- The Reaccession of Ted ShawnA Study in Virtual Permanence
In the spring of 2013, I was invited to represent the modernist choreographer Ted Shawn at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the exhibition 20 Dancers of the XXth Century, curated by Boris Charmatz. The exhibit proposed the both radical and rudimentary notion that the main museal space for dance is the human body. In many ways, this is in keeping with how dance has historically been preserved—passing down from generation to generation as an oral and kinesthetic tradition without the benefit of a comprehensive or standardized notation system. With this tradition in mind, I endeavored to become a living archive of Shawn’s work. In determining how to approach this task, particularly in the absence of any living company members or company apparatus, I had to ask both practical and theoretical questions about the archive and dance re-performance.
I chose to reconstruct some of Shawn’s most beloved and iconic dances, including Four Solos Based on American Folk Music (1931) and Pierrot in the Dead City (1935). To ensure the authenticity of the performances, I reconstructed Shawn’s technique class, trained in the studios he and his dancers built, and studied every form of documentation I could find. All the while I had to ask: Is it even possible to faithfully reproduce these works, which were originally performed outdoors on a farm in the Berkshires, in a white-walled museum in midtown Manhattan? What is the best strategy for revitalizing these historic works? Perhaps it was my dissatisfaction with traditional cenotaphic approaches, or that I was inspired by the inventive conceit behind the exhibition itself, but following the performances at MoMA, I felt compelled to do more. It wasn’t enough for me to retrace Shawn’s footsteps. I wanted to build upon his legacy and extend it into the twenty-first century.
As a result, on May 16, 2014, I launched a digital installation at MoMA, unauthorized by the museum and invisible to the naked eye. With the use of an Augmented Reality (AR)1 platform provided through a residency with Dance-Tech, and video [End Page 69] filmed by my collaborator Philippe Tremblay-Berberi, I created a permanent installation of my performances at MoMA rendered accessible via mobile technology. Participants are able to view footage of my performances simply by opening an app and training their smartphones or tablet computers to the museum galleries where I performed in October 2013. Shawn made a gift of his works to MoMA in the 1950s, but the museum later gave these materials to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. MoMA’s own policies, however, are such that they do not sell or give away works by living artists, and Shawn was living at the time of his deaccession. By installing my performances of Ted Shawn’s choreography inside the museum walls, I performed an act of reaccession. This flip, made possible by the use of AR and video documentation, trespasses on the museum and re-establishes connections between these art forms parsed out years ago. My hope is that, by doing so, I can ignite a conversation around new modalities for seeing and experiencing choreographic work.
IDEAS THAT TAKE UP SPACE
Ted Shawn, often referred to by his students as “Papa Shawn,” was a leading force of early American modern dance. In 1915, he co-founded The Denishawn School, whose notable pupils include Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman. He also founded The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts and the well-known all-male modern dance company Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers. Choreographically, Shawn chose themes which drew from local and international folk traditions and crafted a movement vocabulary that connected with agrarian and other labor practices. He was frustrated with the bourgeois and Eurocentric traditions around ballet, and sought to physically discover a distinctively American movement vocabulary by creating works that celebrated the American laboring class, such as Labor Symphony (1934), Kinetic Molpai (1935), and Dance of the Ages (1938). At the core of his vision as outlined in The American Ballet (1926) is...