DETROIT — When Jane Dini was an art-history graduate student at the University of California at Santa Barbara, she showed her résumé to her academic adviser. He noted that she listed her undergraduate dance study and her work as children’s ballet teacher.
“You better take all this off your résumé,” he told her, as Dini recalls, “or nobody will take you seriously.”
Thirty years later, Dini has curated “Dance: American Art, 1830–1960,” an exhibition that opened March 20 at the Detroit Institute of Arts — and her former adviser has contributed an essay to the catalogue. “He adores dance now!” she says with a laugh.
The DIA has brought together more than 90 paintings, sculptures, photographs and costumes, including pieces by Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. The work emphasizes kinetic folk traditions, whether that means sacred Native American rituals, jazz-club jitterbugs or farmworker jigs.
John Singer Sargent’s striking “La Carmencita” (1890) is positioned against video filmed by Thomas Edison’s company of the Spanish dancer, a regular in New York music halls, performing in her swirling skits. And such Harlem Renaissance artists as Aaron Douglas and James VanDerZee capture buoyant physical creativity in a moment of stillness.
As ephemeral performance, dance can’t be appraised, sold or archived the way a painting can. That has perhaps exacerbated the tendency of intellectuals to neglect its power. Thomas F. DeFrantz, a Duke University professor of African and African American studies who contributed to the DIA exhibition, suggested that in the midst of a “juggernaut of poetry and plays” during the Harlem Renaissance, dance was “probably the least of the arts, according to the intellectual leaders of the movement.”
But that’s changing. Dance is becoming re-centered in the visual arts, with dedicated space for it at the new Whitney Museum in New York and increasing investments in the performing arts by the Museum of Modern Art, among many others. The Guggenheim has begun “acquiring” live performances. Dancers are sculpting the stage and their bodies in a way that echoes how visual artists have long rendered them in bronze or oils, as the DIA exhibition illustrates.
The exhibition is four years in the making. Dini began work on the show the same year the museum won a hard-fought millage. In 2013, Detroit declared the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, making the city-owned museum vulnerable to creditors. It was ultimately spared a ransacking by the city’s “Grand Bargain” in 2014.
In short, this was rocky terrain on which to plan a show. Gloomy news made headlines just as Dini was reaching out to art institutions for loans. But, she said, “in almost every case,” her requests to museums around the world came through. “Everyone was behind Detroit at that moment,” Dini said. “There was tremendous solidarity among curators.”
Detroit’s dance history is interwoven into the DIA exhibition, not least in the work of Haleem Rasul, champion of the homegrown dance the Jit, and Motown choreographer Cholly Atkins. Both underscore how dance is best transmitted from body to body, student to teacher.
‘Bull Dance’ by George Catlin (1832)
During an annual four-day Mandan O-kee-pa ceremony, Native American dancers dressed themselves in buffalo skin and performed 40 cycles of a dance that imitated the animal. Catlin’s oil painting, one of the earliest works in the exhibition, is contextualized with how native and non-native artists have represented indigenous American dance, questioning the shifting meaning of “authenticity.”
by John Singer Sargent (1890)
Striking in heavy layers of yellow satin, Sargent’s large-scale portrait of the Spanish dancer Carmen Dauset Moreno is juxtaposed with William Merritt Chase’s “Carmencita,” completed the same year, as well as a looping 1894 film by Thomas Edison’s company that shows the popular performer in motion. It epitomizes the exhibition’s major theme: Dancers weren’t merely subjects; they were peer artists that challenged painters and sculptors to develop new visual languages.
‘Study for Moods to Music,’ by Robert Frederick Blum (1893-1895)
Blum was commissioned to paint grand murals along the proscenium of Mendelssohn Hall in New York City. The concert hall was demolished in 1912. Blum’s work was salvaged and stored at the Brooklyn Museum but then nearly forgotten. This large study showcases 11 women in a communal dance. Each conveys a different mood, and no two are looking in quite the same direction. Visible pencil lines amplify the open feel of the painting.
‘The Dance’ by Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1897)
Quite a few small-scale bronze sculptures are integrated into the exhibition, tracing back to the popular contemporary tradition of flowing, Greek-inspired costumes and nature-based settings that Dini describes in the exhibition catalogue.
‘Youth’ by Arthur Frank Mathews (circa 1917)
Mathews paints the mythic nine muses in a parade-like celebration in an Arcadian Northern California. The group is led by Urania, the muse of astronomy, wearing a Zodiac-inspired skirt. She clashes her cymbals determinedly, reminiscent of Mary Cassatt’s “Bacchante” (1872), which also appears in the exhibition.
‘Ruth St. Denis in the Peacock Dance’
by Robert Henri (1919)
Henri’s full-length portrait of one of the
greatest pioneers of modern dance was
completed one year before American women won the right to vote. In context of the heated debate about the role of women, modern dance was a realm where performers such as St. Denis and Isadora Duncan were throwing out the conventions of space, dress and movement. This painting captures how St. Denis borrowed from non-Western traditions in a dance in which she presented herself as a beautiful bird — a male one.
‘The Charleston’ by Frank Myers (1926)
Myers’s vivid painting captures the tilt of a dance floor and the almost hallucinatory colors of late night. It showcases one of the most popular social dances of the era, painted three years after the James P. Johnson song that inspired it became a runaway hit. The dancers’ blank faces also suggest the “alone together” spirit of a dance hall.
‘The Man: Costume design for the ballet H.P. (Horsepower)’ by Diego Rivera (1927)
Rivera moonlighted as a costume designer. This watercolor is one of his designs for Mexican composer Carlos Chávez’s symphonic ballet, which tells a pan-American story in which the laborers triumph. While work on it began in the Roaring Twenties, it premiered during the Great Depression, in Philadelphia on March 31, 1932. Three weeks later, Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo, would arrive in Detroit, welcomed at the train station by reporters and fans. Rivera would spend the next year in the Motor City creating the monumental “Detroit Industry” murals that cover the DIA walls.
by Aaron Douglas (circa 1930)
Duke University professor Thomas F. DeFrantz suggests that in the midst of a “juggernaut
of poetry and plays” during the Harlem Renaissance, dance was “probably the least
of the arts, according to the intellectual leaders of the movement.” But in fact, dance was a rich realm of the era’s creativity, and it inspired artists — Douglas, a painter famed for turning minstrelsy
on its head, perhaps foremost among them. In “Dance,” he showcases his modernist
sensibility, flattening a dynamic art form into shadows and geometric shapes.
by William H. Johnson (circa 1941)
Johnson’s painting is one of a five-part series.
Here, another great social dance is represented, this time by a leading Harlem Renaissance painter who zeroes in on one couple’s kinetic experience: smiling, falling into each other, all arms and legs. The evolution of the high-energy Lindy Hop into
the jitterbug, according to Duke University professor Thomas F. DeFrantz, corresponded
with an adapted form of the dance that made it more accessible and widely taught.