Accumulating Objects and Disappearing Dances: A new approach to curating SF’s Contemporary Jewish Museum

By Daniel Schifrin


A new museum is an odd place, brimming with contradictions. On the one hand, a museum building, however post-modern, is infused with people’s expectations of quietly contemplating material culture. On the other hand, so much of contemporary art is noisy, dynamic, multi-media, and often task-oriented. In other words, the temple meets our kitchen table.

One of my primary goals as director of public programs at the two-year-old Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco has been to find ways to bridge this gap, as well as the gap between the democratic impulse behind much contemporary art, and the sense among many consumers that innovative cultural production is aimed way above their heads. And performance has proven to be the most effective way to do this.

For instance, when the Museum presented Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered in 2009, a show about a show about Andy Warhol, some folks were put off by a lingering bias against Warhol’s work, accessible as capitalist critique but not as ART. We commissioned monologuist Josh Kornbluth to riff on the exhibition, a performance that became a sold-out series of shows at the Museum, and then a national tour. Kornbluth’s persona as brainy everyman, and his charismatic conversational style, offered access to Warhol’s work in ways that traditional museum lectures could not.

Other performances—including a puppet/theater show from Tel Aviv’s Habima theater, and the local improvisation comedy troupe Improv Artists unpacking exhibition images—sought to provide further access to the complicated stories of artists Marc Chagall and Maurice Sendak.

But what about dance?

When I first stepped into the soaring Yud gallery at our Museum, a room without a right angle and without a single painting, I was struck first by the silence—and then by an urgent need to move. I recalled the famous quip that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I had never felt the call to write about music, but standing under 36 windows of light I had the experience of being moved—literally—by the space. And move I did—alone and unselfconsciously—until the clouds passed over, the light dimmed, and I stopped. The room was transformed once again; I had the instincts for how to move while it was sunny, but not while it was dark.

A few months after the museum’s opening I met Rebecca Pappas, of Pappas & Dancers, whom I asked to stage her piece Monster, a dance suitable to the Yud gallery in its dark moments. Historically rich and politically inflected, Monster also unpacked the dark edginess of the work of Maurice Sendak, then on view.

This experience blew open the doors for us. As Pappas demonstrated in a powerpoint-aided talk after her performances, her work was influenced by a history of visual representations of Jews as monsters, connecting the dehumanizing ideas that led to the Holocaust with the caricatures of Sendak’s Jewish relatives (think Wild Things with Yiddish accents) and the complexities of artistic responses to genocides.

Monster also carried the seeds of Pappas’ new project, exploring the body as an “archive,” and asking audiences to reconsider the goals of collections, records and art.

“Inspired by Merce Cunningham’s Legacy Initiative I have been thinking deeply about his dance ‘capsules’—a collection of objects—costumes, notes and videos—meant to stand in for his dances,” she explained to me about her new piece, A dance concerning itself with objects and history. “I have been wondering about the connection between the tangible and the intangible as well as the way we collect objects to stand as a bulwark between ourselves and death. As someone in an art form that is by definition intangible I am interested in the friction between accumulating objects and disappearing dances. It is a subject that I believe we must consider as a field—do we want to be defined by our own disappearance or by the objects we leave behind?”

This idea of what we leave behind for others takes a different direction in our next Museum dance presentation, Dan Plonsey’s Bar Mitzvah, a music/theater/dance piece written and composed by Dan Plonsey, and choreographed by Eric Kupers of Dandelion Dancetheater. (This project, commissioned by the Jewish Music Festival, is presented in conjunction with our exhibition Reinventing Ritual.)

Dan Plonsey’s Bar Mitzvah is concerned with the ambivalences and difficulties of the carrying forth of tradition, knowledge and memory. Reflecting many influences—including Pina Bausch’s emphasis on dancer’s personal memories, and Anna Halprin’s blending of dance, community and ritual—the choreography is meant to pull people into the performance, hopefully disorient them a little bit, and ultimately create room for their own experiences and histories.

This issue of creating room for visitors is what choreographer Nina Haft seems to be after in her work within a museum context.

“In making work for museums, I am always responding to visitors’ own movements within the space, and their many possible connections to the content imported into the galleries,” said Haft, whose work has been presented at the Berkeley Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and on the ground of the Cantor Museum in the Rodin Sculpture Garden at Stanford University. “I also like challenging audiences to see the impact of their own choices (about content, viewpoint and chosen distance from the work) because I really do believe that how we move through space changes everything.”

Eric Kupers suggested, initially tongue in cheek, that I be cast in Dan Plonsey’s Bar Mitzvah as a “Museum bureaucrat,” officiously trying from the get-go to control the process as it broke one rule after another. I immediately accepted. Kupers’ instinct was that by breaking down the walls right away between institution, performers and audience we could explicitly reference the complicated goals of a civic/arts/Jewish institution asking questions about itself as it pushed back against the chaos of a new creative endeavor.

It is fitting that Anna Halprin will speak at the preview performance of Dan Plonsey’s Bar Mitzvah. Her presence underscores what I hope an institution like the Contemporary Jewish Museum can add to the conversation about dance today—the possibility of truly and messily connecting ritual, history, movement and freedom.

Dan Plonsey’s Bar Mitzvah receives its world premiere at the Contemporary Jewish Museum on July 8 and 11, 2010.

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This article appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of In Dance.