Why Dance in the Museum?

by Grace Hwang |

This question has two readings: the first, does dance belong in the collection of a museum? (And, as such, can it be owned, preserved and archived in the manner of objects?) and the second, give reasons for choreographing and performing in the museum as a site. This essay will draw from my personal experiences and conversations with members of the dance community to provide brief approaches to both.

The first is a trending question for museums – as dance is moving from auxiliary programming to commissioned work such as Miguel Guttierez’ latest Age & Beauty Part I [1] for the Whitney Biennial and choreography-based exhibitions such as Table of Contents with Siobhan Davies Dance at the ICA London. The MoMA recently acquired time-based works and invited dance [2] and performance artists to respond to the exhibition in Performing Histories: Live Artworks Examining the Past [3], and collaborated with choreographer Boris Charmatz to produce the program, Musee de la danse: Three Collective Gestures [4]. The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles recently had an installation of Trisha Brown’s Floor of the Forest as part of Trisha Brown Dance Company: The Retrospective Project [5], and upcoming at the Walker Art Center, a mini- festival called Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton [6].

Perhaps the embedded question is, what are the intentions of a museum to collect and present ephemeral, time-based work? On whose terms will dance be preserved and archived? And what exactly is it that is being collected – a score? the rights to perform the work? To illustrate, Trio A, an important work of modern dance history by Yvonne Rainer, is entrusted to the body archive of 5 dancers trained by Rainer as the only ones who are officially allowed to teach it.

Aptly, they are called répétiteurs, from French, meaning to repeat, to rehearse. To own an artwork is to live in it. To rehearse and practice until it becomes part of your movement language. I recently attended a workshop presented at Conduit Dance, Inc. called Who’s Afraid of Deborah Hay? where dancers who participated in Hay’s Solo Performance Commissioning Project were speaking about their experiences. To learn Deborah Hay’s solo choreography, the dancer is required to raise support from his/her community for the commissioning fee and expenses. The fee cannot come from a single source. Then you are given a score to practice daily for a year, adapting the work to make it you own before performing to a public [7]. To own a movement piece requires the support of a dedicated (interested) community. To be responsible for lineage requires remembering daily.

What a museum might do is to continue to play a part in supporting works of dance by presenting, hosting and commissioning works, and then leaving the performance in the care of the artist or a committed community. The museum could provide space for rehearsal or research, as in the case of Andrea Geyer’s residency at MoMA, resulting in a commissioned video installation, Three Chants Modern – which examines the museum as an institution of time and then uses movement and video to question its form, authority and structure [8].

The question, “What can dance DO?” was recently discussed by workshop participants with Tonya Lockyer of Velocity Dance Center. Dance can heighten your awareness – in a performance, everything becomes readable: the costume, setting, every movement, twitch and pause.

When making meaning of contemporary dance, I remember Danielle Ross, of the collective dance publication FRONT, ask, What do you notice? Or more aptly, What did you notice?

Revealing that dance interpretation is predicated on memory of what has occurred in the past.

Not only this, but of what you noticed or paid attention to.

It implicates you. And your selective memory, and your frames and lenses through which you see and experience and interpret the world.

Sometimes these are too difficult to step out of. In fact, they may be impossible to escape. Ever. This can be confining but perhaps also generative when we become witnesses to performance together. Only you own your memories and your experiences as an audience or as a performer. Even a choreographer cannot control what gets remembered or claim ownership over these intangibles.

Compare this framing to that of Visual Thinking Strategies, a method of facilitating visual literacy of art objects developed by Philip Yenawine, which asks the novice viewer, What’s going on here? Here the art object is set as the primary structure for meaning making and the verb tense implies an unfolding narrative. The painting (or sculpture or video or installation) is still physically present, able to be referred back to and discussed. Having taught in museums since 2005, I have often thought about my role in setting frames, and in my complicity of constructing or obstructing them for others. How can I offer authentic experiences for others that includes the lens I can’t escape, as well as the plurality of lenses that exist in the group, and the space we are in, and the histories we bring? Why are we here doing this together?

Which leads me to the second question: Give reasons for choreographing and performing in the museum as a site.

What more can dance do?
I want to witness it release the tension in a taboo. Or create it.
I want to attend to it unfolding in real time – A LIVE ART – incomplete until it is over.

