January 25 – January 26, 2020
Goethe called architecture “frozen music.” While cathedral spires and musical crescendos both peak, it’s a fanciful sentiment. Dance to visual art, however, is a more literal translation. Degas’s early 19th-century paintings of ballerinas freeze swirling skirts in oil pigment but don’t require us to jump between primary senses.
It’s a two dimensional movement snapshot—visual-to-visual—and we have plenty of examples. Night after night, Moulin Rouge dancer Jane Avril kicked her leg the same way she does in Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1893 lithograph of her. We move further from realistic representation in Francis Picabia’s cubist Star Dancer and Her School of Dance (1913). But the cerulean central figure with her tilted body and outstretched arms, legs frenetically fragmented, couldn’t be doing anything but dancing. Wassily Kandinsky’s Dance Curves: On the Dance of Palucca (1926) consists of line drawings based on German dancer and Mary Wigman student Gret Palucca’s reaching, angular movements.
But when it comes to the reverse adaptation—visual art to dance—we must do more digging. We might point to ancient Greek sculpture’s influence on Isadora Duncan—or least on her costuming. Coincidentally, while Kandinsky drew one Wigman student in Germany, he inspired another across the Atlantic. Upon seeing a Kandinsky painting in Chicago, Martha Graham took particular note of “a slash of red against a field of blue” and thought, “I will dance like that.”1 In her 1948 work Diversion of Angels—the specific dance influenced by Kandinsky—a female dancer in red performs a repeated motif.2 She stands on her left leg in a tilt, outstretched arms parallel to her right leg’s nearly 180-degree extension. If indeed Graham saw the painting in 1922 as Anna Kisselgoff, former chief dance critic of the New York Times, claims, I imagine it could have been his painting Untitled from 1921. A bright red rod enters a blue amorphous shape at the same angle as the red dancer’s leg. The correlations here rely on line, color, and perhaps overall compositional energy. Graham’s Diversion of Angels is a short, plotless, piece, though it’s meant to express meditations on different stages of love. Kandinsky, considered to be one of the first abstract painters, believed that art didn’t have to represent specific objects in nature to inspire emotion in the viewer. He sought to move audiences with line, light, and form, even influenced by his own synesthesia between colors and music. It’s no surprise that he equated musical compositions to paintings and literally moved Graham to dance.
But if we are to compare modern plotless dances to abstract art, what about our need for stories? For representation of real life in both mediums and our evergreen fascination with human subjects? If story-less dances are to abstract art, can figurative, narrative paintings be inspiration for plot dance works?
I actually don’t agree with the term “narrative painting.” It’s used to describe historical paintings depicting widely known (in the Western world) biblical tales or allegories, but also scenes of everyday life. Either way, “narrative” implies a story with a beginning, middle, and end, but a canvas can present only one scene in its entirety. The viewer must infer the rest. As described by John Rothenstein in an exhibition essay for British Narrative Paintings, a 1944 exhibition at the Tate in London that focused on domestic scenes: “It is, however, upon the interpretation of incident and of character…or even of mood…that the charm of the majority of the paintings depends.”3 In other words, we enjoy paintings with people interacting in day-to-day endeavors because we can project onto them.
Perhaps no artist’s work is more titillating in its suggestions of events about to unfold than that of 20th Century American artist Edward Hopper. In his widely known Nighthawks (1942), we see four subjects poised on the edge of interaction through the glass prow of a Flatiron-like building, said to be set in the West Village streets that Hopper roamed. The sole woman—carmine dress, lips, and hair, surrounded by men and nearest to one—stares at a small green object in her right hand. Her companion leans slightly towards her, his right hand holds a cigarette and is either just grazing the little finger of her left hand or about to.
Hopper’s subjects are either alone or close enough that it’s impossible that they wouldn’t be aware of each other. And because of his cinematic key lighting and cool shadows, we impose weighted adjectives: tense, lonely, eerie, melancholic. The sense of isolation rings glaringly true in our sudden age of social distancing.
