In anticipation for Rosanna Gamson’s Layla Means Night performance at ODC, I’ve been thinking a lot about dance and visual art. I should come clean and say that I work at SFMOMA in public programs, so these worlds often converge for me. I’m accustomed to walking through the galleries on my breaks, sitting with old favorites and taking in new objects. This has, of course, changed since the museum’s building closed in June for a major expansion project. SFMOMA is now on the go – the objects are loaned to museums in the area so they can still be on view, public programs are popping up around the Bay Area, and museum members are getting perks around town. One of them is a special chance to see Layla Mean Night this Thursday, and I’ll be in conversation with Rosanna Gamson following the 7pm performance.
Those who are familiar with viewing visual art may feel in unfamiliar territory when going to see a dance performance. A person could prepare by learning background information about the performance or hear about the intentions of the choreographer. But, besides this specific sort of information gathering, some of the same strategies for viewing visual art can be used when attending a dance performance. I wanted to share a few approaches today.
In art or dance, the frame is important. A viewer can look at the physical frame: What can you see? What is hidden? Where are the boundaries of what you are looking at? How is the story being framed? For example, in 1001 Arabian Nights Scheherazade’s storytelling is a framing device to tell many other Persian folktales. What other sorts of storytelling frames are present? The viewer is also an important part of the frame. Pay attention to your eye and vision, but also think about the frame that you as a viewer bring to the piece: do you view it from the perspective of a certain gender, age or culture? How does this shape your personal frame? How much are you paying attention to what you can see, and how much are you imagining what others are seeing?
Visual art folks are accustomed to seeing abstract, non-figurative or expressive art. Instead of focusing on recognizable forms, these artworks encourage a viewer to look at gesture, texture, and mood. The same can be employed for dance. How do the dancers use gestures? What textures are being created through the layering of set, lighting, movement and music? What mood is being conveyed?
Lastly, time is an important aspect of seeing. When viewing an artwork, the time spent in front of it is sometimes up to the viewer and it can be momentary. Other times, an artwork is durational, for example, Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which is a 24-hour video piece made up of movie clips with timekeepers in them. Dance takes place in space and time, and although there is a set duration for the performance, it can play with the feeling of time. Which parts seem to last forever? What goes by quickly? In 1001 Arabian Nights Scheherazade is very aware of time, and the storytelling is a filibuster to gain more time alive. How can time or duration focus your attention? Or distract you? When your mind wanders, where does it wander to? When your attention is grabbed, is it urgent or intimate?
ODC Presents Rosanna Gamson/World Wide’s Layla Means Night October 30 -November 3 at the ODC Theater.
Megan Brian is the education and public programs coordinator at SFMOMA.