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“Philadanco MinEvent” with choreography by Merce Cunningham. Photograph by Daniel Traub

A Night in the Museum?

Dances at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

No, but I spent two sunny afternoons in the Philadelphia Museum of Art for dances based on or in reference to one of the museum’s greatest assets, its permanent Duchamp collection, and, in its waning days, the stunning Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror exhibit. PMA curators collaborated with dance artists to produce two weekends of live performance in the new Williams Forum, site of the awe-inspiring cantilevered Gehry staircase that replaces the small auditorium where I once saw the likes of Trisha Brown dance.

If ekphrastic poetry is a literary description of a work of art, then these dancers brought works of art to life through movement vocabularies and use of space. With costuming and motion, they paid tribute to the Johns retrospective and to our Duchamps. Their bodies and limbs translated into visual metaphors and narratives that took advantage of the multiple perspectives spectators had of the choreography.

The collaborating artists included Philadanco! on January 14th and on the following weekend, choreographer Pam Tanowitz’s solo for former Cunningham Dance Company member Melissa Toogood.

Between performances, I explored the PMA’s spectacular new Frank Gehry renovations. They began in March 2017, and opened to the public May 7, 2021. From its North entrance, the 640-foot-long corridor spans the entire width of the building ending along a corridor with skylights that give a view of the upper facades of the East side to the South entrance, now dedicated as the children’s entrance.

As children growing up nearby, we entered through the North Gate which we called “The Dungeon” and walked through what was then a dank tunnel lined with crates. Last year it was reopened to the public after nearly 50 years.

On entering the corridor after so long, its bright and warmly welcoming vaulted arches of amber stone shocked me. Midway, the museum had set up a large sprung marley floor for Philadanco! Throughout the afternoon and evening, they danced three 20-minute pastiches of Cunningham’s early works.

“Philadanco MinEvent” with choreography by Merce Cunningham, costumes after the original design by Jasper Johns for Cunningham’s “Landrover” (1972). Photograph by Daniel Traub, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

The company, known for its athletic power, non-stop speed and rhythmic music to choreographies from Jawole Willa Jo Zollar to Rennie Harris, held Cunningham’s stillnesses perfectly, stood militarily erect, authoritatively executed balancés whether de côté or en tournant, and made deep knee bends in arabesque. Even more breathtaking was to see them do it all masked to John King’s and Leyya Mona Tawil’s electronic computerized soundscapes. Opposite King, who played with Cunningham for years, Tawil brushed an amplifier with crushed foil augmenting his shifting riffs. Otherwise, they had no musical cues, relying solely on counts to complete each performance flawlessly. The dancers might have been nude if not for the colors of their skin tight bodysuits à la Johns’ original costumes for early Cunningham dances.

Cunningham’s choreography does not bend itself to star turns, yet several dancers shone. They began with 1972’s “Landrover,” easily perceptible to Cunningham aficionados for its arm gestures: elbows close to the waist, inner arms and palms angled out like arrows facing upwards. The powerful Clarricia Golden, in orange, held these images with precise aplomb. Janine Beckles, Mikaela Fenton, Jameel M. Hendricks, Floyd McLean Jr, Brandi Pinnix, Lamar Rogers, and Brittany Wright rounded out the cast and all danced flawlessly. It was the first collaboration under new artistic director, Kim Bears-Bailey, who recently took over from Joan Myers Brown. Brown, at 90, says, “I’m not retiring, just stepping aside.”

Patricia Lent, a former member of the Cunningham Dance Company, staged the material first choreographed by Cunningham while Johns was artistic advisor. She packed in sections from 1969s’ “Canfield,” and parenthesized sections of 1973’s “Un jour ou deux” around 1978’s “Exchange.” Philadanco!s unerring and smartly danced performance shows the company ought to have a Cunningham piece or two in its repertoire.

On the weekend of January 21st, Melissa Toogood wound through the museum-goers at the top of the Gehry staircase for Tanowitz’s “Finally Unfinished (Solo for Melissa for Jasper).” It had a soft opening last September. The title gives a nod to The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) and alludes to Duchamp’s remark that he lost interest in finishing it. In white sneakers and vertical stripes and chevrons in tones recalling Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 1), Toogood danced to music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw. At first it sounded like an early 20th century radio and eventually ended in a softly voiced a capella chorus.

She tentatively wound her way down, as if exploring its space, then more and more boldly taking risks. At bottom, she made her way to a small dance square set off to the side doing third position élevé tours. There she stripped off her jacket and, lying flat, removed her sneakers before moving to the larger floor where she stripped off her pants, revealing a coral unitard emblazoned with an emerald green diamond pattern spanning her upper torso. An assistant covered them in a gauzy transparent smock. Veil or glass? Toogood executed a few minutes of pliés, demi-pliés and ronde de jambes before falling to the floor with one leg bent and the other shot straight upwards. She held this erotic position for an inexplicable 20 seconds and resumed dancing before bringing the 15-minute solo to a close.

All at once I realized this pose pointed to Duchamp’s Étant donnés, two floors above, and Tanowitz’s choreography was almost as daring. The last artwork of his life, Duchamp devoted 20 years working on it in secret. Viewers who know about it, travel from all the world just to take a peep through the hole in the door in the small dark area off to the left of the Bride where it was installed in 1969. Tanowitz and Toogood skillfully took the artists, the architecture and the history of all and twined these facets into a moving tapestry.