September 16th, 2012

Why Dance in the Art World? Elaine Summers and Lana Wilson in Conversation

On Monday, September 17, the Performa Institute and NYU Steinhardt present Why Dance in the Art World?, an exciting evening where we will explore the history and future of the visual arts’ relationship to and interest in dance. The panel discussion will include historian and author of Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet Jennifer Homans; choreographer, writer, and visual artist Ralph Lemon; MoMA PS1 curator Jenny Schlenzka; and editor and Artforum contributor David Velasco, moderated by Performa founding director and curator RoseLee Goldberg.

As we count down the days to this groundbreaking event, we will look back through Performa’s archives as we search for the answer to “Why Dance in the Art World?”

Today, we have artist Elaine Summers in conversation with Performa Dance Curator Lana Wilson, January 2008:

Lana Wilson: You are known as a pioneering intermedia artist. What does the term “intermedia” mean to you?

Elaine Summers: It’s a very old thing that has been going on ever since performance began—putting music with dance, dance with sculpture, and so on. Different mediums are juxtaposed, but that doesn’t necessarily create a new effect in the space in-between, like intermedia does. Intermedia is a rainbow. You can’t have a rainbow unless you have three elements—the sun, the rain, and the space in between. 

You’re saying that putting a song and dance together doesn’t create a new physical effect, where intermedia does.

Putting things together creates a magical happening that takes place in your head, but not visually. I am very interested in primal sources, and the very first form of intermedia was the candle, the body, and its shadow. 

You mean starting with the candle and adding the body in front of the flame to create the shadow on the wall. 

Right. Isn’t that nice? That kind of magic is something that a lot of early dance films from the early 1890s and 1900s played with too. I fell in love with the whole early dance film thing and wrote my Master’s thesis on it [in 1986]. I especially loved Thomas Edison. Every Sunday, Thomas Edison would leave his Black Maria Studio in New Jersey and go to Coney Island, where he shot many, many fabulous dance films. All three minutes long. He was crazy about Loie Fuller’s dancing and wanted to film it, but Loie Fuller was in Paris. So he got the variety show star Annabelle Moore to perform Fuller’s choreography in the thirty-second film Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895), one of the first movies ever made. It’s hand-painted so that it looks like her dress is changing color. In his other shorts Edison used almost every camera resource available. And there’s even one where he tried to make intermedia.

How did he do that?

There’s this image of a man standing in a train station, and the train is coming along. And Edison tried to make it look as if the man was outside of the screen and jumped into it. It’s like that other movie, that’s very famous . . .

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). The Woody Allen movie. 


When did you first become interested in dance films? You didn’t grow up here in New York, did you? 

No. I’m from Perth, Australia, originally, but when I was three I started going to boarding school [in Massachusetts], and when I was five we moved to Boston. Perth is very warm, and when I’d come home from boarding school, we’d put cots out in the backyard. My mother ran a hairdressing shop in the front, and we slept in the back, and then there was this very narrow backyard. And next door there was another backyard, belonging to a theater that showed outdoor movies. Silent black-and-white-movies from the 1920s.

So you could sit in your cot and watch them. 

I did. I’d be way down here, looking up over there, and that’s an experience I’ll never forget. Then, and throughout the rest of my childhood, my mother always took me to the movies. I’ll never forget seeing the first movie that Balanchine ever choreographed, The Goldwyn Follies, from 1938. I was ten years old. That was when I fell in love with film dance. 

So after your family moved to Boston when you were five, did you take dance classes?

Yes. At a really big ballet studio—you know, a recital once a year and everything. But my mother was not very happy about my becoming a dancer.

Because she thought you wouldn’t make enough money?

Oh, yeah. She said, “You’ll never make any money, and if you have to separate from your husband”—which she had done—“you have to be able to make a living.” So I got a job selling hats on the weekends and some nights during the week to pay for my own lessons. In high school I had this wonderful art teacher and I really enjoyed art classes. I didn’t think I could afford to go to college, but my two best friends, Luis and Dussy, made sure that I applied to the Massachusetts College of Art, which I did, and I got in. It cost $50 a year. 

