Dance: Movement, Rhythm, Spectacle at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Artists seeing dance

Isadora Duncan’s loose-limbed method of dancing, which entranced audiences in the early 20th century, looks amateurishly playful in a modern-day interpretation. A video showing the recreation is part of Dance: Movement, Rhythm, Spectacle, an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art examining the nexus of movement and the visual arts. A trio of watercolors by Abraham Walkowitz distill Duncan’s unconstrained style through casual washes of color and figure outlines. The prolific Walkowitz drew Duncan more than a thousand times. 

"Somebody Stole My Broken Heart" by Faith Ringgold. (Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art)

This 57-work exhibition, however, focuses less on celebrated dancers, although there are a few (Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Jane Avril) and more on the creative impulses inspired by dance. Its sweep is broad, with both figurative and abstract presentations of jazz, social, and modern dancing, burlesque and ballet, in a variety of media. Several works address the atmospherics of performance, such as a charming 1928 lithograph by José Clemente Orozco that shows the antics of nameless vaudevillians on a bright stage as seen by an onlooker from the back of a darkened Harlem theater.

Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes is represented by a typically bold and exotic costume sketch by Léon Bakst (for the 1912 ballet Le Dieu Bleu) and scenic designs by Mikhail Larionov and his wife, Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova. A circa 1922 woodcut entitled Rhythms, Opening, by Paoli artist Wharton H. Esherick — who, as far as I know had no connection to the Ballets Russes — evokes a signature pose from the company’s ballet Les Noces, a quasi-scrum of dancers with their heads closely packed together. (Incidentally, a citrus-hued curtain design for Les Noces by the aforementioned Goncharova is included in the exhibition.)

Faith Ringgold’s Somebody Stole My Broken Heart combines the startling coloration of a Bakst with the gestural lines of a Walkowitz to evoke a jazz club in full swing. Ringgold bifurcates the action by positioning two sets of instrumentalists behind two individual singers. Each group frames each soloist much like a corps frames a ballerina in a traditional ballet.

Symmetry and order are absent from Alexander Calder’s whimsical Score for Ballet, which consists of random tracings and hollow shapes enclosing the names of different colors. The jottings may be a plan for a mobile or a quirky type of dance notation, although to this viewer the lines resemble the flight of a bee and two of the hollow shapes look like beehives. Calder, who had strong Philadelphia ties, had an abiding interest in creating art in different media related to movement. In 1976, the Pennsylvania Ballet returned the favor by premiering Under the Sun, a ballet featuring Calder-inspired costumes and choreography, the latter by Margo Sappington.

A balletomane friend of mine was incredulous that the gallery contained nothing by Edgar Degas. While a Degas piece might have been thematically appropriate, it would not have reflected this survey’s fresh, off-center appeal.

 

Above right: The Pilgrim, by Léon Bakst, for the 1912 ballet Le Dieu Bleu (Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.