Jackson Pollock, Meet Trisha Brown: The Hottest New Museum Exhibitions? Dance Performances

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One afternoon last October, visitors to New York City's Museum of Modern Art who had come to see paintings by Picasso and van Gogh stumbled upon some unexpected works: Twenty dancers, scattered throughout the museum, were performing solos by artists ranging from Martha Graham to Michael Jackson.

They were part of an exhibit titled "Musee de la danse: Three Collective Gestures," a collaboration with the French choreographer Boris Charmatz presented by MoMA's Department of Media and Performance Art. The program, which was promoted as "re-imagining the function of dance and its relationship with the body, society and the institution," is an example of a growing trend of postmodern dancers and dance companies performing site-specific works in museums. In recent years, MoMA has also showcased the work of Yvonne Rainer, Ralph Lemon and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, positioning these "outsider" artists firmly within the establishment. It's a move that's given a sense of weight and permanence to a traditionally ephemeral art form.

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Of course, the idea of live dancing in museums isn't entirely new. Steve Paxton's 1972 performance series at New York City's John Weber Gallery, Trisha Brown's 1974 residency at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and other "happenings" at that time explored the relationship between movement and public spaces for art.

But over the past several years, these presentations have moved from the margins of the art world to inside leading cultural institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London. The choreographer Liz Santoro even won a 2013 Bessie Award for her site-specific work Watch h at New York City's Museum of Arts and Design. The facts that MoMA created a department for producing performances in 2008 and the Whitney Museum of American Art hired a full-time performance curator in 2012 suggest that dance today is seen asa core component of programming, not ah occasional novelty. These museums are aware of the current popularity of performance art, and have invested in helping to direct its transition into the mainstream.

"What happened with photography--it was not originally considered fine art--is happening now with dance," says Muriel Maffre, executive director of San Francisco's Museum of Performance + Design and a former principal with the San Francisco Ballet. "It's being recognized by a bigger group of people and finding a place next to great paintings." Ana Janevski, a curator of the "Musee de la danse" exhibit at MoMA who describes dancers as "living archives," agrees. "Dance is not only about movement, but about space and writing and thinking," she says. "What we've tried to show is how dance is not just a footnote or sporadic event but an art form contained in itself."

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This recognition has helped to elevate dance, which is often perceived as less serious than fine art, says Diane Madden, associate artistic director of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, who has set the choreographer's works at MoMA, the Tate Modern, Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Getty and Hammer Museums in Los Angeles. "People go to a dance performance expecting to be entertained, but people go to an art museum expecting to put thought and time into what they're seeing," she says. "It does give it a little more validity to associate ourselves with these more accepted art forms."

It also provides a profoundly different way to experience dance. …