Victoria Wynne-Jones - Becoming dance

Becoming dance

I would like to begin with an image of U.S. artist Bruce Nauman taken from his 1968 film Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square. This image depicts a sculptor approaching sculptural problems with his own body, a movement study involving an exploration of simple actions and shapes. Nauman described such an experiment as a sort of dance.


This work took place at a time when dance and other visual arts intersected and blurred, invigorating and inspiring each other before flying apart once more. In 1959 the Reuben Gallery in New York City had hosted Allen Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts. In the same year choreographer Simone Forti and her husband Robert Morris moved from California to New York bringing with them lessons learnt from choreographer Anna Halprin. Forti and Morris together with Yvonne Rainer and other practitioners also grafted dance concerns with sculpture and performance at the Judson Memorial Church. [This is only one example from many of a time and place where dance and other visual arts commingled and mutually enriched each other.]


Contemporary examples of intersections of dance and visual art include choreographers creating works for the context of the gallery rather than the theatre including: Tino Seghal, William Forsythe, La Ribot, Pablo Bronstein and Xavier le Roy. Examples closer to home include Sean Curham, Mark Harvey and Brent Harris. The majority of the literature thus far has focussed upon dance-inflected performance, yet there is also a movement the other way as artists explore dance through a wide range of disciplines, from painting to video art.


It is currently quite fashionable for artists in New Zealand to say that their works engage with dance and there has been little investigation into such claims. Questions that may be raised include: How or to what extent can these works be said to engage with dance? Or, what happens when dancers are painted, sculpted or filmed? Such works create an opportunity for interdisciplinary readings of art works using concepts from both dance studies and art history.


Adding to the complexity of such a project is the seemingly amorphous nature of dance; the question “what is dance?” can only create a pluralistic response indicating the discipline’s instability, variation and ability to be constantly altered through practice and theory.[1] Dance is an ongoing project, a long procession[2] that extends temporally throughout history and spatially across the world. It is experimentation via bodies, a call to arms or creative re-configuration of body as concept. Importantly it is a reply to the question of “whether and how to be in time” a lament or a celebration of the finitude and transitoriness of bodies, a plaint in the present continuous. Thus when a painter, sculptor or video artist invokes dance, they are appealing to a knotted and convoluted discipline, one which may not be inhabited lightly.


Due to the fact that dance is so difficult to define, my intertextual readings use selected dance concepts with which to analyse particular art works. Examples of these concepts are: temporality, choreography, dance as spatial thought, gravity and stillness.


Kushana Bush

Bottle Screw Perch (gouache and pencil on paper, 760 x 560mm) 2010

Full Continental Extension (gouache and pencil on paper, 1000 x 700mm) 2009

Pinched End Motion (gouache and pencil on paper, 700 x 500mm) 2009

Legs Avenue (gouache and pencil on paper, 760 x 560mm) 2010


Bush’s paintings depict figures grouped together, a body of bodies recalling choruses. These painted figures are engaged in ambiguous activities that are sometimes dance. One question raised here is what happens when a painting represents dancers? What are the functions of painted figures? Can they be said to dance or perhaps sort of dance? Rather than dance, Bush has said that what interests her are physical “group activities towards something” Bush defines such a physical and communal activity as something like “the act of folding sheets with your mum.” As a time-based art, a key concept dance brings to this conversation is that of temporality. Time in relation to painting draws attention to:

  • the prior time of the process of making the painting;
  • the painting itself as an event in time
  • as well as the time spent viewing a painting, here the event is a crucial and particular convergence or meeting point of artist, art object and viewer.

A distinctive element of Bush’s work is an elegant linearity as well as meticulous attention to detail as seen in Legs Avenue. Costumes bear intricate patterns and Bush depicts minutiae such as flyaway head hairs, broken cheek capillaries, blood vessels in eye-balls, swollen clitorises and overgrowing eyebrows. Draughtsmanship is of central importance to all of Bush’s oeuvre as each painting begins as a drawing in pencil on paper, followed by a blocking in of colours in gouache and the final addition of tiny details. There is a deep connection between dance and drawing as a dance that creates a trace. The draughtsman and painter are both physically virtuosic and to draw is a movement the whole body of the artist participates in. There is nothing new about this idea, as the bravura painterly gestures of certain Baroque painters were sometimes described as sprezzatura after an elegant courtly attitude.


Painting with gouache requires a steady hand and intense concentration, no erasure is possible, one cannot cover up or take away areas of colour. Thus every action counts and each gesture must be flawless. Bush describes her painting process as “kind of Olympic.”


