Editor’s Note: Following her preview on Friday, Kate Mattingly presents a review of a special performance marking the opening of the “Silke Otto-Knapp: A light in the moon/MATRIX 239″ exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum. The exhibit continues until January 15, and you can find more information here.
On Friday at BAM, artist Silke Otto-Knapp was asked about the steps she takes to create a new work and replied, “it’s a messy and watery process.”
Her watercolors present shimmering images that emerge from silver-grey backgrounds and come into focus as a viewer walks by and finds an ideal vantage point. Otto-Knapp says her process inverts a traditional method of applying layers of color and texture: “rather than adding, it’s about taking away.” For this exhibit, several works started with photos of dancers, from which Otto-Knapp makes a sketch, then works her image into watercolor, sensitively washing down the details. Ultimately she finds a translucency and vibrancy that give the exhibited works a distinct theme.
Similar to Otto-Knapp’s process of “taking away,” experimental dancers of the 1960s and 1970s sought a simplified, stripped-down approach to dance, seen in Yvonne Rainer’s “Trio A” from 1966 as well as Trisha Brown’s “Walking on the Wall” at the Whitney Museum five years later. Although these creations may seem empty or spare, they are rife with possibility: viewers tend to notice subtle details of bodies in motion when dancers present such reduced vocabularies.
On Friday at BAM a program of events included variations of “Trio A,” films, and dialogue that marked the opening of Otto-Knapp’s exhibit. To see landmark pieces from decades ago and then a new solo made and performed by Flora Wiegmann revealed how dance has undergone its own “messy” process: its evolution has been both multi-directional and controversial.
Friday’s program began with a film of Anna Halprin’s “Parades and Changes” performed at the museum in 1970. The occasion celebrated the opening of BAM and was a bold move by BAM’s founding director, Peter Selz: he knew “Parades and Changes” had just been banned in New York (the piece contains nudity) and selected the piece to commemorate a museum dedicated to artists and innovation. According to Friday’s program notes, “Selz invited Halprin to define the ethos of the space before any art was installed.”
In the film there were stunning moments of juxtaposition: naked bodies tearing sheets of construction paper surrounded by the cavernous, almost brutal setting of BAM’s concrete interior. There were contrasts between the textures of smooth, muscular bodies of Halprin’s diverse cast, and the angular balconies of the museum packed with onlookers. Watching a film of the same setting where we were now seated 41 years later revealed how hairstyles and fashions may have changed (slightly), but the spirit of curiosity and experimentation nurtured by BAM remains.
After “Parades and Changes,” a film of Yvonne Rainer’s “Dance Fractions for the West Coast” included glimpses of Rainer working with 25 students at Mills College in 1969. It ended with Rainer performing “Trio A” (its first filmed version) and then the audience watched live dancers perform the same choreography.
Curator Dena Beard said to me a couple days before the exhibit opened, “every time a dance is recreated it changes,” and Friday’s events made this vividly apparent. “Trio A” was performed as a solo by Linda K. Johnson, who maintained Rainer’s emphasis on non-inflected movement and brought a sense of determined calm to the intentionally unpredictable and smoothly continuous phrase. Then Johnson repeated the phrase with Rainer’s cousin Ruth Rainero trying to distract her by catching her focus. Lastly it was performed as a trio with Johnson, Mimi Moncier, and Kristine Anderson, similar to its first 1966 performance as a trio (but one that denies unison coordination). During the last variation, The Chambers Brothers’ “In the Midnight Hour” provided a soundtrack, and it seemed more challenging for the dancers to resist accents and modulations in phrasing.
To switch from Rainer’s intensely non-glamorous, non-spectacular choreography to Wiegmann’s “Allay Alight” was at first jarring. Wiegmann has a gorgeous, facile movement quality and a body that seems capable of doing anything with exquisite ease. Dressed in short shorts and a loose top she traversed a strip of space marked by two lines of white tape. By repeating images and steps, she chiseled moments into my memory: a triplet phrase facing the dark windows of the museum, a fluid backbend that seemed to open her heart to the sky.
The differences in these creations that span 45 years reflect our changing attitudes towards bodies, virtuosity, and choreography. It’s inspiring that a museum recognizes the importance of such live events, which can complement exhibits of paintings and sculptures and shed light on art forms’ cross-fertilizations.
It also seemed apt to pair Otto-Knapp’s paintings with dance events since her images demand a choreography of their own: our shifting gaze can activate elements that initially aren’t visible. This kind of interactivity exists in both performances and exhibits when audiences participate in the making of an image.
It’s also what can turn a viewer’s experience from passive reception into active inspiration: when we recognize an encounter in which we generate our own meaning, our own beauty, we see what transformation may be possible in other interactions and relationships.