Rhythm and Roots: The Art of Dance in America

An article by Larisa Hohenboken on the Denver Art Museum's Dance Exhibit.

Here on the Front Range, we’re lucky to have a constant stream of cultural events on offer, from weekly dances to music festivals and traveling art shows. Whether in Boulder, Denver or beyond, there’s so much to explore! We’ll be periodically highlighting some of these events here on the Boulder Swing Dance blog. First up is:

Denver Museum of Art’s current exhibition Rhythm and Roots: The Art of Dance in America

Frank Myers (American, 1899-1956), The Charleston, 1926. Oil on canvas; 40 x 44 x 3 ½ in. (101.6 x 111.8 x 8.9 cm.) The Irvine Museum.

Frank Myers (American, 1899-1956), The Charleston, 1926. Oil on canvas; 40 x 44 x 3 ½ in. (101.6 x 111.8 x 8.9 cm.) The Irvine Museum.

From indigenous traditions to 1920’s social dance, formal ballets, and more experimental modern work, Rhythm and Roots offers a wide-angle view of American dance over the past two hundred years.

On our recent visit, we were immediately drawn to the music and glinting motion at the end of the circular gallery. This more contemporary part of the exhibition (as, yes, we accidentally started at the end and did the whole thing backwards) focuses on collaboration between disciplines: sculptors and choreographers, classical musicians and street dancers. There was a recording of Yo-Yo Ma playing Saint-Saens; a sharp-looking metal exoskeleton worn by Martha Graham; also a roomful of floating mylar balloons to move around in, a recreation of Andy Warhol’s installation Silver Clouds.

Moving backwards in time, we passed through ballet and Spanish dance into the Jazz Age: a jaunty photograph of Fred Astaire; a regal bust of Josephine Baker, the American expatriate dancer who captured Parisian hearts.                                                                        

The highlight for Lindy hoppers, of course, is the section on African American social dance. Vibrant quilts and paintings depict social dancers mid-step, and a row of touchscreens offers vintage footage of the Charleston and a recent interview with Norma Miller.

I was surprised that the interview provided relatively little context: the subtitle simply said “Norma Miller: Dancer,” without mentioning that she was, and continues to be, one of the most important forces in shaping the dance. Perhaps it was an excerpt of a longer film.

The same could be said of the rest of the exhibition, actually: considering how many different styles and historical moments it encompassed, I would have liked to learn a bit more about each. Who was the Spanish dancer Carmencita, besides possibly the first woman to appear in a motion picture in the United States? What were the social forces shaping the evolution of Native American dance? The placards weren’t always particularly detailed in their explanations.

I was also struck by the quiet of the place. Museums have their sense of decorum to preserve, certainly, but shouldn’t the music in an exhibit on dance be a little more omnipresent? At the very least, louder?

That said, it’s a relatively quibbling issue. Besides, we got away with dancing beneath the speakers for a surprisingly long time before security stepped in. (Disclaimer: I do not recommend a passel of swing dancers descend on the museum to cause a ruckus.) They directed us to the museum-sanctioned space for movement, DanceLab. This turned out to be an interactive, techno-pumping video installation where museum visitors move to the beat in front of video camera, then see themselves projected, stop-motioned and larger than life.

Other than the jazz and swing section, I found DanceLab and Silver Clouds to be the exhibit’s most fun and memorable parts. Dance is, after all, a participatory and improvisational art. While paintings and sculptures of bygone dancers are undoubtedly beautiful, an art show inspired by movement but with none itself would be an insubstantial reflection indeed.

Rhythm and Roots is an enjoyable, fascinating tour through the art of American dance. It will be open to the public Tuesday through Sunday until October 2, 2016.

William H. Johnson (American, 1901-1970), Jitterbugs (II), about 1941. Oil on paperboard; 24 x 15 3/8 in. (61 x 39.1 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.611  

William H. Johnson (American, 1901-1970), Jitterbugs (II), about 1941. Oil on paperboard; 24 x 15 3/8 in. (61 x 39.1 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.611