There are many ways to look at art, all kinds of art, depending on your experience, your history, your knowledge, your point of view and your passions. Personally, and professionally, I am always interested in the links between dance and visual art, which are many and varied and not always obvious.
So is Portland Art Museum docent Carol Shults, whose ballet expertise ranges from teaching it to lecturing on its history, and is a friend of mine. For several years she has been leading special tours of the museum’s collection, and when appropriate, visiting exhibitions, in a series titled “Dance and Movement in Art.” The most recent was the first Saturday in February, when she offered a glimpse – more than a glimpse – of the intersection of dance and sculpture, first with a piece in PAM’s permanent collection, then with a close look at several pieces in the exhibition Rodin: The Human Experience, selections from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Collections, on view until April 16.
The tour began in the Schnitzer Family Gallery on the main floor, where modern choreographer Gregg Bielemeier performed his own fluid, meditative movement take on Flow #1. The abstract ceramic sculpture is part of a series of meticulously fashioned, delicately balanced pieces that Japanese contemporary sculptor Fujikasa Satoko conceived of when she was only thirty-one.
Bielemeier, who was last seen in performance last April as a guest artist with Oregon Ballet Theatre in Nicolo Fonte’s Beautiful Decay, both echoed and expanded the swooping curves of Flow with arms that were sometimes angled, sometimes flowing, and hands he shaped like diving fish. As he circumnavigated the glass case holding the delicately balanced piece, the emphasis was on the upper body, and the focus on the sculpture itself: in the dance’s seven-minute duration, Bielemeier seldom shifted his gaze from a work that reminded one viewer of sea foam, another of bed sheets drying in the wind, a third of beaten egg whites baked into meringues.
Bielemeier’s own first thought when looking at the sculpture a week before he danced was of his grandmother’s homemade divinity candy. Mine, when I saw it shortly after the museum acquired it in 2013, was that it looked like early 20th century modern dancer Loie Fuller, famous for her manipulation of yards and yards of swirling fabric in solos titled Serpentine, Butterfly, and Fire Dance.
What Fujikasa was thinking about when she was working on Flow had much grander scope than sweets or linens, although the matte white glaze she used does give Flow a sugary appearance in some lights. According to the PAM website, she has said that in her work her “goal is to express nature’s vital force—the vitality of constant change.” (This was a goal of Rodin’s as well.) The practice of modern dance artists, like Fuller’s and Bielemeier’s, is by its very nature mutable, changeable, vital, but unlike sculpture, ephemeral.
Unless of course it is captured on film, which some of Fuller’s work was, in movies made in France at the turn of the last century, when the American dancer was performing in international expositions in Paris and Marseilles, and introducing her friend Rodin to a Japanese dancer named Hanako. (In the first room of the Rodin exhibition, there is a mask of Hanako, whose mobile face was what first attracted Fuller’s attention.) As it happens, Fujikasa, who is a graduate of the Tokyo University of the Arts, had seen film of Fuller and she actually cites the innovative dancer and lighting designer as an influence on her work, along with exhibitions of European baroque painting seen in childhood, and photographs of Arizona’s Antelope Canyon.
The canyon’s spectacular rock formations are specifically connected to the “Flow” series, according to PAM docent Nancy Morrice, who has a specialized interest in Asian art, and was a guest speaker for Shults’s tour. She began by pointing out that Flow #1 has no utilitarian purpose; its sole function is aesthetic: you can’t put flowers in it, as you can with much Japanese ceramic art. While Fujikasa began her training as a ceramics major, learning the techniques that for millennia have created the pure forms that I at least associate with traditional Japanese bowls and vases, in her senior year she shifted to the sculpture department and there discovered the methods that would lead to such paradoxical works as Flow #1. The piece looks as if it would break if you breathed on it, never mind survive the heat of a kiln, but it’s deceptively solid, the thin “wings” at the top balanced by the solidity of the bowl-like shape that forms its base. The process Fujikasa has developed for making these pieces is both painstaking and onerous. She’s been known to spend as much as seventeen hours a day forming clay into long coils by hand, then shaping them into whatever forms she has in mind, supporting the thin parts on armatures to create sculptures that move, like dancers, or the sea, or the wind, or something much less specific—abstract, in other words.
It’s safe to say, I think, that there is nothing abstract about Rodin’s sculpture, which doesn’t mean that the works on loan from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation aren’t open to interpretation, or do not speak to their viewers in different ways. Shults began this part of the tour by showing us, on her iPad, a photograph of a Royal Ballet School student, leaping high, his torso in a boneless backward curve.
“Now go and find the sculpture that looks like this,” she directed us, pointing at the gallery containing nude male figures. That turned out to be a piece labeled Narcissus, not kneeling next to a pool gazing at his reflection, but, as Shults suggested, jumping joyously backward, so delighted with his image that he cried out, “Oh, that’s me! How wonderful.”
Another male sculpture, Despairing Adolescent, caught my eye as she showed the way to the next gallery: the figure’s clenched fists were raised so dramatically over his head that you can almost feel their thrust. This reminded me of the agonized solo danced by a rejected adolescent girl in Todd Bolender’s The Still Point. Rodin’s “despairing adolescent,” I read later, he also titled Prodigal Son, and no, it’s not connected to Balanchine’s eponymous ballet, which premiered in 1929, twelve years after the sculptor’s death.
The sculptures that are literally about the dancing body are to be found in the gallery containing sculptures of women, also nude, and Shults led us first to the fourth in a series of late sculptures titled, in English, Dance Movements. The model for all of them was actually not a dancer but an acrobat named Alda Moreno, whose body was extraordinarily flexible, malleable, like clay in a sculptor’s hands. In this figure she is shown balancing on one straight, beautiful leg, almost on pointe, and raising the other leg with her arms – not in a ballet step, but one familiar to lovers of the Can-Can, a form that interested Rodin very much.
The Can-Can is the unifying theme of the nine figures in Dance Movements, and a number of art historians have mentioned it in connection with the figure of Iris, Messenger of the Gods, also included in the gallery of nude women. However, as the former dancer Shults demonstrated by kicking one of her own shapely legs over her head, it’s not physically possible for the model for Iris to have posed for Rodin in motion. Rather, she appears to have posed seated, perhaps on a bench in the sculptor’s studio, one leg bent, the other raised, exposing herself for art.
The tour over, I wandered back through the galleries toward the museum’s main entrance, passing Rodin’s larger-than-life sculpture of Jean de Fiennes, the youngest burgher of Calais, and returning to it for one more careful look. For me, this monumental statue is as full of motion as Fujikasa’s Flow. The young man is captured in a stride forward, the weight on his left foot, his knee bent, though you can’t see it through his clothing. He looks both vulnerable and resolute as he walks toward an unknown future. He could be any hero of a 19th century ballet, searching for the woman of his dreams.
And speaking of ballet, Rodin has inspired any number of 20th and 21st century choreographers, including the Soviet dissident Leonid Yakobson and the British Russell Maliphant, who was particularly influenced by the “Burghers of Calais.” And so we’ve come full circle. We started this tour with Bielemeier’s response to Flow, a one-time only event, alas, but Arts Watchers can see filmmaker Roland Dahwen Wu’s Rehearsal at Portland Art Museum: In Response to Fujikasa Satoko’s Flow #1 through February 25 at the University of Oregon’s White Box Gallery, 24 Southwest First Avenue in Portland.
And keep an eye on PAM’s website for future special tours, not only by Shults, but also by her fellow docents.