danser sa vie


“We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.”

– Nietzsche (taken from the exhibition album)


While collaborating on an exhibition design last fall at MIT, I quickly learned that the presentation and promotional strategy behind an exhibition have just as much effect on its success as the curators choice of work to exhibit. This understanding was solidified over my winter vacation in Europe, during which I had the wonderful opportunity to explore some of Europe’s most important contemporary art institutions.

The Centre Pompidou’s Danser Sa Vie exhibition was particularly impressive. This installation, which chronologically reviewed Modern and contemporary dance, powerfully piqued my interest in the genre and its relationship to the visual arts. This organizational strategy traced the development of contemporary dance not through a simplistic progression of consecutive works, but through the emerging themes that were defined by pioneers; seminal works were presented alongside their contemporary counterparts, creating a multifaceted conversation between Modern and contemporary dance and visual art. As an amateur critic, I marveled at work which I had not seen before as well as pieces I had only seen in photographs. The exhibition was strong in both presentation and curation, and successfully created an immersive experience for the visitor.

Since dance, like any other performing art, is a challenge to represent in the static exhibition format, the curators Christine Macel and Emma Lavigne had to innovate. And innovate they did! Upon entering, the senses of the visitor are individually engaged by a barrage of videos, audio clips, costume and architectural dioramas, paintings, photographs, and even live performers. Entertainment is redefined as culturally symbolic and artistically stimulating, thereby elevating both the genre of dance and its artistic response without concern for the divisions of “high” or “fine” art.

It was clearly organized into three sections:

> La Danse Comme Expression De Sol (Dance as Self-Expression)

> Danse Et Abstraction (Dance and Abstraction)

> Danse Et Performance (Dance and Performance)

Dance as Self-Expression

The first section of the exhibition outlined the revolutionary period at the turn of the 20th century, which preceded “high-Modernist” dance. Classically trained ballet dancers broke away from the status quo and began to toy with traditional choreography, finding pockets of progressive support and patronage.


An important step in transforming dance into a malleable art form was resurrecting its ties to raw sexuality, which predominated when dance was first developed (before civilized ceremonial and religious applications); a move that had to avoid the more base undulations of the pornographic body in favor of a stark, pure portrayal of gender and humane passion.

Vaslav Nijinski answered the call with his stylized version of the classic short ballet Afternoon of a Faun, set to a score by French composer Claude Debussy. He startled audiences with overt advances toward his female accompaniment and a climactic masturbatory display. Yet progressives applauded his honest and evocative performance and his ability to advance the sexual as a legitimate subject of the “high arts”.

Celebrated dancer and choreographer Mary Wigman heralded the Expressionist movement in dance beyond ballet. Amidst personal and psychological turmoil, she found an outlet in free, unfettered, and fresh choreography that she developed in semi-sychotic fits of creativity. Her most well-known piece was the Hexentanz, or “Witch Dance,” which she first performed in 1913, but continued to modify and expand for years. She explains the dance:


In response, contemporary choreographer Kelly Nipper developed a wild gestural dance in homage to Wigman’s unencumbered portrayal of the animalistic nature pent up within women. Thought to represent the motions of weather phenomena or of an animal possessed, Nipper’s Weather Center is set against an austere background and an audio reinterpretation of the staccato beats of the audio track adopted by Wigman. This binary representation of the vulgar untamed female savage provides a deeper insight into the expressive nature of dance and the emotion these women encapsulated.

Wigman became the figurehead of German Expressionist dance, figuring into the wider movement that characterized much of the innovative artistic production seen in Germany until the Nazi government began to stifle free creativity ahead of World War Two.

Wigman’s contemporaries Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt were preeminent in the local scene surrounding Hamburg. Their work and personal lives exemplified the frenzied passionate energy that gave rise to much of the most important Expressionist output. And their tragic end (a murder-suicide) proved symbolic of this local mentality.

