Mixed Means and Precarious Performance: Dancers on Nick Mauss's Transmissionsby Benedict Nguyen
When I first got offered the chance to collaborate in Nick Mauss’s Transmissions exhibition at the Whitney Museum, I was hesitant. It was clear that I’d have to shift my brain and body towards a ballet framework I had walked away from years ago. It was also clear that, the history of this strange dance form aside, this project was aiming to explore uncharted territory—an exhibition where Mauss was placing ballet in the museum as a way to blur the hierarchies between artworks and non-artworks. And while artworks are vulnerable to the elements (temperature, moisture, wandering hands, and backpacks) it’s the human performers on display who are vulnerable as freelance contractors, employees blessed with the rare opportunity of steady, visible work that makes posing more critical questions feel almost foolish.
In my first week performing, I felt the old aches and pains of contorting my body into shapes and movements it doesn’t do easily. Among my fellow performers, I felt and heard the familiar self-criticisms informed by how a body is supposed to look and move according to ballet’s arcane conventions. I felt that odd sensation of being ignored as we moved our living, breathing bodies (i.e. dance) on the roughly 560 square foot patch of stage while visitors look at everything in the room—sculptures, a slideshow of photos, video, Mauss’s ceiling height work in one corner—but us.
In interviews conducted during the week before the exhibition’s opening, it's telling that of the eight (of sixteen) dancers who agreed to speak about the process for this piece, two chose to remain anonymous. Interviews and statements from the Whitney’s curatorial team, Mauss, and collaborators provided invaluable insight into ideas that brought this together. The rest comes from the informal conversations I’ve been a part of as well as my experience as a dancer/writer in this process.
For the Whitney, it seems that the newness of Mauss’s perspective as a visual artist looking at ballet’s resonances is one that offers rich potential to create a new artistic form. Particularly, Mauss set out to examine the relationship between modernist ballet and the New York avant-garde visual art world in the 1930s–’50s. Curator Elizabeth Sussman stated, “One of the great fascinations is how somebody like Nick, who is looking back on this […] particular history of New York City […] and even its roots seem to be buried as far as the awareness of the art world, who now is so open to dance and so, the fact that Nick chose this period in time is revelatory and will be revelatory. […] Everybody’s thought about Judson, the Merce tradition, and all the great things that have happened afterwards. That’s what we’ve seen in dance in museums, almost exclusively.”
Sussman has followed Mauss’s work since the Whitney Biennial in 2012, which led Mauss to create a performance exhibition at the Frieze Art Fair in London with a ballet company based in Leeds. From there, Sussman suggested Mauss pursue a fellowship at the Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU, where he joined a cohort of dancers, choreographers, and scholars selected by founder and director Jennifer Homans. Used to seeing contemporary dance, Mauss was introduced to the archives in the Dance Division at the New York Public Library and brought to live ballet performances he hadn’t previously seen.
In reflecting on how this specific process has evolved his view on ballet, Mauss stated, “A question that really opened up for me in looking to ballet and its various branching histories is how complicated, faceted, culturally coded and re-coded it is […] Ballet constantly produces new language as a means to describe and relay itself, often as a memory, and as such ballet is a kind of body of literature. We speak about “ballet,” but, like the term “modern art,” it essentially tells us nothing.”
During the early rehearsal process, my fellow performers and I were asked in different pairings and groupings to generate responses to photos taken by George Platt Lynes and Carl Van Vechten, among others, of dancers in balletic and more quotidian poses. Performer Maki Kitahara found that a photo’s two dimensions acquired a third: “There were some pictures that really caught my eyes, and once I tried to copy those poses, I felt like my body already knew them, even if they came from a long time ago.”
And yet, it wasn’t always clear toward what direction our responses were being edited. One performer found the prompts redundant and stated, “I’ve had kind of a challenge figuring out exactly what Nick has been looking for.” Many wondered what it might have been like had there been a designated choreographer in the room. While Mauss’s choice to work without a choreographer was intended to blur the usual roles in a creative process, it ultimately asked the dancers to take on creative labor too often tacked on to an already demanding job description.
Mauss acknowledges that perhaps, some of us may be more used to this mode of working. He shared, “I’m putting myself in a situation where I’m trying to make something new but there’s also sort of a newness in terms of my relationship to the subjects I’m thinking about.”
While many collaborators appreciated Mauss’s humility in the process, several took note of the pitfalls of being guided by an artist with an admittedly limited dance and choreographic background. Not surprisingly, trying to create and choreograph movement material among sixteen dancers without a more explicit vision posed challenges. For performer Ahmaud Culver, “Being in this process with sixteen dancers from different backgrounds in dance and performance has been challenging, helpful, eye-opening. […] I learned a little bit more about myself and how I work in groups, especially where it’s up to the group to
At the same time, these differences have been a source of joy. Performer Alexandra Jacob said of the process, “It was a quick way to empathize and understand the needs of others in a creative space, as well reflect on what I needed. […] I was able to see so many facets of what one movement sequence could look like in the eyes of many.”
Assistant Performance Coordinator at the Whitney Lola Harney, who’s worked extensively on projects at the museum, observed “I was impressed by how authorship was shared, and captivated as movements transferred and evolved through different bodies. It felt like a truly generative process, not just in terms of looking and reacting to archival materials, but also in terms of creating a space for exchange between sixteen extremely diverse dancers.”
