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Beyond Bollywood: 2000 Years of Dance in Art

Mythical Bird Man Dancer (one of a male-female pair), artist unknown. Wood, lacquer, gold leaf, glass. Mid to late 19th century, Burma. From the Burma Art Collection, Northern Illinois University, Gift of Konrad and Sarah Bekker. Image courtesy of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

From 31 March until 10 July in San Francisco, you’ll have a chance to see that rarest of things: an Asian art exhibition that acknowledges dance. Dance has been the poor cousin in Western Asian art history for decades: ignored as content, unused as context. This wellspring of information about spiritual practices and the true values of the cultures being represented has long been glossed over in favor of art historical priorities: age, material, style, size, market value. While art history and dance history work hand-in-hand in Chinese advanced research, and while the value of dance is unquestioned in Indian advanced research, we in the West are only beginning to understand that the full meaning of dance is needed to comprehend ancient and Asian cultures. That full meaning does not reside in Western society. Instead, we must turn to other cultures for the body wisdom traditions that we have lost.

The renowned Indian scholar of Southeast Asian and Himalayan art and culture Dr. Pratapaditya Pal produced an exhibition and book in 1997, Dancing to the Flute, which examined older, mostly pre-1600, works of art that represent dance in India. It stands as a rare Asian Art history exhibition catalogue taking dance in art as a subject. Dr. Pal opened the door for art historians to begin their foray into appreciating the moving art of dance. Now, 26 years later, a trio of American curators have picked up the baton, and offered up a new exhibition, a quantum advancement in regard to art history, taking dance as a subject in the West: Beyond Bollywood: 2,000 Years of Dance in Art

Nautch Performance with Three Dancers, c. 1863. Albumen Silver Print. From the collection of Catherine Glynn Benkaim and Barbara Timmer. Image courtesy of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

The original concept for a “dance-in-art” exhibition came from Laura Weinstein, who is the Ananda Coomaraswamy Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She envisioned it as a humanities project, in itself an ennobling way to treat dance, and considered it a source of meaning. Ultimately Weinstein was unable to proceed with the evolving show, and her close collaborator, Forrest McGill, the chief curator and Wattis curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, began developing a more art-historical show, never losing sight of the original intent. In time, McGill connected with Ainsley M. Cameron, curator of South Asian Art, Islamic Art, and Antiquities at the Cincinnati Art Museum, and an exhibition was born: Beyond Bollywood: 2000 Years of Dance in Art. Co-produced by the Cincinnati Art Museum, where the show opened in November of last year, the exhibition, differently arrayed, opens in San Francisco on 31 March and runs through 10 July. If you are anywhere around San Francisco, I urge you to go see it.

Part of the overall programming includes short gallery performances and scheduled live performances by Cambodian, Indonesian, and contemporary dance companies. One group I strongly recommend—there’s nothing like it anywhere—is the company of traditional Cambodian dancers lead by Prumsodun Ok. He is a rigorous exponent of classical dancing and a queer artist queering the tradition. They do not depart from traditional expression; they are impeccable classical dancers. There’s nothing broad or vulgar about this troupe. They are exquisite, with a version of their own identity that is entirely original and expressed in the most gorgeous and noble forms. Artists of such confidence, skill and daring are rare in this world. I would not miss it.

Prumsodun Ok and company. Image courtesy of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

The essays in the catalogue are timely, perhaps overdue, and refreshing to see. When I began working with Buddhist monk dancers decades ago, I noticed immediately that certain characters in the pantheon danced, and even more, that certain deities and divine figures always danced. Yet, it was never discussed by art historians, even when it was the most obvious and central element of meaning in a painting or mural. So, upon seeing Padam Kaimal’s opening essay “Why Do Yoginis Dance?”, I jumped for joy. At last, an art historian had featured that question. It is followed by the equally necessary essay by the erudite Forrest McGill, “Dancing in Circles.” Fundamental aspects of Asian dance are highlighted, that connect easily with the practice and study of art. This articulation from the art historical side is a welcome open gesture toward dancers who use art to understand, and for the practitioners of the dances depicted. Co-curator McGill brings clarity to interdisciplinary concepts.

The Lords of the Cremation Grounds Dancing, Tibet, 15th century. Gift of the Donald and Shelly Rubin Foundation. Image courtesy of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

The stability and excellence of this show comes from the high quality of the art historical curating and research. Another example of taking the step to enhance interdisciplinary appreciation is that each of the thematic galleries—Destruction and Creation; Devotion; Subjugation; Glorification; and Celebration—features one artwork isolated for particular focus to show how the meaning of the exhibition and gallery finds expression in the dance depiction. It acts like a primer for each gallery. This is fantastic. The viewer is invited to stop, to ponder on something specific, and then proceed to expanded examples. This is an elegant and simple way to share knowledge.