Hopper unknowingly painted for the novel coronavirus era. Thus, a new danced adaptation, luckily coming weeks before bans on in-person performances, has significant resonance. In Tales of Hopper, a repertory dance work that Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance premiered at New York’s DiMenna Center for Classical Music in late February, Lavagnino and composer Martin Bresnick take on Rothenstein’s “interpretation of incident and of character” for Hopper’s oeuvre. Together they selected eight paintings for the piece’s vignettes, in order: Morning Sun (1952), People in the Sun (1962), Gas (1940), New York Movie (1939), Office at Night (1940), Sunlight in a Cafeteria (1958), Nighthawks, and Automat (1927). Some of Lavagnino’s vignettes are personal; all take liberties. In New York Movie Lavagnino explains, “it was right out of my days of catering when I was in grad school. Here she is in the movie waiting on these people and I thought, she’s going to be a dancer. And that’s what she does. She’s trapped in this movie theater, bored out of her mind having a fantasy.”
The characters in People in the Sun start in Hopper’s painted stillness: a small cohort gazing at and basking in a cosmic light. Consistent with the painting, one man is distracted by his book, but Lavagnino soon reveals that the other viewers aren’t as enraptured by the sky as they might initially seem. The dancers jostle, giggle, and flirt, vying for the best viewing position or each other’s attention while the violinist punctuates the silence with brief refrains. Watching, I became wonderfully aware of the meta—my place amidst a room full of other fidgeting theater-goers.
But it’s in her last three vignettes that Lavagnino’s adaptation reaches its emotional peak. In Sunlight in a Cafeteria, the woman (depicted in the source painting with a chin cocked toward the man who faces her) passes the man a green note, which carries over into Nighthawks as clear evidence of the man’s infidelity. Lavagnino has positioned this painting as the climax, and rather than bringing in Nighthawks’s other characters (the other man, the waiter), she creates a potent pas de trois between man, wife, and mistress. Automat is our resolution: the other woman is alone and broken, her missing glove the symbol of love lost.
In threading a narrative through these three canvases onstage, Lavagnino answers the questions we ourselves might have walking from painting to painting in an exhibition: what does it mean, who are the characters and what are their stories? She takes a 2D image and hits play.
Of course, it’s not a play with fully written scenes using dialogue or narration. I don’t think Hopper paintings—or any art object—offer enough for a worded theatrical treatment true to the source material’s need for imaginative participation. Dance and art reside in the same ambiguous visual. We see only what is offered. We must interpret the rest.
Art history could be an endless source for dances, but I would argue for adapting the artworks themselves, not their artists’ extensive backstories. Christopher Wheeldon’s 2016 ballet Strapless, based on a book about John Singer Sargent and Amélie Gautreau, the sitter for Sargent’s famous portrait Madame X (1884) tried to pack centuries into just 40 minutes. A dance piece like Tales of Hopper, focused solely on imagery rather than pages of dialogue and exposition that must be translated, is a succinct, poignant extrapolation of a scene, perfectly mimicking our mind’s own process in viewing visual art. I’d go so far as to opt for dances over captions on museum walls. Choreographer Silas Riener’s response to Jackson Pollock’s Number 27 (1950) is as valid as any curator’s. Jookin dancer Lil Buck performing before a Picasso, exploring cubist shapes with his own body, tells me more about the piece than academic speak ever could.
Art is communication, and adapting a single visual artwork into dance can help deepen our knowledge. We gain, rather than lose, in the translation. We can explore the true depths of body language by choreographing the 2D: giving weight to a snapshot’s context and consequence. Automat should make us consider and respect another’s inner life: a lone woman might not want company. At one moment in People in the Sun, the dancers turn their chairs upstage and arch so far over the chair-back that their eyes meet ours. They look at us as they might look at Hopper, asking us to empathize with, not just look at, art’s subjects.
- Kisselgoff, Anna. “Martha Graham Dies at 96; A Revolutionary in Dance.” The New York Times, 2 April 1991, nytimes.com/1991/04/02/obituaries/martha-graham-dies-at-96-a-revolutionary-in-dance.html. Accessed 15 March 2020.
- “Diversion of Angels.” Martha Graham Dance Company, marthagraham.org/portfolio-items/diversion-of-angels-1948/. Accessed 15 March 2020.
- Rothenstein, John. “Tate Britain Exhibition: British Narrative Paintings.” Tate, tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/british-narrative-paintings. Accessed 15 March 2020.