At the Ballet: Painter and Color Theorist,
Josef Albers depicted in Modern Dance

Set design for Wayne McGregor's Borderlands (© Erik Tomasson)
from Peter Denny's post on Borderlands for SFMOMA

"Borderlands", is a dance choreographed by Wayne McGregor based on the art theories of painter, Josef Albers, who's "op art" of the 1950-60's brought a sense of optical illusion to painting.  Where solid squares met other colors, there was a sense of illusion where the colors either blended or ended abruptly.  Albers wrote, "By giving up preference for harmony, we accept dissonance to be as desirable as consonance"*.  He continued, "Color is never seen as it really is; it deceives continually. It evokes innumerable readings.  Even its opposite.  It can work with any other.  The more it manifests itself, the more intimate it is."  He also believed that as it is with people in our daily lives, so it is with color. *references from Alber's book, "Interaction of Color"

Going into this performance today with my ten year old son(a ballet student of four years now), I was excited for him to see something different today; I hoped he would see colors and unique movements and a type of dance he had not seen before.  I had years of exposure to experimental film and animation, as well as new music during Master's degree studies at California Institute of the Arts in the 1990's.  I have seen and heard all kinds of non-linear stories, abstract performance art and atonal music that would drive many before my time to ask what they were experiencing and why did they pay to get in the doors.  As a student of art history and a painter too, I am more conditioned to accept the work of McGregor, just as the young dancers of the SF Ballet willingly and dutifully performed this new work this month in San Francisco.  We have come to a place in time that new works are important to share, whether the older generations will accept them or not.

This is reiterated in Peter Denny's recent post for SFMOMA about Borderlands.  Denny is a Public Relations Associate at SFMOMA, where he has studied modern art.  He talks about how he too has learned to accept modern art for what it is; by being willing to let the art affect him and experience the art with an open mind.  With an open mind, he is more able to learn something from each new piece of art.  This is the precursor for most modern art and dance; one must go into it willing to let the art be just what it is.  There should not be any preconceived notion of what you will experience or a need to "get it".  It can just be enjoyed and explored in the now; what you feel at that one moment "is" the right answer.  The only wrong way to experience new works would be to go into them expecting something else.  Expecting McGregor's work to be narrative or flowing like the two previous performances would be a mistake, for then you might feel like there was something wrong with this exciting and unique new piece.  Remember, Albers said, "Giving up preference for harmony, we accept that dissonance is just as desirable as consonance".

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, 1950
Oil on masonite. JAF: 1313. 40.6 x 40.6 cm(16" x 16')
©2003 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Having said this, I believe I did expect more visual connection to Albers series of square paintings. After I realized there would be no more blatant 2d reference to the work after the opening scene, I began to just enjoy the dancing and changing background colors.  The opening scene was monochromatic: greys and whites only, and it seemed very structured and rigid.  Dancers were performing at the corners of the space, just as there are four corners of a square in Albers works.  The costumes were minimalistic; grey t-shirts and briefs that would be seen waking up in the morning at home, both simple and human.  Raw and not fancy, no costumed dancers, fancy makeup or hair.  As the piece progressed, the background colors changed as the dancers weaved into the full spaces of the stage.  Couples and groups merged in and out of the foreground.  The movements of the dancers were abrupt, then flowing; tight, then loose.  They had emotional stresses and responded in the moment, letting us know of their energy or exhaustion, excitement, pain, difficulty or loss.  The more controlled movements at the beginning, in the gray and white boxed in space, eventually reached a purple background, where a pinnacle of erratic and flowing movement took place.  All the dancers moved more freely in the purple light, and many bodies in white and grey were like brushstrokes on a canvas that had all kinds of thickness, line weight, dots, dashes and long swaying strokes.  It felt like when I paint and get deeply involved in a moment of a painting that the brush and paint and textures take over-- I am no longer focused on the image of what I am painting, but the flow of the brush and being painterly-- just enjoying the paint itself and the process.

Borderlands was for me this triumph experienced when we,  as artists/writers/dancers, begin a painting or story on a controlled, white canvas or page that is often square or rectangular, and eventually get to a place where we let go and the flow takes over.  The mind is so into the actual act of painting or writing that it almost forgets what it is painting.  This is an amazing feeling and Borderlands gave me this very feeling in the purple scene.  I wanted to run home and paint!  I hope the dancers in this performance were able to feel a sense of freedom in the unique movements they were able to achieve.  So different from much of traditional ballet, I bet it felt both invigorating and challenging to do something so modern.  However, they all performed with amazing grace even in these most abstract dance shapes and forms.  It was remarkable to watch.

I appreciated this work very much.  My son's reaction was that it was very different (His favorite program was "In the Night" with the Chopin nocturnes and the stars in the background).  My friends reaction was that she really didn't like it, nor did a man in front of me that was actually "Booing" when it was over.  This was frustrating to me, and I did not feel that was polite at all.  I hope others can experience new ballet works with an open mind, and enjoy the new and special movements of the dancers.  There were so many combinations that I never have seen a dancer do before.  I loved the newness of it, and the feeling that the dancers were "unmasked" in their plain clothing.  The costumes were gone and the simplicity of their outfits grounded them and put them on earth with us.  It was very emotional because of this feeling of closeness to the dancers.  I felt more connected with the artists/dancers in this piece than in the other more traditional works.


Other comments about SF Ballet experience in general:  Please take a look at your "Ballet Shop" and consider a complete make over.  The shop is dark and full of scarves and bobbles for older women, with very little sense of creative merchandising.  A single, round rack of SF Ballet clothing, mostly for women, was present, but there was nothing for young boys.  A few, black baseball caps were over on a table with some cds.  There was no merchandising towards the current show: A nice display could have included white clothing and scarves for "Suite en Blanc", a section of "Night" items, and a colorful section of clothing and art books of Josef Albers.  I wonder if SF Ballet shop works with the Board of the SF Ballet to plan their merchandising, or if it is not something they have time for.  Food for thought.

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