There is also an important link between Bush’s process and choreography or writing with bodies. Like Busby Berkeley, Bush arranges bodies into elaborate patterns, bodies are multiplied and reflected so that body parts, legs and faces become a depersonalising and “great transformational machine.”[3] Here Bush demonstrates that choreography is frequently a manipulative strategy of others and their bodies.


Returning to the concept of temporality and painting, here we are reminded that painting, like dance is an event, a semi-permanent object that spans a finite period of time. This is made more evident in works on paper such as those of Bush, additionally the media of pencil and water-based gouache make these works even more fragile and transitory. The concept of temporality when examined in tandem with painting also draws attention to the event or events that are our experiences of a painting in time. This opens up notions of duration, felt time as well as the physical experience of viewing an artwork. There is the issue of how we physically conduct ourselves or are expected to conduct ourselves when viewing a painting and how various art institutions and art objects choreograph their viewers’ bodies through installation and architecture. By highlighting the experience of a painting in time there is also its affect to consider. How the event, the situation, the materials, rhythms and intensities of the paintings evoke certain sensations.


In a work such as Legs Avenue there is the encounter with a framed art work within a dealer gallery, hung at eye level. The level of detail in such a work encourages the viewer to step forward and look at it more closely and then step back to see the overall patterning of bodies. There is also the issue of how we read and respond to representations of outlandish bodies as well as the media of slight paper, intricate pencil and the chalky solidity and fluid vibrancy of gouache.


Francis Upritchard

Dancers (modelling material, foil, wire, paint, table, lamps) 2009

Eel Dancer (modelling material, foil, wire, paint) 2008


An installation as part of the Venice Biennale in 2009. A collection of figurines on a table in a palazzo on the Grand Canal. As this work was called Dancers I thought it would be a good exercise to look at how exactly these figurines can be said to be dancers. A problem for such appellation, shared by Bush’s painted figures and Upritchard’s sculpted ones, is the fact that they are inanimate, they don’t move, so how can they be dancers?


Here both painting and sculpture are still and fixed, whereas a fundamental aspect of dance is that it involves bodies in movement through space. However equating dance with movement is very problematic, contemporary dance has been known to engage with a “deflation of movement”[4] and the concept of stillness, highly relevant to painting and sculpture is a dense and rich dance concept. The following quote by poet Paul Auster explicates this a little further:


“A body moves. Or else it does not move. And if it moves something begins to happen. And even if it does not move, something begins to happen.”[5]


Bodies caught in stillness are “holding and held by forces poised on a current, between gravity and weightlessness.” Attention is drawn to the “multiple, rapid, skeletal and muscular adjustments” required to sustain stillness.[6] Even though Eel Dancer is still, she still engages with other physical principles such as balance and counter balance, restraint and release, although not moving she is posing, holding, stretching, tensing, flexing. Stillness allows dance to be virtual, potential, the emphasis is on what is not and what is beyond the perceptible and the visible. Stillness in dance is like rests in music or space in a text, it structures and shapes what happens around it. Stillness opens up potentiality, a questioning of what has happened before and what could happen next. Importantly stillness draws attention to on-goingness, process and duration, a being in the moment “as a perceptual point of tension within movement”[7]


Hence stillness returns us to temporality, to time. The patent-like black surface of Eel Dancer allows the light to reflect off the surface so that one can follow the varied contours of the figure. Beginning from her left foot her knotty calf muscle can be seen engaging, as can her knee, her left thigh is taut with effort. Her whole left leg can be seen to be bearing the strain of holding the figure upright. Eel Dancer creates an even more intricate manifestation of the pull of gravity and the effort required by an upright person to resist it. At the same time the surface of Eel Dancer bears traces of Upritchard’s fingers and her modelling, thus the surface is a chiasmic testament to prior acts of virtuosic modelling and can simultaneously be read as the contorted musculature of a figure sustaining a pose. It is also important to note how through installation the artist choreographs the viewer. A sculpted figure is designed to be viewed from multiple viewpoints, thus a viewer must wander around in order to take in Eel Dancers whole shape, re-introducing movement in a pas de deux with the sculpture itself.


Sriwhana Spong

Costume for a Mourner (digital video on DVD, 8.22) 2010.


This last work is a filmed dance. Spong re-created a costume designed by Henri Matisse for the 1919 production of Le Chant du Rossignol. The filmed dance was danced and choreographed by Benny Ord in response to the heavy costume. The film acts as an imagined scene from the lost ballet which was originally performed by the Ballet Russes and was screened on a monitor within a gallery space.