The Toboggan Frau featured at Danser Sa Vie is one of a small number of surviving “dance masks,” or full-body costumes, they created for their own abstract performances. These visually complex and physically hefty costumes were fashioned from low-cost recycled detritus and were designed to respond strategically to the motions of the choreography that Schulz developed and diagrammed in detail.

Dance and Abstraction

This section of the exhibition explored the complex theoretical underpinnings of the predominant Modernist sub-movements in dance. Although these movements differed in theory and premise, they shared a commitment to technical innovation, an innovation engendered by contemporary sociopolitical and cultural stimuli. Modernist dance was to be an abstract representation of its period instead of a classical art enslaved to the legacy of the “masters.”


An instrumental predecessor of these emerging movements was Loie Fuller, whose choreographies responded to the innovations in electrical lighting and videography to create visually dynamic performances that astounded onlookers. She is especially known for her Serpentine Dances:

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti embraced Fuller’s attention to the possibilities of light and sound afforded by the cusp of technological advancement. Like his contemporaries, he declared expression to be the signature of innovative contemporary dance, a complete departure from the practiced rigor of ballet. Yet he decried artists and choreographers that created “stylisations of savage dances, elegant versions of exotic dances, modernizations of ancient dances” in his Manifesto of the Futurist Dance from 1917.

Nijinsky and fellow avant-garde Isadora Duncan focused on expressing the base attributes of the human pathos and sexuality by mimicking and stressing the characteristic motions of human musculature. For Nijinsky, this gave rise to geometric choreography that distilled these emotions into discrete mechanical motions, a technical innovation that Marinetti applauded. Marinetti claimed that these “geometrised” motions, responding to Cubism and similar philosophies, allowed for dance to become its own autonomous art, no longer the banal physical interpretation of music. Music was but a “passeist poetry,” a rhythmic puppetry directed by the conventions of the instrument and classical composition.

For Marinetti, purely abstract dance would need to respond to its time, particularly the technological innovation that characterized the turn of the century:


To conclude his Manifesto, Marinetti provided a brief choreographic synopsis of three Futurist dances, which interpreted “the three mechanisms of war: shrapnel, the machine gun, and the airplane.” Notice, though, that Marinetti’s ideal Futurist dance operated in the same way as the other Modernist dances he reviewed (and ultimately condemned), as a stylistic representation of a particular phenomena; for Marinetti, the subject was machinery, not the mechanics of the human body or the dynamics of human emotion.

Another predominant figure in the Italian Futurist movement, Fortunato Depero expanded on Marinetti’s various manifestos with other seminal writings and work. After 1915, Depero began designing marionettes called “Plastic Complexes,” which were simplified abstractions of  people and animals built from a large variety of materials and represented in a series of paintings and drawings. Each marionette had a characteristic set of mechanical limitations meant to highlight their construction, separating the physical marionettes from the creatures they represented. Depero developed seemingly nonsensical choreographies, first performed in 1918 as the Balli Plastici, casting off the limitations of archetypal puppetry in which puppets were mere representations of actors that interacted according to a semi-realistic narrative. He hoped instead to create abstract visions of form and color which demanded the interpretation (instead of mere observation) of the audience.

The Balli Plastici earned virtually instantaneous notoriety and enthusiastic support, and has been re-produced and re-interpreted several times. An example are these lovely paper crafts released be Italian atelier Paperotto (http://paperotto-vintagetoys.blogspot.com):

While researching the Balli Plastici, I stumbled upon a fascinating project from Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC). Depero Futuristi, a team at the university, set out “to digitize Depero’s puppets and develop a toolkit anyone can use to create their own Futurist-inspired ballets” in an attempt to further transfer the means of production from the choreographer and performers to the audience members. After experimenting with reconstructed marionettes based on Depero’s originals, the team developed a web-based interface in which participants could manipulate digitized puppets according to their structural limitations to create their own Futurist performance, set to a backdrop and musical score of their choosing:

More information can be found on the project webpage.

