Dancers from the dance
by Roberto Friedman
A museum show devoted to still photography of dynamic dancers might seem at first to be an oxymoronic concept, like "jumbo shrimp" or "guest star." But the National Portrait Gallery's current exhibition Dancing the Dream succeeds in looking at dance and dancers, the very embodiments of grace in motion, through the static medium of portrait photography. Out There visited the show during a recent trip to Washington, DC, and it remains on view through July 13, 2014.
With images from the Portrait Gallery's estimable collection, the exhibition celebrates key figures in American dance from Josephine Baker, sporting only a tutu made of bananas, to Beyonce, who puts a ring on it. The show, which fills several galleries, is presented in six categories: "Broadway and the American Dream," "Lights! Camera! Action!" "Choreographing Modern America," "The Rise of American Ballet," "Choreography Goes Pop" and "Dance in the Media Age."
Iconic figures of dance? This show has got them all: Fred Astaire, Mikhail Baryshnikov, San Francisco-born Isadora Duncan, Savion Glover, Michael Jackson, Gene Kelly, Rudolph Valentino – the list goes on and on. Legendary choreographers are also honored: Alvin Ailey (photographed by Carl Van Vechten), George Balanchine (photographed by George Platt Lynes), Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Mark Morris, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, Bill T. Jones (photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe), and other immortal dancemakers. The portraits are complemented by large-scale video installations showing examples of timeless dance. One clip, which documents Fayard and Harold Nicholas (famed tap-dance duo the Nicholas Brothers) descending a staircase by leapfrogging over each other and landing in a split on each successive step – ouch! – had us gobsmacked. Also, for the first time ever at a Smithsonian museum, a dance company will be in residence at the Gallery for the duration of the exhibit. The Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company is rehearsing in the galleries for performances to be given in the spring.
Two terpsichorean quotations that are cited in exhibition wall texts are worth savoring. The first is from immortal dancer Rudolf Nureyev: "I fly. I am Nureyev, dancer. I am on sale. If you like, you buy." The second is attributed to Ted Shawn, a pioneer of American modern dance, promoter of masculine beauty, and founder of the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Shawn gave his dancers the classic advice, "When in doubt, twirl."
Also on view in Washington, DC, during our visit, Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950 at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum is an unusual exploration of the destructive impulse in art (through May 26, 2014). This nihilistic motif takes many forms in the exhibition, from Harold Eugene Edgerton's haunting footage of nuclear explosions to the reprise of Raphael Montanez Ortiz's 1966 "Piano Destruction Concert," in which the artist summarily destroyed a grand piano with an ax. The result, a piano carcass if you will, is on view in the show's first gallery, rather hard to see for lovers of this most beautiful of instruments, and a harbinger of what's to come.
There's lots of death, anarchy and mayhem represented in this show, but Out There's favorite pieces here are a bit on the quiet side: for example, Robert Rauschenberg's "Erased de Kooning Drawing" (1953), in which the artist bought a drawing by his esteemed colleague, then systematically erased it; and "The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire," a painting by Ed Ruscha in which the artist imagines the end of the institution, and by implication, the end of the art world.
So is DC the gayest town in the US? That's what The New York Times' Styles section wondered last month, in an article that declared, "A decade ago, Washington was an often intolerant and closeted city for gay men and lesbians. But that was then." The piece cites a Gallup survey that shows DC with the highest percentage of adults who identify as LGBT, at 10%, compared with all 50 states. Robert Rabin, an assistant attorney general during the Clinton years, says, "There's an openly gay presence that makes you think you're in the Castro or West Hollywood, and it wasn't always the case. The federal government was a nightmare for homosexuals for decades, and then it wasn't."
The article name-checks popular gay spots Nellie's Sports Bar and Number 9, as well as perennial haunts like JR's. Since Washington was where Out There first tasted the gay life – when we were still underage, had a flat stomach and a full head of hair – we have to agree that DC was always tres gay, it just didn't come crashing out of the closet until way later in life. But if there's any doubt that "we are everywhere," especially in the District, here's a bit of gay spice from the DCist website, offered under the header, "What passes for cool these days."
"At Nellie's a few days ago:
"Guy 1: 'Not to brag, but I totally hooked up with a guy in one of the rowhouses you see on the intro credits in House of Cards.'
"Guy 2: 'That one on North Capitol Street?'
"Guy 3: 'DC gays are always sleeping themselves into bragging rights.'"
Future ballet stars
And since we started the column with dancers, let's end it that way as well. San Francisco Ballet School has announced the recipients of the Bob Ross Scholarship, the Keith White Memorial Scholarship, and the Eric Hellman Memorial Scholarship, named for, respectively, the co-founder of the B.A.R., a B.A.R. dance writer, and a B.A.R. arts editor, may they all rest in peace.
The Bob Ross Scholarship was awarded to Mattia Santini, 15, who came to SF Ballet School from Milan's prestigious La Scala Theatre Ballet School. The Keith White Scholarship was awarded to Anastasia Kubanda, 15, who hails from bucolic Front Royal, VA. And the Eric Hellman Scholarship was awarded to Veronika Selivanova, 16, originally from provincial Vancouver, WA. Congratulations to all three students, who surely have stellar careers in the ballet ahead of them.