Jeanne Ruddy's "Montage Ó  Trois'

Painting and sculpting with the body

Callender (left), Pilla: When statues move.
Callender (left), Pilla: When statues move.

Like all performing art forms, dance disappears the minute it occurs (unless somebody brings a video camera). Many choreographers enhance this impermanence by setting a piece in site-specific locations, whether it's Leah Stein's use of an abandoned armory, or the parking garage of Kate Watson Wallace's current Auto. Some choreographers have deliberately chosen soon-to-be demolished buildings or bridges as a way to forever ensure dance's transient nature.

Nevertheless, the characteristics of a site establish the mise-en-scène and create a real sense of attending an event. In choosing the Pennsylvania Academy's galleries for her recent Montage Ó  Trois, Jeanne Ruddy exploited both of these advantages. Just walking into the Academy's expansive atrium— its walls already festooned with enormous paintings and sculptures— stimulated my senses and primed my brain's aesthetic faculties for the performance to come.

So when Janet Pilla and the remainder of Ruddy's dancers filed in, wearing Jeffrey Wirsing's eye-catching art nouveau costumes (feathers in their headdresses, men in top hats and tails), their alluring bodies adorned with magnetic colors that Matisse would envy, well… let's just say that no one in the audience resisted when each dancer took a patron's arm to lead him up the 20-meter staircase.

We arrived at the Annenberg Galley, stripped bare of all artwork save the dancers and a 10-by-15-foot screen. As the audience filtered into the gallery, Pilla and Thayne Dibble reclined against the central pillars, their arms encircling the stone and their strength supporting the building like statues.

Reclining nudes

Ruddy used the space to explore interesting questions— not only about where art comes from, what it is or how we create and view it, but how a work moves us and causes moments of rapture, how it lets us identify with and even become the subject of an artwork as we view it. Her dancers answered each of these in movement as Elizabeth Osborne's paintings played on the screen. Whatever emotions the images conjured, the dancers expressed it, yielding a fascinating understanding of how we often interpret our own lives through art.

The soft hues of Wirsing's costumes draped about the dancers and blended into the background, creating in some cases a sense of repose before one of Osborne's paintings, in another striking a note of ecstasy. Later, Pilla, Dibble and Chisena appeared in sheer bodysuits with a scrim of fabric; in coy, wistful and at times playful gestures, the three struck poses or reclined like an odalisque to make themselves the subjects of Osborne's nude studies.

In the third act of Ruddy's piece, Rick Callender and Sean Rosswell treated their own and each other's bodies as brushes, striding across the floor on their kneecaps, poking at the ground's canvas with quick, dabbling motions. Later Callender held Rosswell as the brush, whisking him through the air toward an imagined canvas below.

Sculpture in motion

Montage achieved its greatest effect during Act II, set in the Academy's Tuttleman Sculpture Gallery. Here the dancers started as sculptures—reflecting the notion of the body not only as model for study, but also as a proper subject for art.

Each dancer struck the pose of a familiar sculpture: Dibble pulled back on Diana's bowstring, Callender lay on the floor as a Pan without his pipes. Frozen in a runner's mid-step, Rosswell reminded me of the Marathon runner Pheidippides at the point of collapse upon reaching Athens.

To the music of Erik Satie's intoxicating Gnossienne Suite, Ruddy's dancers shifted ever more rapidly from one pose to the next, and each moved into and out of a circle with the others. Their movements reached a frenzy of delirium, like cult members entering a trance. When they fell back into their places again as the statues, the sense of exhaustion evoked art's power to transform and rendered both the dancers and the audience breathless.

Rare power

Few site-specific works I've seen have achieved the power of Ruddy's Montage. She and her design team (which also included Peter Jakubowski's lighting and Ellen Fishman-Johnson's videos) perfectly integrated and executed the concept from top to bottom. Every element of the piece aligned with the location to create a singular aesthetic sense for the evening. (The Academy's curators should feel so lucky every time they arrange a new exhibit.)

I left the Academy knowing I won't enter that building again without seeing Dibble and Pilla supporting the pillars, or recalling the images and shapes that Ruddy's Montage burned into the walls of my own memories.

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