Ekphrasis 4: Dance Now! at the Bass Museum
On Sunday, June 2, Dance Now! Miami returned to the Bass Museum for its fourth annual Ekphrasis concert. As the Greek word suggests, co-directors Hannah Baumgarten and Diego Salterini explored the conversation between works of art and performance art and how each in turn informs the other. But unlike years past where the afternoon’s program incorporated various gallery pieces, this year the site-specific venture in the second floor gallery was dedicated to one single installation — Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation’s video/film work, The Rape of the Sabine Women. At its heart is the legend of the founding of Rome by Romulus and his men who abducted the women of the neighboring Sabines in order to populate their new society. In short, the Sabines battle with the Romans, a conflict that ends with the heroic intervention of the Sabine women, who pit themselves and their children between their native fathers and new husbands. This story has become inspiration for many artistic interpretations over the centuries, from Renaissance sculpture and painting to Stephen Benét’s short story parody, “The Sobbin’ Women,” which was later adapted to the popular modern musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The iconic French neo-classical painting The Intervention of the Sabine Women, by Jacques-Louis David, was created in 18th century, post-revolutionary France when the young republic was mired in civil conflicts, wars with other European nations, and the Reign of Terror. The painting was seen as a plea for the people to reunite after the bloodshed of the revolution. It was this painting that inspired Eve Sussman’s 80-minute video musical that premiered in 2007. Whereas the original story documents the birth of a society, Sussman’s work reflects more the end of a utopia. The film follows the narrative within five operatic acts, filmed in Germany and Greece and is set in a modern 1960s setting. Whereas the 1950s promised better living through mass consumerism of products to make life easier, the 1960s promised better living through design. The film’s highly stylized costuming of the actors is set against the Spartan spaces of airports; the gothic expansiveness of museums; the assaulting visual cacophony of a meat market; and the pedestrian confines of a home and its patio and pool. The film’s five acts are separated into separate installations, from dual projections on one large wall depicting the gathering and plotting of the Roman men; to a claustrophobic corner with projections of the meat market and the abduction of the women; to a large square box with video projections on all sides of the women lounging in a house and its pool; and to the final littering of television sets displaying the tension and violence of the final conflict. It is within the backdrop of this installation that Dance Now! Miami inserts its performers, with one central character who frames and reinterprets the five acts. The lead and two other female dancers are costumed in iconic ‘60s fair such as those of the women in the projected films. Dancers dressed all in black with faceless, expressionless white alabaster masks represent the men of Rome. The audience follows a central character as she moves from one installation to the next in her journey from abduction, to transformation, to acceptance. Directors Baumgarten and Salterini have worked with theatrical and literal themes before, such as their Six Characters inspired by Pirandello’s play. In this work, rather than a literary source, the company is complementing motion captured on film. Because this was live action set against a backdrop of filmed motion, it required a level of craft and skill to add layers to the work and not just imitate it. The company once again excels in inventing newfound morsels that add to the tension, violence, and oppressive resignation of their characters. One exceptionally creative moment was the finale, where the main dancer in a frantic panic shuffles and scatters a huge stack of ultrasound pictures of babies in the womb. It was a stark allegory for not only the danger to the Sabine women’s children set in the middle of David’s aforementioned painting, but also the historical future of Rome’s progeny at the cost of another culture. A possibly unexpected but interesting effect came from the size of the audience. Crammed into every possible nook to witness the dance, the audience — like the chorus in classical Greek theater — with its sheer size and proximity to the dancers, created an uncomfortable sense of one’s own personal space and that of the performers’. The only detraction was that at times it was difficult to see the dance if you were unfortunately perched in a bad spot as the focus changed from room to room. Four years ago the company may have not dreamed that their initial collaboration with the Bass Museum would blossom into an annual event four years running. But now it has been realized into a highly anticipated and attended seasonal event.