Reviewing “Rhythm & Roots”

 

Okay, this is my final review of an exhibit at the Denver Art Museum. This summer, the museum has paid special attention to the artistry of dance and movement by curating exhibits such as “Rhythm & Roots: Dance in American Art.”

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The Vision of Life by Ralph Blakelock.

This exhibit recently opened in the museum and takes viewers on a historical journey through both the styles of and reasons for dance, as well as how they are portrayed in art. The exhibit begins by examining just a few instances of Native American dances, paying particular attention to The Ghost Dance. This dance became a popular ritual throughout several tribes as a way to reunite the living with spirits of the dead and ask them for help in defeating their enemies: white colonists. One of the most interesting things to me was the showing of two different interpretations of The Ghost Dance in this exhibit.

First, we have Ralph Blakelock’s The Vision of Life, which is a traditional landscape-style painting of the 17th century. The painting shows ghostly figures converging in a mass in the foreground of the painting. According to information provided by the exhibit, the

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Ghost Dance by Oscar Howe.

painting was intended to be a sort of preservation of Native culture by the artist as the United States government and military continued to exert pressure and dominance over Native Tribes. The government was worried that dances and rituals such as these would lead to uprisings from Native Americans, and so they sought to repress the practices as much as possible — a cause in which Blakelock himself supported indirectly through his work.  Down the line from this piece, is another more abstract painting entitled Ghost Dance by Oscar Howe. This piece shows red figures that seem to appear almost like flames against a dark background. They seem to be dancing together, as if they are either calling or becoming the spirits. Howe, of the Yanktonai Sioux, lends a Native voice to the same subject by portraying a truth faced by Native people who performed the dance despite a ban from the U.S. government. Troops were sent to break up the dance but the altercation ended in the Massacre at Wounded Knee Creek.

Just seeing two totally different interpretations of the same subject was interesting and spoke more about the influence of dance and the importance of recording it for posterity.

As visitors move through the exhibit, static victorian paintings line the walls. None of them really suggest movement, but are rather a study of the logistics of certain kinds of dances, which included both western styles and ones brought in from slaves and immigrants. A small portion of the exhibit focused on the buck and wing dances often danced by black slaves during their downtime.

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One of the things I thought was very helpful in the exhibit is a bay of iPads at which visitors don headphones and watch videos of dances including African American social dances, the Charleston and Irish jigs. This portion of the exhibit really helped to bring the topic to life, which I think was kind of missing in the majority of the show.

 

Dance evolves with the exhibit to include paintings of the jazz era by Harlem Renaissance artists. There is also a large portion dedicated to portraits and descriptions of famed dancers of the early 1900s such as Carmencita, a widely sought-after, pre-vaudville Spanish dancer. For some of these profiles, iPads show short recordings of them dancing,

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Anna Pavlova’s costume worn while dancing the Dying Swan.

which I enjoyed immensely.

Probably the most beautiful of these, was a video of Anna Pavlova dancing the Dying Swan in a video next to her original feathered costume. It was so beautiful.

Finally, the exhibit briefly addresses contemporary dance and performance art with descriptions about collaborations between artists and dancers. The exhibit included Andy Warhol’s installation Silver Clouds. This installation features silver pillows floating around the room, constantly in motion. The installation inspired a dance entitled Rainforest, performed by Merce Cunningham along with other dancers who interacted with the clouds throughout the performance.

This was an interesting portion of the exhibit, but I fear it is passed over easily by visitors simply wanting to interact with the clouds themselves.

All in all, when compared to the other exhibits I visited that day, this was my least favorite. Something about it fell a little flat for me — I think I was expecting more movement and excitement, rather than static paintings. However, the show is very educational and I think it provides a good introduction for further explorations on the history of dance.

“Rhythm & Roots: Dance in American Art” is on display in the Hamilton building through October 2 and is included in general admission.

What did you think of “Rhythm & Roots?” What is your favorite type of dance? How do you think dance contributes to our general understanding of cultures? Let’s talk. 

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