Spong’s work takes us from the inanimate to the animate. Whereas the painted figures of Bush and the sculpted figures of Upritchard seem to be dancing, Spong’s work involves a film of an actual dancing person upon a monitor. Spatiality or use of space is another one of dance’s central concerns. Whereas Bush’s figures seem to dance within pictorial space, and Upritchard’s figurines inhabit actual space, Spong’s Mourner dances within a virtual, cinematic space.


A frequent theme across all forms of dance is the universally significant drama of the relationship between the human body and gravity and this is demonstrated in Costume for a Mourner. Ord enacts the tension between classical ballet and contemporary dance, between an illusion of weightlessness and an acknowledgment of the body’s weighted relationship with the ground. Matisse’s heavy felt robe pulls Ord downwards, so that in order to move Ord must resist and overcome both gravity and the weight of his garment. Such a sensation of weightedness and submission ties into the narrative of the lost ballet as Ord portrays a mourner to the Emperor of China. Ord’s melancholic movements are slow and precise as he mourns through movement. A repeated motif throughout the dance is falling and rising, only to fall once more. There are different qualities to the falls, some are thunderous, others gentle. At one point Ord sits, his “hands fall in front of him and come to rest between his legs, limp with palms facing skyward.”[8] By creating a mourning-dance, the force of gravity becomes a metaphor for grief and loss, one which Ord resists and gives into again and again.


Mournful movement brings us back to the idea of dance as a plaint, that is, an enacted lament within time to the transitoriness and mortality of the body. Here the body is excavated by time from within.[9] Dance reminds us that we are internal to time, that time is something we exist within, in which we move, live and change.[10] Costume for a Mourner consists of fragments of a dance, it is heavily edited, thus the film is in no way dictated by action or a linear narrative, it is rather a collection of moments, a time-image of optical and sound situations.


Spong’s film may be read as a crystal image, that is, an image with multiple sides capturing the actual and the virtual though so that it is impossible to tell which is which. On the one hand there is Ord, an actual dancer dancing. On the other hand Ord is attempting to resuscitate or activate multiple myths: a lost ballet, unknowable dances and the bodies which once danced them. Here there is a blurring between the real and the imaginary as an attempt is made to conjure up past dances or myths through the material of costume and acts of dance. As a film, Costume for a Mourner is an event that can occur again and again, a repetitious attempt blurring the real and the imagined, past and present, myth and material.




In summary, by focussing on works of various media that engage with dance and utilising concepts shared by a wide range of dance disciplines I theorise that such works enable the artist to bring artwork and viewer together in the world, inflected in a particular way as an event. Here the interiority of the artist, the interiority of the viewer and the external art object commingle and create a certain unexpected coalescence of elements. Prior acts of painting, modelling and moving are brought together with materials, rhythms, images and sensations in an event of viewing which enables becoming-dance.



Claid, Emilyn. "Still Curious." The Routledge Dance Studies Reader. Eds. Carter, Alexandra and Janet O'Shea. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time Image. London: Athlone, 1989. Print.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Athlone Press, 1988. Print.
Lepecki, André. "Exhausting Dance." Live: Art and Performance. Ed. Heathfield, Adrian. London: Tate Pub., 2004. Print.
Spong, Sriwhana, et al. Nijinsky: Sriwhana Spong. Auckland, N.Z.: Clouds : Michael Lett, 2010. Print.

[1] Alexandra Carter and Janet O’Shea “Part V: Debating the Discipline” in Alexandra Carter and Janet O’Shea eds. The Routledge Dance Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 288.

[2] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus : Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Athlone Press, 1988). p. 166.

[3] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image (London: Athlone, 1989). pp. 60-61.

[4] André Lepecki, "Exhausting Dance," Live: Art and Performance, ed. Adrian Heathfield (London: Tate Pub., 2004). p. 121.

[5] Paul Auster quoted in Emilyn Claid, "Still Curious," The Routledge Dance Studies Reader, eds. Alexandra Carter and Janet O'Shea (London: Routledge, 2010). p. 142.

[6] S. Paxton quoted in Claid, "Still Curious." p. 135.

[7] Claid, "Still Curious." pp. 133-134.

[8] Sarah Hopkinson, “Palms Facing Skyward” in Sriwhana Spong, Gwynneth Porter, Sarah Hopkinson, Clouds (Gallery) and Michael Lett (Gallery), Nijinsky : Sriwhana Spong (Auckland, N.Z.: Clouds : Michael Lett, 2010). p. 24.

[9] M. Antonioni quoted in Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image. p. 23.

[10] Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image. p. 82.


Victoria Wynne-Jones recently completed her Masters thesis in Art History at the University of Auckland. Her research interests include: curatorial practice, contemporary art and theory, contemporary New Zealand art and intersections between art history and dance theory.