At the end of the day, the sequence of material for the exhibition was selected and edited by Mauss and the curatorial team. One performer reflected, “What has ended up being presented in exhibition feels more like rearranged ballet steps and less like the original prompt given in the audition” (which asked us to respond and “consider methods of interpretation, imitation, homage, or rejection of historical forms”).
That’s not to say our personal notes haven’t created traces in the performance. Mauss’s assistant Jamie Krasner, who was engaged in nearly every rehearsal, shared: “Seeing the dancers in the space now surrounded by materials we sourced from, those choreographic fragments become really apparent—the sequence exemplifies the process, which I feel is the piece. […] Each dancer has brought something very unique, and watching this process unfold you can start to see pieces of each of the dancers embedded into the sequences.”
Yet in the performance itself, we were asked to not acknowledge or engage the audience standing steps away from the marley floor. We were to remain stoic as we entered and exited this space onto the stairwell installed diagonally across from this stage. And in these transitions, at least one dancer always grounds the dance floor with a series of poses derived from photos in the exhibition.
Performer Jasmine Hearn emailed, “I feel like an object. Especially with the premise of not talking to witnesses/audience.” Another performer echoed this sentiment with concerns regarding “the ways in which museums view dancers and their roles in the space that can feel fetishistic; or that the presence of dancers in a space can enhance the appeal of the artwork in the space.”
Of course, we the performers are more than passive (and beautiful) people and bodies. In this exhibition specifically, we’re moving, in some sections quite rigorously, and transforming the space in an intentional way. But the hard boundary between stage and offstage, and between performer and viewer, can make it feel like we’re just another thing to look at. Opening week, a visitor stepped onto the marley as we were cooling down at the end of a performance and asked when we were going to start dancing. While the protocol of non-acknowledgement was meant to protect us from situations like this, it can also make our agency feel limited. Is the spell broken by using our voices? What would change if we responded, “Sorry, you just missed it?”
Performer Evelyn Kocak reflected on how these dynamics might evolve over the course of this run: “I think the process will continue to reveal new truths about ourselves in the space and our connection to each other, […] to the work, and to Nick.” For several of the dancers, this project has offered a chance to write a new chapter in their personal history with ballet. Brandon Collwes shared in an emailed statement: “I felt exposed and lifted by the fluidity of roles that were constantly being shifted among dancers. Thrilled to have a chance to take back my identity as a ballet dancer, to be more than just the strong cis male dancer or prince.”
Still, another performer wondered why Mauss, as a queer visual artist, was given this opportunity in a time where there are so many choreographers who are responding to ballet in a more deliberately women-centered or queer way. Jillian Peña and Katy Pyle come to mind. The performer stated, “It’s unfortunate that this platform was not given to a choreographer who understands the implications of being seen and watched in an institutional setting. This could have been an opportunity to deconstruct, challenge, and critique ballet as the oppressive, the white, and the colonizing dance form of Western concert dance, especially at such a pivotal moment where we are looking at how patriarchy has been so destructive and abusive to ballet dancers.”
During opening week, these considerations of the racial and gendered implications of certain cast members wearing certain costumes brought us back to the question: why hadn’t we talked about these ideas more in rehearsal process? There was all of a sudden a concern about a black dancer or male dancer wearing the one black unitard while the remaining women, nonbinary, or lighter-skinned dancers wore the white unitards with different colored designs. The discussions initiated around this decision and others made in opening week felt limited—who are we as dancers to disagree with what the people who hired us think?
The most evident obstacle to deeper engagement around these issues was the limited time. Rehearsal began in January for a March opening, and with sixteen freelance artists’ schedules to consider, we have yet to have a moment with everyone in the room. And when portions of us were together, the urgency of creating and refining material for the exhibition took precedence over any deeper dialogue around the significance of what we were doing.
Broadly, what we are doing is performing in an exhibition that aims not only to juxtapose live performance and multidisciplinary artworks, but also to reconsider their differences. In response to what had previously been termed “happenings,” art events blurring the boundaries between media, American artist Richard Kostelanetz coined the term ‘Theatre of Mixed Means’ in the late 60s. And while Transmissions’ departure from usual relationships among art forms may have roots in this and other histories, I’m curious about how the precariousness of performance could play out differently in our particular museum space. What if we could engage in a dialogue with the audience? I might share that it feels strange and sometimes painful to do this ballet thing again, that the moments of posed stillness actually offer glimpses of freedom for me to compose and project an energy that sometimes feels restrained in choreographed sequences. It is
ballet after all.
Towards the end of the creative process, Mauss emailed all the performers asking for input on a written passage describing the authorship of the piece for the wall text. Performer Anna Witenberg asserted the integrity of the choreographic form and requested the addition of the word “choreography;” Mauss quickly agreed. That this dialogue happened at all is no small matter. As one performer put it, “I’m really thankful to be a part of a process where dancers are being paid quite a bit of money to be in a room, and thinking, and working, and collaborating, and that in this day and age, for professional work, is really rare.”
Another performer wrote, “Something I have gained from this process is that I feel that I have given myself permission to take agency within the material—to make choices and to rebel against the established status quo of the ballet form in my own small ways. Nick has always been open to that since the beginning of the process.”
Maybe with more time we could have led these conversations deeper. Maybe with more time, the exhibition will continue to evolve and rearrange these mixed means. Maybe, by the end, performing this work for four hours won’t feel so uncertain, arduous, and provocative. I hope not.
Benedict Nguyen is a writer, dancer, and arts advocate currently based in the South Bronx, NY. They're a member of the National Center for Choreography's year-long laboratory on dance writing.