The six choreographers featured in guest curator Ralph Lemon’s three-week series of performances at MoMA confronted a number of issues, including, notably, that of the space itself. The Marron Atrium seems designed to dwarf any human activity, being five stories high, with acoustics that bounce sound off the marble floor and towering walls. The challenge was not simply how to dance in such a space but how to occupy it; that each choreographer accomplished this feat, and in his or her own way, made the series continually fascinating.
Lemon, a noted choreographer in his own right, divided “Some sweet day” into three one-week parts, each featuring two choreographers. First up was Judson Dance Theater founding member Steve Paxton, who taped off a space under a large overhang in the atrium to create a more human-scale area, in which he restaged two historic pieces, Satisfyin’ Lover (1967) and State (1968). The performers carried out ordinary movements, crossing the space and briefly standing still or sitting in chairs (Satisfyin’ Lover) or gathering together in a group (State). They constituted an array of bodies and, through the simplest of means, imbued the atrium with an intense sense of life, its abundance and diversity. Jérôme Bel, an admirer of Paxton, offered a segment of his work The Show Must Go On (2001). Performers moved from out of the audience into the same space Paxton had used. As pop music played at ear-splitting volume, the dancers alternated periods of standing with sometimes frenetic movement that ranged from the Macarena to ballet.
Faustin Linyekula and Dean Moss were next. Linyekula, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, created a work specifically for the atrium, What Is Black Music Anyway . . . / Self-Portraits, that included South African singer Hlengiwe Lushaba and Congolese guitarist Flamme Kapaya. They conquered the space with Kapaya’s sustained guitar blasts and Lushaba’s screaming, growling, and whispered singing of the words “Take me to the Congo River where my heart lies,” accompanied by Linyekula’s trancelike movement. Linyukula said that the work was, in a sense, Africa responding to an institution that had once mounted an exhibition on primitivism and modernism (“Primitivism in 20th Century Art,” 1984-85). Moss contributed a MoMA-commissioned work, Voluntaries, dealing with the legacy of white abolitionist
John Brown and conceived in collaboration with the artist Laylah Ali. He erected a white platform at one end of the atrium for the performance, which consisted of dancers engaging in violent scuffles, hurling large mirrored panels at each other to rather puzzling effect.
The final week featured Deborah Hay’s Blues and Sarah Michelson’s Devotion Study #3, both created for MoMA. Hay made the audience part of the performance by having the dancers move into and through the crowd. She also divided the dancers by race into black and white groups, each with different costumes and choreography, a controversial choice that Hay discussed only ambiguously in a subsequent interview session. Michelson employed some of the museum’s security guards, two of whom accompanied dancer Nicole Mannarino into the atrium. After skipping exuberantly into the space, Mannarino went on to perform a tour-de-force solo of fast, tightly knit steps interspersed with occasional high kicks. At one point another dancer, James Tyson, appeared briefly in the performance space. It turned out that during Mannarino’s dance he was performing in other parts of the museum, unseen by those in the atrium. In general, however, the choreographers and performers in “Some sweet day” focused on the atrium, imposing themselves on the space and bringing life to what is normally a chilly echo chamber.
Photo: View of Dean Moss’s performance Voluntaries, 2012, in “Some sweet day” at MoMA