Briefly:

Creation and Destruction: Dancing Shiva Nataraj
Devotion: Lord Krishna dances with the cowgirls
Subjugation: Tantric deity Hevajra dancing, surrounded by dancing yoginis
Glorification: Dancers entertaining a nobleman
Celebration:  Dancing villagers

There have been other exhibitions that relied on a more avant-garde dance museology, such as Alexandra Munroe’s Third Mind, American Artists Contemplate Asia (2009) at the Guggenheim in New York; and Alex Siedlecki’s several technologically innovative exhibitions on Buddhism and dance at the Museo di Arte e Cultura Orientale in Tuscany, including Meditation in Motion, Footsteps to the Sublime (2019). Danser Sa Vie, Dance and Art in the 20th and 21st Centuries (2012), at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, was a sophisticated and beautiful integration of dance and fine art, understanding both as mutually influencing and vital currents of culture. It was avant-garde in multimedia construct and concept, taking the mutual influence of dance and art as the subject. The Pompidou Centre exhibition introduced a new approach to dance museology.

A multimedia archival celebration was the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time (2017), a curated two-museum show highlighting the art elements of Cunningham’s work, from films to set pieces. Cunningham famously worked with prominent contemporary artists. This avant-garde approach to curating dance-in-art and dance-as-art was created by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, in collaboration with The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. There is a stunning catalogue of that exhibition available. The aim here in San Francisco is to approach the subject of dance in art, coming from the discipline of Asian art history. It succeeds, being such a fine example of what it is.

The exhibition features dance depictions of Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and tribal societies. Art history, like dance history, finds many connections in tantra of all stripes, Hindu and Buddhist, lay and robed, inasmuch as the theme of non-duality itself defies sectarianism. Once again, these curators allow the art to do the teaching, and the selection is sublime. Dancing deities, dancing animals, dancing girls; masked dance, social dance, powers of the universe dancing: Shiva Nataraj, performing the cosmic dance of creation and destruction, frozen in action as a bronze.

The Buddhist Deity Vajravarahi. Bronze, gilding, inlaid turquoise. Tibet, 14th century. Image courtesy of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

Because the art examples are so good—and by that specifically, I mean that not only dance as an art-created symbol is offered, but dance itself as a sequence of steps and moves and positions—the exhibition’s absence of any real dance research is obvious to me. There are fine scholars, such as Alessandra Iyer, a specialist in the sculpture and dance of Java, who really know how to interpret art from the point of view of historical dance practice. She would have brought another dimension of understanding, denied to most of us.

Ohio, where this show originated, has a fine institution of dance research: the Graduate School of Dance at Ohio State University, one the best anywhere. These resources could have been folded into the dance-themed exhibition with not too much trouble, providing there is a mutually supportive collaboration. Seeing how thoughtfully—and clearly—this exhibition is set out, I can only imagine how good it would be to collaborate with dance researchers, multiplying the perspectives and amplifying the meaning. The dance world would welcome it.

Krisna Overcoming Kaliya, the Serpent. Copper alloy, Tamil Nadu, India, late 10th century. Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Third Collection, Asia Society, New York. Image courtesy of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

The truth is, advanced research in dance studies is much less common than art history. Dance researchers are something to search out, and dance research benefits from the association with fine art scholarship and conservation. Without question, it was the Asian art world that first appreciated the dances of Buddhist monks and Newar priests . . . not the dance world. It was because of a collaboration with art conservation efforts that dance preservation became introduced and better known. May the fruitful collaboration of dance research and art research continue in many forms.

I look forward to seeing two contemporary works of video art by Singaporean artist Sarah Choo Jing. One, a three-panel panorama video, is titled Art of the Rehearsal. The other is Art of the Rehearsal: Portrait Series. At the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Portrait Series will be displayed at the beginning of the exhibition. Upon entering, the first thing one encounters is three dancers, reflecting the Chinese, Malay, and Indian threads of the artist’s cultural identity. Each of them is preparing to perform, readying costumes and applying make-up, something at once intimate, routine, and ritualistic. Then one makes their way through the entire exhibition of 120 works of art, photos, videos, posters, sculptures, relief work, and finally at the end, the large three-panel video is presented as a final abiding image. It shows an imagined Singapore cityscape in which the dancers appear and disappear and dance, revealing layers of culture and ethnicity. The exhibition concludes with a lingering question about the elusive nature of dance and its ability to carry complex identities. This living and contemporary way to frame the show is delightful, and even humble before the great mystery of dance.

Dancing Ganesh, copper alloy. Karnataka, India, 16th century. Image courtesy of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

Art exhibitions featuring Buddhist dance in art are not common. This show has incredible Buddhist dance art from Burma, Cambodia, India, Mongolia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Tibet. It grandly reveals whole milieus of movement and design, of which Buddhism, Buddhist art, and Buddhist dance, were a part. Underlying connections with broader culture and esoteric practice become visible in this illuminating exhibition, where the keyword is “dance.”  Hats off to the curators and the funders, including the National Endowment of the Humanities, which supported this project from their program Democracy Demands Wisdom, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Please—fund more projects that expand our concept of knowledge by greater understanding of the dances of Asia and the world.

Finally, seminal credit goes to Laura Weinstein, who got this whole endeavor moving, intending to explore in art, a simple but profound concept: dance has meaning. What is it?

Beyond Bollywood, 2000 Years of Dance in Arts
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco
March 31 – July 10, 2023
200 Larkin St
San Francisco 94102

See more

Coming Soon | Beyond Bollywood: 2000 Years of Dance in Art (Asian Art Museum)
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