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02 August 2012

Wide open spaces

by Nancy Wozny (Culture Map)

Dancers performing in art galleries is an idea whose time has come. Nancy Wozny and Misha Penton talk about stagingKlytemnestra at the Museum of Fine Arts Houson.

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What does it mean that one of the most arresting dance performances of the season took place at an art gallery, when former Merce Cunningham dancers took over the G Gallery space in May with 104 Work Weeks: On Tour With the Merce Cunningham Dance Company by Kenneth E. Parris III in the background?

It means galleries are places where more than just visual art happens. Those wide open, white spaces have always beckoned performing artists, so nothing new there. Yet, the wave of activity happening in Houston makes me happy on so many levels.

First, it's great when a visual arts organization hands over its often generous-sized space to a performing artist. There's also a greater chance to mix audiences, so we get out of our separate camps once in a while. It's also even better when there is a strong connection between what you see and where you are seeing it.

It's no wonder there was something magical about seeing former Merce Cunningham company dancers Melissa Toogood and Marcie Munerlyn dance, they are the equivalent of prima ballerinas in the modern dance world. They performed a selection of duets and solos from Cunningham’s oeuvre. Control, exactitude and Cunningham's surprising composition made every second feel charged.

Together, they held the audience gathered to see Parris' drawings spellbound. And to deepen the experience, before and after the performance we could see a glimpse into their lives on the Cunningham final tour through Parris' intricate drawings.

When Divergence Vocal Theater diva Misha Penton performed Klytemnestra at the MFAH in June, she was able to have Anton von Maron's 1786 painting, The Return of Orestes, as a backdrop, a painting that captures a moment in the tragic family saga – a tale that's been told and re-told over centuries. There she was riffing on a theme that also intrigued artists for eons.

"My concept for the chamber opera is one of many tellings, with Klytemnestra at its center. Dominick DiOrio set my words to music, so our new version emerges from my words as the voice of Klytemnestra coupled with Dominick's powerful, intricate, psychologically-charged music," says Penton. "The painting added yet another a rich layer to our performance and set our work within a broader historical context."

Antoine Plante is an old hand at performing in galleries, as the orchestra has graced the galleries of MFAH in years past. Next season, from this fall through May 2013, you can see Mercury performing in Gallery M Squared. The gallery performances are part of Mercury's neighborhood outreach program, and include Vivaldi’s Harmonic Inspirations, Bach’s Double Concerto, and Mozart’s A Little Night Music.

I ran into Arturo Palacios, owner of Art Palace at Black Hole Coffee House. He's all about opening his space to music, film, performance art, even theater, especially during the slow months of the summer. On Saturday, The Bridge Club Collective performs Medium at Art Palace.

"The title refers to both the collection and dissemination of otherworldly messages and to the formal material from which an artwork is created," says Annie Strader, one of The Bridge Club founders. "The performers will be seated on chairs suspended from the gallery walls, and will respond to a combination of objects sound and projection to explore the intentional, shamanistic, wondrous and quasi-religious aspects of both art making and seeking the divine."

Stader feels an intentionality in the space.

"Many of our works respond to the physical space or geographic area in which we are performing. In considering what we would do for Art Palace we all agreed that we wanted to address the white walls of the gallery aesthetically and conceptually," she says. "At openings people are typically in the center of the space mingling and the artwork often surrounds them —we wanted to work with that situation rather than disrupt it directly."

The Bridge Club has performed in a variety of locales — a hotel room, a city bus, an abandoned storefront and a laundromat.

"Each space offers different challenges and that is part of the process that we enjoy. The gallery space has less physical historic residue than other locations we have worked, which causes us to build the performance based on the function and conceptual use of the gallery."

The Bridge Club launches its next project, The Trailer, this fall.

Finally, don't miss the dancer performing quietly, of course, in Tino Sehgal's piece, Instead of allowing something to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things, 2000 as part of Silence at The Menil Collection. 

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Nancy Wozny is editor of Arts+Culture Houston and writes frequently about dance, music, and the arts for Houston Chronicle, ArtsHouston, HOUSTON, CultureVulture, Dance Studio Life, and numerous other publications.