Only $50 a year?

Yes. It was a state school. I specialized in teaching and graduated with a BFA in art education. My first job was as the arts supervisor for the Wallingford-Connecticut school system. That meant I went for half an hour to every school in the district once a week. It was fabulous. I feel that any kind of visual art is a wonderful education for a dancer, and I think art school is the perfect training for choreography.

How so?

Some choreographers are more interested in dance kinetically, rather than visually. But dance can be both a kinetic art and a visual art.

Do you think that most dance audiences are looking for “kinetic” choreography when they see a show? Are they looking for dancers who are virtuosic performers, who can do things that the audience couldn’t do themselves? Because even though Judson really turned that assumption on its head, people still go to dance shows today and come out saying, “How was that dance? I could have done that.” It feels like a barrier sometimes.

Well, it’s their right to react that way. Sometimes though, if the choreographer really gets them, they don’t even know it at first. They’ll go out into the world, and they’ll begin to see things differently. They’ll realize that there’s a dance going on every day. It opens up all movement as a resource for dance. I’ve had a lot of responses like that to my work. 

This perceptual shift—changing the way people look at everyday events and movements—was such an important idea, which you and the other people in Judson were the first to develop. What were those initial workshops with Robert Dunn, which later developed into the Judson Dance Theater, like?

We were a community that was sort of bubbling from the inspiration of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Anna Halprin, and others—it was all about ideas. You came to this very simple class and did whatever you wanted to complete “assignments” that were often based on Cage’s chance methods, and then this grew into whole evenings. The chance method is so wonderful because it’s completely objective. You have to list all the possibilities for every decision that you have to make, and then you lose the power of command. You’re stopped from doing things in the same way you always do them, and instead you have to try some things that may be impossible. I mean, literally, they could be impossible! 

The evenings at Judson set up a more formal place to meet and show ideas and talk about those ideas—not whether you liked something or didn’t like it, but, what did you see? What was the purpose of this part? Were you trying to do that? It was much more analytical. We would laugh because we would say, “You can’t tell us about light, and you can’t talk about costumes.” No distractions! It was an incredibly wonderful way of doing things.

Tell me about the film that was shown in Performa 07, Judson Fragments (1964). Where did the footage come from, and over how long of a period did you shoot it? It’s a collage of so many different film formats.

Well, I put Judson Fragments together just after I did Fantastic Gardens at Judson in 1964. Fantastic Gardens was a very important performance for me. It started with a screen, onto which we projected several different films that we had cut up and put together using the chance method. Then a dancer came through a split in the screen, and danced in front of the images. This was the first-ever intermedia piece, and a complete performance in every way. It used eight different 16-millimeter projectors and four Super-8s. Films literally covered every available surface! 

Judson Fragments contained a lot of the footage that I had collected for Fantastic Gardens, which I had started shooting in the 1950s. I didn’t know what I was doing then. All I knew was how to stick film together with cement glue. So I decided that I should learn how to do all the technical processes myself.

There’s a lot of formal experimentation in Judson Fragments. You use negative film, and upside-down footage, and every gauge and kind of stock imaginable. Is that all stuff that you shot while you were trying to learn about filmmaking, experimenting with different cinematic tricks?

Yes. That’s what I was interested in with film—what can I do? What is possible? 

So why did you decide to go through all your old footage and bring it together in this way?

Basically just for fun. The animated sequences were by my husband, Carol Summers, and the little boy in the field is my son on Fire Island, and then there’s footage that Carol and I shot of each other rolling around nude, shots of Yvonne [Rainer] and others dancing, some footage that Stan VanDerBeek shot of heads and necks and other body parts—so many bits and pieces. We screened it in St. Mark’s Church, and I thought everyone would be bored, but actually they all loved it.