In the site of the Museum where movement (of people and of objects) is highly regulated by a strict code of what is permitted and what is not permitted by owners and artwork contracts, by architecture and curatorial decisions, through guided tours and art history — I am asking, can dance rupture existing systems and reveal what is possible? Can it shake habits and open doors?

Over a three-month period I spent time in conversation with various staff in the Portland Art Museum whose movements shape gallery experiences, docents, guards, art handlers, and developed, with an ensemble of dancers and scores to explore and expand these actions as events that will unfold over two performances in the public spaces of the museum’s courtyards. What it does and what it will do will be held in the memories of the dancers and in the memories of those who witness.


  1. Miguel Gutierrez. Whitney Museum of American Art:. N.p., 23 Apr. 2014. Web. 01 June 2014.
  2. Table of Contents ICA London 8–19 Jan 2014. Table of Contents, ICA London Siobhan Davies Dance. N.p., 8 Jan. 2014. Web. 01 June 2014.
  3. EXHIBITIONS. MoMA. N.p., 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 01 June 2014.
  4. EXHIBITIONS. MoMA. N.p., 18 Oct. 2013. Web. 01 June 2014.
  5. Mizota, Sharon. Trisha Brown: Dance in the Museum | Los Angeles | Artbound | KCET.” KCET ARTBOUND. N.p., 29 Mar. 2013. Web. 31 May 2014.
  6. Walker Art Center. Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton — Calendar —. Walker Art Center, n.d. Web. 01 June 2014.
  7. Solo Performance Commissioning Project. Deborah Hay Dance Company. N.p., n.d.
  8. Geyer, Andrea. Three Chants Modern. Three Chants Modern. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 June 2014.

Score (for the body, relational)

Lean. Support.

after docents. an action remembered from
teaching from an art object.

also, a movement score for duet or group body. slight
leans and weight shifts. who supports and bears the weight?

var. after Emily Goble. If a museum is a place where objects go to die, then the task of museums is to reanimate decaying,

lifeless objects.
var. after Tori and Jabari. Positions between partners.

Score (for the body, relational – object)

Blanket. Cover, uncover. Wrap, unwrap.

after preparators and art handling.
an object for care, covering, protection.also, for comfort.

blanket is folded at the end of every use.

var. solo. as in the man who haunts the public courtyard and parks blocks with a moving blanket.
var. duet.
var. trio – dancer body is wrapped and moved by two others.

Score (for the body and space)

Lead and Follow.

after docents. when leading school groups through the
galleries. when informing, interpreting and making meaning
from objects.

var. leadingfollowing after Lepecki quoting Erin Manning
var. contrast to instrumentalize, as one could in a position of

authority and power var. unfollow or deny var. mislead
var. in a canon

var. slowly, methodically, in unison

Score (for the space)

Place and Replace.

after security guards assigned to a Starred Post. as in, an art
object whose contract requires the continuous line of sight of
a guard; guard can only be free to move when being replaced
by another.

var. Starred Posts are situated so that movement is limited to a single spot

var. Starred Posts are situated so as to impose

The essay “Why Dance in the Museum?” was written in June 2014 to fulfill the written component for my MFA in Contemporary Art Practices at Portland State University. It was contained in a flipbook which accompanied Movement Scores for the Museum, an interactive performance installation that drew upon various narratives of how gallery experiences are visibly and invisibly shaped by the movements of museum staff. It was developed over three months through observation and conversation with docents, guards, art handlers, and museum staff, some of whom joined the ensemble cast of dancers, artists and non-dancers who interpreted the collection of prompts and scores.

I returned to the original conversations I had had, specifically with the Chief of Security and some security guards. I shadowed guards on their shifts and we specifically focused our observation to how movement was shaped or directed. The problem of what to do with hands was a recurring question, solved by each individual in his own idiosyncratic way that lended itself to a tiny portrait dance. Ex: Miro, Anthony


Grace Hwang is a multidisciplinary artist and educator whose movement practice is fueled by improvising new forms through ensemble work and rule-based play. Often working with performers of different disciplines, she is deeply invested in the relationship between agency and collectivity in collaboration. Her work in the form of teaching, performance, exhibition and experience making has been included at Portland Art Museum, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (OR), Open Engagement Conference (OR), Southern Exposure (SF), Center for Architecture Foundation (NY), SALT art space (NY), Museum of Modern Art Education Center (NY). She holds an MFA in Art and Social Practice from Portland State University and an MS Ed in Museum Education from Bank Street College of Education. She currently resides in her hometown, Los Angeles.