In Germany, dance was among the many arts revolutionized by the Modernist predecessors, masters, and students of the Bauhaus. Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian-born painter and theorist, joined into the movement and became a seminal influence in its development. In 1910 he penned a decisive manifesto for creativity in which he proposed the tenants of the “new” art that were emerging from the transitional chaos of his time; he articulated these principles in terms of painting and dance, two art forms which vividly reflected those tumultuous developments. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, his discussion of theory focused on two tenants that echoed throughout Modernist writings:

  • Art is the direct product of its time and should respond only to the truths and conditions that predominate.
  • The elements of any artistic endeavor, whether derived from nature, the past, or formal innovation, should work in unison to communicate the inner feelings of the artist; they should not compete for attention or cloud the artist’s meaning by imposing their individual agendas on the observer. “That is beautiful which is produced by the inner need, which springs from the soul.” A technically skilled artist must also clearly convey his purpose to truly create beauty.

For Kandinsky, these principles are immediately evident in the dance of Isadora Duncan and her contemporaries, who used formal languages derived from ancient dance to express their inner struggles and convictions; thereby abandoning the solely skill-based conventions of classical ballet. Danser Sa Vie provided a series of drawings Kandinsky did in collaboration with dancer Charlotte Rudolph that focused on the pure formal innovations which did not complicate the composition with ulterior motivations.


Danser Sa Vie curators Macel and Lavigne identified Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet as the culmination of the Bauhaus experimentation in abstract theatre and dance, exemplifying the fascination with “the colours, lines, energy, and rhythms of dance.”

Although hired as a “Master” for the Bauhaus’ sculpture and mural-painting workshops, Schlemmer spearheaded the reinvigoration and development of the theatre workshop under Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. In 1961, Gropius wrote the introduction for The Theatre of the Bauhaus,a short compilation of essential writings from the Masters of the Bauhaus theatre shop. Gropius lauded Schlemmer’s highly innovative perspective on dance and theatre:


The first essay featured in The Theatre of the Bauhaus, Oskar Schlemmer’s Man and Art Figure, provides a clear and concise treatise on Bauhaus theatre, supplemented by helpful diagrams and photographs of Schlemmer’s work. He identified two “emblems” of his time, which should dominate the theatre produced: abstraction and mechanization. Like Kandinsky, Schlemmer identified abstraction’s capacity to disconnect the elements of a composition from their original manifestation to allow them to fulfill their individual potential or unite in constructing a “bold outline of a new totality.”

For Schlemmer, Theatre lies somewhere on the spectrum that defines the various manifestations of the Stage (fig.1). The Stage manifests in three forms, each with its corresponding agent:

  • Oral or Sound Stage, created by the Author (as writer or composer)
  • Play Stage (the kinetic stage), created by the Actor “whose body and its movements make him the player”
  • Visual Stage, created by the Designer (painter, sculptor, and/or architect), who manipulates the essential elements Form (fig.3) and Color

These three elements can exist independently or collaborate; the forms of theatre are defined by the weighting of these respective elements (fig.2).

Dance affords an opportunity to complicate the distribution of these elements by placing Form and Color in Motion. This interaction between architectonic space and the human body is illustrated in a series of geometric diagrams that identify the mathematical “planimetric and stereometric relationships” that govern this space (fig.4). The first delineates those relationships that are imposed on the body by the cubical space, the second identifies the intrinsic physical potentialities of the body, and the third delineates the relationships that are imposed on the surrounding space by the acrobatic body (the inverse of the first diagram). “Invisibly involved with all these laws is Man as Dancer. He obeys the law of the body as well as the law of space; he follows his sense of himself as well as his sense of embracing space.”


