Sunday, January 12, 2014

Dancing the Dream

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through July 13, 2014

The Portrait Gallery has really been on a roll lately.  After the tremendously good Portrait Competition winners and the very interesting Yousuf Karsh shows, I would have been satisfied if this show on dancers was just okay.  No such thing - it's very good.  Dance your way on over to see this pronto!

I wasn't certain how much I would get out of an exhibit on dance, as it's not the fine art with which I am the most familiar.  Truth be told, I'm a bit intimidated by dance; I have no talent for it myself, and I haven't been to enough dance recitals to be able to appreciate other people doing it.  Happily, you can come with two left feet and little knowledge of dance and still enjoy yourself at this show.

The display is divided into sections on Broadway, Hollywood, choreography, ballet and modern pop music.  They feature enough well known dancers that even people with a casual interest in dance won't feel out of their depth.   If you went to see the National Gallery exhibit on the Ballets Russes, you'll feel right at home, as that company is mentioned several times.  In fact, the company's Rite of Spring is listed on the wall notes as the birth of modernism in dance.  "Where were the tutus of tradition?"  remarked the audience members.  Gone forever, is the short answer.  The wall notes continue, "Dance is American culture in motion.  The American spirit combines a wonderful sense of experiment and a lack of truck with the past."

Depending on which types of dance most suit your fancy, you'll like some sections better than others.  I was delighted with the Art Nouveau posters in the Broadway section, including a large one of Loie Fuller.  I was also taken with the portrait of Shirley MacLaine, who started her performing life as a dancer.  The wall notes mention her role on Downton Abbey - the role for which she's probably most famous at the moment.  I noticed that they had a Boris Chaliapin portrait of Katherine Dunham - I think that show has closed now, but it's a nice reminder.  I also saw a bit on Merce Cunningham, a partner of John Cage.  Yeesh, you'd think you'd be safe from him at a show on dance, but he intrudes here.  Apparently, Cunningham believed in dance as randomness; he would only tell his performers the sequence of dances right before they were due to go on stage.  What nonsense! If I'm going to pay top dollar to see a show (and I'm sure they do charge top dollar), I expect some rehearsing to have gone on beforehand.

The best part of this show for me were the videos.  They run the gamut from Baryshnikov in Swan Lake, to Rita Moreno in West Side Story, to John Travolta in Saturday Night Live and several music videos.  If you go to this show, make sure to allow time to watch those.  The only difficulty with them, is that they point up the problem with portraits of dancers.  Dance is inherently movement-oriented, and a painting or photograph is static.

Verdict: A very fine show that's manageable in a lunch hour, although you might want to spend more time.

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