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Online at the Museum of Modern Art

by Elizabeth McPherson

Spring 2011 -- New York, NY

The exhibit On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was organized by Connie Butler and Catherine de Zegher, and ran November 10-February 7, 2011. It looked at how artists, and not just visual artists, have used and explored “line.” In conjunction with the exhibit, there were live performances by the dance companies of Trisha Brown , Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, and Ralph Lemon, but I have focused this review on the regularly exhibited portions and not the special performances.

I was thrilled from the first moment I entered the exhibit because my attention immediately was pulled to the film of a woman who may or may not be Loie Fuller performing Danse Serpentine (1897-1899). Swirling expanses of fabric are expertly manipulated to provide an infinite number of curves and twists. There is controversy over whether the dancer is truly Fuller, or whether it is her sister or some other dancer who imitated Fuller’s dances. However, no matter who is dancing in the video, the dance is very much about sweeping fluid lines and a wonderful introduction to the exhibit.

In a dancer’s world, much of what we do is about line – the 1st arabesque stretching from the fingers of one hand to the foot of the other, with the torso curving up through the middle; a tilt in Graham technique where the line of the arms should make a parallel line with the line of the gesturing leg. The Graham contraction as well, although it is about oppositional pulls in the body, creates a curved line that is like the arc of an archer’s bow. Going across the floor in formations on the diagonal in ballet class, a teacher often describes shapes such as – make diamond or triangle to indicate that dancers should be standing at the points of the shapes to travel with partners in a pleasing formation that also allows them freedom to move without bumping into or impeding each other. Although the primary focus of the exhibit, I would say, is on visual art, it also focuses on line in dance.

On a wall near the Fuller video is a drawing, Tänzerin (1917-1918) by Vaslav Nijinsky, that looks as if he used Loie Fuller as a subject for inspiration. His swirling lines create motion within the 2-dimensional drawing -- a dancer depicting dance on paper, describing the lines one feels when one swirls.

There is a lovely sculpture by Alexander Calder called Croisiere (1931) that immediately indicates to me the lines of the croisé devant position in ballet. Although it may not be what he intended, I see the croisé head, legs, and arms indicated in a curved mass of lines and energy. It is a difficult position to master in terms of line for a young dancer, and Calder catches it with the connectedness and balance that are essential to the position. [Interestingly, Calder later created mobiles for Martha Graham’s dance Panorama (1935).]

Yvonne Rainer pops up around a corner on video, doing her minimalist dance Trio A in the 1970s. This dance says much less to me about line than it does about deconstructed movement – movement taken to the basics of what most human bodies can do. Trisha Brown and William Forsythe are also represented through video, yet somehow less strikingly than the more prominent displays of Loie Fuller and Yvonne Rainer.

There are many choreographers one could choose from to illustrate line in dance, but there were some possibilities that seemed to be glaringly omitted such as Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine who both show through their choreography extremes of what a highly trained dancer’s body can exhibit in terms of line. And what about the spatial lines in dances for any large corps de ballet? The mere fact of moving 30+bodies around a stage requires expert attention to line and shape in space. Ballet was largely ignored in general in this exhibit although the concept of line is essential in this genre. Attention to line is one of the reasons ballet classes are done in front of a mirror, so that one can “check” the line with one’s eyes.

I overheard a mother saying to her child several times while going through the exhibit “Look, there is a film or drawing of another ballerina” although there were no “ballerinas” represented. It was humorous to me to think how Yvonne Rainer or Trisha Brown might react to being called ballerinas -- Dismay? Horror? Amusement? Maybe all three? And what would Loie Fuller have thought? Is that how she would have defined herself before modern dance was even called modern dance? The mother’s statements pinpointed to me how little the general public knows about dance overall. And the exhibit, in many ways, also pointed out that sad fact. I greatly enjoyed seeing dance put side by side with visual art in a presentation about line, however the ideas presented about dance in terms of how line is used seem to come from a limited perspective on the use of line in dance which I found disappointing.

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