The uncertain museum

Nasher Museum of Art with American Dance Festival on July 26

Exhibit remains on view through Sept. 30

Light is said to dance across a surface. Through half-open venetian blinds, it plays out in turgid stripes of bright and dark across a hardwood floor. Reflected by choppy water, its glints flit and leap blindingly, in and out of existence.

Last Thursday night, dancer and choreographer Gwen Welliver turned the Nasher Museum of Art into a laboratory investigating the expressive possibilities of light, shadow, reflection and motion. Students in her composition class at the American Dance Festival developed and performed a 10-minute dance within and around the kinetic installation work The uncertain museum, by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson.

Eliasson’s installation is a performance work in its own right. Consisting of a large, cylindrical tent-room in a darkened gallery, The uncertain museum contains a brilliant white spotlight and four mirrored discs suspended on wires motorized to rotate them. Seen from outside, disc images glide and twirl across the tent’s surface, interfering with each other and passing in and out of blur and clarity.

Up to three museum visitors at a time may enter the installation. Their shadows and reflections dance about its walls, alternately monstrous and crisp depending on how close one stands to the light source. Each of Welliver’s students’ three performances was unique because of the unpatterned movements of the discs.

Wendy Hower Livingston, manager of marketing and communications at the Nasher, loved how Eliasson’s installation turned museum visitors into performers during the work’s debut exhibition at the Nasher several years ago. When the decision was made to reinstall the piece during the dance festival, she pounced on the opportunity for a deeper collaborative event with ADF than the traditional “community day” open house at the museum.

She and Myra Scibetta, a marketing official for American Dance Festival, approached. Welliver with the idea. Welliver, who has done site-specific choreography within museum and gallery spaces throughout New York City, was an obvious choice. This fall she begins a choreography residency at the Museum of Art and Design.

“We had only two rules,” Livingston says. “Don’t look into the light, because it hurts; and don’t touch the glass discs, because they’re heavy glass discs.”

Welliver’s piece began in front of the structure, to the ambient soundtrack of the museum’s own echoes. Two dancers infiltrated their overall angular movement with circular rotations of their wrists, prefiguring circular motifs that the architecture of the structure enforced throughout the piece.

A trio of women walked the perimeter of the structure like the sweep of a radar scan or a clock’s second hand, shedding one dancer with each revolution. This formal gesture to the consecutive established the crucial role that time plays in presence, which Welliver so effectively used once the bulk of the dancing moved inside the tent-room.

A series of individual dancers took turns inside, their movement only seen in shadow. These phrases and changes presented the biggest challenge to the dancers, as their timing and movements had to adjust to accommodate the haphazard positions of the discs. During the second performance, a few phrases ended with a hesitation, as if the dancer was waiting for a disc to rotate out of the way before he or she could exit.

Everything fell into place during the third performance, however. An illusionistic sequence, in which a dancer appeared to pass her arm directly through one of the discs, happened to occur when a disc was in optimal position for it. A striking image materialized later when two discs lingered, perfectly facing the audience, with a dancer’s distended full-body blur filling the space between them. The shadows blended into one image, rather than three.

After the performances, Welliver sounded like she was just getting started.

“I just learned something,” she says. “It’s a very different focus for the students and me to not be making a dance, if that makes sense.

“The pacing is so sensitive. The second run we had was too slow. But we were trying to figure out the timing of that object,” she says. “It’s very difficult. We were stumped, as dance makers.”

Shedding light on the group compositional process that produced the performance, Welliver noted that the original idea had been scaled back. She saw a way to use the dimensional difference between a flat shadow and a human body as metaphors for absence and presence, without branding them opposites.

“There are lines inherent in the body. There’s the outline, the contour and there’s also just presence,” she says.

“Sometimes I’ll start purely with ways of working with the body. But then I’ll work a lot with line and nonrepresentational drawings.”

Such interdisciplinary thinking seems to be the order of the day in the Triangle arts scene, and it’s exciting to see organizations as large as ADF and the Nasher devoting such effort to collaboration and curiosity. With Welliver’s class performance at the Nasher as well as Shen Wei Dance Arts’ invasion of the North Carolina Museum of Art earlier in the summer, will ADF ditch the DPAC in favor of visual art spaces? No, but anticipate more unconventional spaces in the festival’s future.

“I think, in the modern field, not just creatively but economically, you have to look outside traditional theater spaces,” Scibetta says.

“In recent years in New York there have been more performances in old houses and gallery spaces and warehouse spaces. These are affordable spaces,” she continues. “I’m personally very interested in presenters looking in that direction.”

“There’s so much room for creative integration.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “From absence to presence.”