Everyone was really thrilled by it at the Performa screening, too. But now you’re working on so many more projects—you’re continuing to teach Kinetic Awareness, the system of bodywork that you developed, in your home studio and around the world, and you’re also using the Internet and technology in your new project, Skytime.

Everything we know about technology comes from inside our body. Computers are just brains. The body has the will to heal itself from the inside, and it has the technology to do it, too.

That’s the basic premise of kinetic awareness, right? That it’s a kind of movement therapy that actually heals?

Absolutely. Beginning with the fact that your body is a perpetual massage machine. Every molecule is massaging every molecule that’s next to it.

Tell me more about Skytime.

Well, I love the Internet! The takeover of dance and other criticism by the Web—it’s wonderful! Look at YouTube and the blogs and everything—as soon as people were offered this power, they grabbed onto it. It’s amazing. And now you can make projects like Skytime, where you can use the Web to say, “Everyone, go outside at noon and look up at the sky and do something!” And hundreds of thousands of people can go to Gramercy Park, for example, and check their watch and look up at the sky together.

Is this something you actually did for Skytime?

Well, Skytime is an invitation for everyone who wants to come and play. I talk to taxi drivers about how they feel about the sky. I’ve done some teaching for Harvestworks with young kids, and one little kid said, “I don’t like the sky.” So everyone contributes their feelings about the sky to this Web site. You can even do things like write about 1930s sky music, like [the artist] Russell Connor wants to do on Skytime. And the Web site could be self-supporting! I want it to be totally free for artists, but supported by selling things for the sky, like kites and blimps and planes. Everything needs money to back it. The one thing I don’t want is to end up is a poverty-stricken old lady with no brains!

I’m sure that won’t ever happen. [laughter] Going back to the Judson Dance Theater, do you see any similar opportunities that are available for artists today?

Of course. For us, Robert Dunn was the spark that brought us together, but today it’s still just about people getting together, talking about ideas, making art. You can’t just wait for the dance world to come to you. We had to fight for things—we went to the senators, made the New York State Council support us, and so on. If there was a problem, we would have a meeting, delegate who would do what, and get it done.

What about money? It’s so hard for artists, especially choreographers, right now—they can’t afford to live in New York, they can’t afford studio space.

It’s true that it is much easier to get discouraged today. It’s a very cruel economic environment right now, which is really bad for everybody. But there are some existing things in place that can help, and Mayor Bloomberg and New Jersey in particular have begun to realize that art is incredibly good business for a community, and for attracting tourists. If every country becomes a tourist trap, good! That way nothing hurts anybody, the economy isn’t dependent on killing anybody or taking anything away from anybody, and people who make small, seemingly inconsequential craft items can make enough money to live. 

I think President Bush is tremendously responsible for the current economic crisis, because he told everybody to go buy houses. It’s true—the economy was going up and up. But because of the huge percentage that loan companies charge for credit, and because they allowed people to do it so riskily, they are responsible for this enormous happening. I mean, it’s become like plantation living. The boss man has all the money and you buy at his store. We’re back to that kind of economy, and that’s very sad. But in all the economies all the time all over the world, people dance, people sew, people make lovely things—even small things like candles and fragrances. People should keep doing their little thing and trying to survive. 

But don’t you think that people also deserve help?

Of course. It’s wonderful to have help, and we should get it. You know, you can take a boat up the Danube river and go into a church that has a wall made of pure gold—and you might think, well, instead of using all of this money for art, the Catholic Church should have used it for the various plagues, and all the other calamities around the world at that time, but I looked at it and thought, no indeed! People will pay to come and look at a wall of gold for years to come. An art object gains money, and who gets money after the artist is dead, and after their family is gone? Your country, your community, your neighborhood. You can’t stop art. Artists are like wildflowers that grow in the cracks between the rocks—they’re always able to devise a means to live.

This interview was excerpted from Everywhere and All at Once: An Anthology of Writings on Performa 07.  Why Dance in the Art World? takes place at Judson Memorial Church on Monday, September 17. Join us

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