moderated by Lauren A Wright. The museum as an institution with specific norms, values and procedures was a useful perspective in which the presentation of dance in museums was discussed. It was acknowledged at the outset that the museum space, as an institution that is deemed to contain what is important and valued, was a problematic one. Lucy Suggate citing personal experience of dancing in the National Gallery stated that dancing in museums provided an opportunity to dismantle and disrupt western art historical narratives. This was an idea that was more expansively explored in the final panel of the day where the history of museums as a colonial euro-centric project was directly critiqued as I shall discuss shortly.

  Siobhan Davies Dance Roof Studio

Siobhan Davies Dance Roof Studio

Questions were raised too about the challenge of practising an ephemeral art form such as dance in a space that had vested so much time and energy towards preservation, conservation, archiving and collection. It was suggested that dance practices did leave traces on institutions in a pragmatic sense. Changes to the end-of-day closing procedures of a museum stemming from a dance performance was one example which was cited, but whether dance truly challenged museums was not that convincing to me. Catherine Wood, Senior Curator of International Art (Performance) at the Tate asked probing questions about the ring-fencing and distinction between art and dance in museum spaces and discussed the idea of dance as a performance practice that refuses to settle into easy categories. Picking up on the structural and economic benefits of dancing in museums, Wood also asked whether the production of dance in museums was more an issue of a lack of appropriate infrastructure specifically for dance rather than a genuine interest in interacting with artworks or objects. The answer to that question, I suggest, is based on the individual approach of each project. Some of the projects presented during the forum seemed entirely dependant on being presented in the museum space, whereas some did not. 

Despite these issues, the opportunity to present dance in museums was considered a valuable endeavour. The museum space presented an opportunity to engage in a pseudo-civic activity where museums provided a ready audience. The idea of creating intimacy and dialogue with the audience was an idea that was repeated throughout the panel, particularly at this moment of acute socio-political instability where there is a sense that we are as a society drifting apart.

material / rearranged / to / be

The next panel was from three options to look in closer detail at a specific dance production performed in a museum. I chose to attend material / rearranged / to / be with Siobhan Davies, Jeremy Millar and Efrosini Protopapa. The group discussion explored the genesis of the project, the art collection of Aby Warburg, and how the dancers, visual artists and producers had navigated audience interaction, space and material in the performance.  

Although I had not seen the work, I chose this panel as the work was developed in conjunction with a neuroscientist and dealt with sculptural objects and the idea of hand gestures in visual art, ideas I engage with and find ready parallels in Indian art. I recalled Tapati Guha-Thakurta's article in the Art History Journal ‘Our Gods, Their Museums: The Contrary Careers of India's Art Objects' (2007) and the complex relationship between an object and a museum site. 

  Example of dance in museums: Odissi dance at Cecil Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, August 2017

Example of dance in museums: Odissi dance at Cecil Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, August 2017

Contemporary dance and who can embody the contemporary

The final panel of the day featured Leila Hasham, Jamila Johnson-Small, Sarah Spies, Tamara Tomic- Vajagic and Martin Hargreaves. The forum so far had discussed the production of dance categorised as contemporary in museums. Here the problematic nature of producing contemporary dance in museums and the history of museums as a colonial project was directly raised. I found this panel to be particularly engaged with the broader issues of creating dance for museums and thinking about which dance artists and dance forms were invited into such spaces as 'art' as opposed to education or outreach. 

Jamila Johnson-Small questioned whether an equal exchange was possible between an artist and an institution and what type of work and dance is recognised as contemporary. I agree that museums are privileged spaces and the process by which certain works are sought and reproduced in museums as contemporary dance cements certain types of stereotypes in dance. Tamara Tomic-Vajagic also expanded on how both the histories of dance and museums are contested and relate closely to colonialism and nationalism. The practical outcome of this I have found is that artists working outside the western canon in the UK are required to perform the additional labour of navigating culture, history and identity in a way not required of those who work within that canon. For example, presenting work to audiences unfamiliar with art that is not euro-centric often requires detailed explanation to avoid regressive or oriental tropes in interpretation. This adds an additional layer of complexity in thinking about what are appropriate venues in which to perform certain dance forms. Johnson-Small, a London-based dancer of Caribbean descent whose recent work is titled ‘i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere’, questioned which bodies can embody contemporary dance either in museums or elsewhere. She noted that her body was historicised in a way that prevented it from ever being read as contemporary. I particularly valued this insight as it is something I have been thinking about. I had recently presented a paper with a dance colleague Tiyasha Dutta Paul at a conference at the Horniman Museum called South Asia and its Diaspora: Musical Performances in the Cultures of Decolonisation on new vocabularies of dance and music in the Indian performance tradition of odissi. A question that was asked to us and other speakers was whether as south asian dancers we bore 'the burden of history' to constantly explain our work and struggled to find recognition as 'contemporary' dancers.

These are just some of the ideas that were presented and arose in the forum, of a vast number both creative and practical which were touched on. It was a thought-provoking event and great opportunity to speak with others working through these ideas and will be reflected on for a long time to come.