Schlemmer was best known for his re-imagining of the “Visual Stage,” especially his marionettes and costumes. Schlemmer explained that costume (or “mask”) provided a means of transforming the human body and its place on the stage: costumes “emphasize the body’s identity or they change it; they express its nature or they are purposely misleading about it; they stress its conformity to organic or mechanical laws or they invalidate this conformity.” He described the various laws that could be expressed in costume:


The Triadic Ballet was Schlemmer’s most famous theatrical innovation and responds directly to the principles he enumerated in The Theatre of the Bauhaus. It originated in 1912 in collaboration with dancers Albert Burger and Elsa Hotzel, but was first performed in full ten years later. He provides a brief description in the book:




The exhibition featured a large collection of original and reproduced costumes designed by Schlemmer for the ballet, constructed from an array of colorful materials. These elegantly engineered pieces of wearable architecture spurred my enhanced interest in Danser Sa Vie and the supporting cadre of conceptual theories and practices.

As Schlemmer discussed in The Theater of the Bauhaus, the Designer is the master of the Visual Stage, one of three components of any theatrical piece; the Actor’s body and its movements comprised the Plastic Stage. A ballet performance is dominated by these two elements. And the Triadic Ballet represented the culmination of Schlemmer’s experimentation in integrating these elements to produce work that was formally and conceptually pure. Schlemmer’s work remains a groundbreaking investigation of theatrical practice, inspiring countless abstractions and perturbations of the theatrical archetype. “Abstract…means simplification, paring down to the essential, the elementary, the primary, in order to counter unity with the multiplicity of things…Abstract dance implies a self-made, self-sufficient creation.”

Dance and Performance

The last leg of the exhibition focused on the “exchange between dance and performance art” but featured work that aesthetically identified with the first two themes; this apparent incongruity is softened when reading the curators discussion of the section in the exhibition album:


Although this body of work arose from the influences of the chronological predecessors featured in the first and second sections, the artists conceived of dance (or simply body movement) as an independent art form that can convey messages in the performative space more immediately when coupled with improvisational freedom. This section focused on the largely American trend in performative dance that began in the 1950’s as choreographers and artists used several techniques to create work that featured this freedom, some of which are identified here: They…

  • Devised systems within which participants could respond to their personal emotional and physiological impulses while fulfilling the artist’s broader intention. The instructional pedagogy developed by Anna Halprin and the “Happenings” hosted by Allan Kaprow gave participants the opportunity to complete “tasks,” identify particular feelings, or respond to stimuli according to their individual disposition.
  • Assembled choreographies composed of impulsive and fervent motions that evoked improvisational immediacy, resembling the spasms of an individual caught in a trance. Many of Merce Cunningham’s and John Cage’s collaborative dances performed at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina demonstrate this aesthetic.
  • Creating physical limitations and environmental elements that stipulated responses from the performers. Allan Kaprow assemblages and sculptures, including his Rearrangeable Panels, provided a dynamic and engaging context for experimental dance that could be manipulated in use.

Allan Kaprow

A particularly profound example of this experimentation is Carolee Schneemann’s Up to and Including Her Limits performance, documented in the photograph below. Schneemann created a mechanism by which she was physically tethered and could only move within a prescribed zone; holding crayons in her hands, she documented this restriction on the walls of this space, including verbal confessions scribbled amongst amorphous forms.

Carolee Schneeman


Due to competing demands on my time and attention, I am completing this post over a year after visiting this exceptional exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in December 2011. Yet the featured work and the historical narrative in which it was embedded remain vivid in my mind and continue to influence my studies and work. Danser Sa Vie was undoubtedly the most influential institutional exhibition that I’ve seen to date, and I’m proud to honor its curatorial strength by delving further into its intellectual context with supplemental research and discussion.


About kswickblogs

producer consumer of contemporary architectural and artistic research _ head curator of the Institute for Profitable Art

One comment

  1. Theodoras Skipitares

    Thanks so much for this wonderful resource you have created. I didn’t see the show, but documentation such as this makes me wish I had.

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