Over the decades, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) has presented music and dance events in the East entrance’s Great Stair Hall as well as in its other spaces. In 2022, the PMA used the new cantilevered Gehry staircase for dance and music. It replaces the small auditorium where I once saw performances of Trisha Brown’s company and others dance. Inaugurating the new space, Philadanco danced memorable pastiches of Merce Cunningham’s early works, and former Cunningham Dance Company member, Melissa Toogood soloed down the staircase to choreography by Pam Tanowitz.
Reminiscent of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, Toogood also reminded me of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ golden Diana. She stands guard with her bow drawn over the massive East entrance staircase. I’ve seen it all my lifetime and still delight to hear audible gasps from first time visitors when their uplifted eyes encounter her. You could dream of her dancing down the Great Stair one night.
The hugely successful “Matisse in the 1930s” exhibit over the last months featured many of Matisse’s nudes and reclining women en déshabillé in their boudoirs. PMA curator Matthew Affron, asked choreographer Kyle Marshall to make a new dance that responds to the exhibit and handed over the Great Stair Hall to him.
Marshall, who founded his company in 2014 while also performing with the Trisha Brown Dance Company, accepted the commission for the new dance work to “provoke an engaging dialogue between artistic forms.” Titled “Ruin,” it premiered there on Jan. 20, the exhibit’s penultimate weekend. He met the daunting challenge well, following Matisse’s cue. He and his collaborators created their own costumes, props, hairstyles and movement, channeling Matisse’s dancing murals into enigmatic and ritualistic moves. Born in the Philadelphia area, Marshall is known here from his company’s (Kyle Marshall Choreography (KMC), which appeared at the 2021 FringeArts festival with “Stellar/Rise.” His choreography draws on the energies of club music and praise break traditions of the Black church for his choreography.
He characterizes his work as a reflection, “on the echoes of history, the dynamic cycles of human civilization and the syncopation of our modern life through excavating body percussion and our physical relationship to sound, nature, and ritual.”
The five dancers wore visual director Edo Tastic’s ragged tunics, constructed by Meagan Woods, and hand-painted with red accents, a color favored by ancient civilizations, and, by Matisse. A backdrop of heavy draperies absorbed some of the live sound in the Great Stair Hall as did the packed audience sitting on cushions on the stairs.
Sound collaborator, Cal Fish miked the dance floor and arranged copper wires that used the conductivity of the dancers’ bodies to trigger percussive sound samples. The dancers themselves created the kinesthetic sound sculptures which were then repeated and looped often sounding like water trickling or branches brushing a window. Fish, in costume as a performer, appeared onstage first to sound check the mikes and then stepped to the side to amplify the gently soaring score.
Handmade by Fish, the dancers carried objects that contained “Dynamic Listening Instruments” that included speakers and copper coils allowing them to manipulate latent sounds present in electromagnetic fields at the front of the stage. These buckets and fields shared sounds from recorded archives including crickets, voices, and drones.
One by one, the performers, Bree Breeden, Jose Lapaz-Rodriguez, Kyle Marshall, Nik Owens and Cayleen Del Rosario, entered the space each holding vessels that could carry water, an aquarian theme that runs through many Matisse paintings.
Marshall entered, swinging his vessel like a priest’s censer. He reaches into religious ritual with disciplined fervor, but I wished he had gone a bit over the top and put incense in it. We could have had yet another sensory experience in what has always seemed a sacred space to me. Breedon took the vessel, twirling it around her head. The five danced Africanist bent-knee stomping in a box step which each dancer entered with arms angled up until there is a silence and stillness. They took supine poses, lounging like Matisse’s women, or crawled on all fours. Marshall and Lapaz-Rodriguez knelt at opposite sides of the stage, like sentinels percussing their chests with open palms. As the sound thundered, so did the movement quicken, with fingers snapping and hands clapping. Some danced trancelike as they formed a circle, then fanned out into spread legged squats. (If you’ve seen Matisse’s dance murals at the Barnes Museum, you get the picture.) They connected with each other and the audience with smiles as the soundscape built to a sonic cloudburst inside, while one was actually occurring outside.
The PMA’s program notes cite “the concluding coup de théâtre of “Matisse in the 1930s” was Léonide Massine’s 1939 ballet “Rouge et Noir” for which Matisse designed costumes and scenery for the Ballet Russes. Affron tied it all together with its own viewing gallery near the end of the exhibit. It drew viewers in as they entered. Moreover, his sister, Beatrice Jona Affron—music director and conductor of Philadelphia Ballet—slowed the film down to a natural rhythm so it fit to a recording of Dmitry Shostakovich’s First Symphony by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy.
It was a marvel to see before or after KMC’s performance. Tastic scored a second coup de théâtre with the tunics, makeup and cornrowed hairstyles that popped all over the dancers’ skulls with tight little buns, throwing the white ball-fringed turbans of the Ballet Russes dancers into negative relief. Marshall and his collaborators gave us a sensational nouveau take on Matisse, his reds, and his dark silhouetted dancers.