An arts and culture magazine.

Body In-Sight: Action Drawings from the Dance Studio at the Museum of Performance and Design, San Francisco

Body In-Sight: Action Drawings from the Dance Studio

Now and then the tectonic plates that move beneath the surface of the San Francisco Bay Area collide, causing highways to cave in, and buildings or aboveground bridge sections to crash and burn. Humans trapped in the rubble struggle out of it, or join it as part of a layer imbedded in the geological record. It’s not only during earthquakes that surface changes take place in San Francisco. A big transformation took place a little over thirteen years ago: The Central Freeway that cut through the city’s black community of Western Addition, was torn down after having suffered damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, making way for a politically-engineered gentrification that turned the part of Octavia Street that ran under the freeway into “Octavia Boulevard.” The Library of the Performing Arts, a public building that sat in the shadow of the freeway, was forced to move. It was folded into the War Memorial Performing Arts Center, where it was recently renamed The Museum of Performance and Design, the word “library” dropped, though the library remains part of its domain.

In 2006, just a few years before the collection’s renaming, the celebrated principal dancer Muriel Maffre retired from the San Francisco Ballet. During her last years at SFB, Maffre earned a Bachelor’s degree in World Arts from St. Mary’s College, and was honored by the French government with the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. She had initiated programs within the dance company and school that challenged their traditional underpinnings and landscape. One such groundbreaking innovation was a performance of Ballet Mori, in which she and partner Damian Smith danced to fault line sounds the earth makes. The earth music was transmitted live to the War Memorial Opera House via equipment provided by the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, under the direction of one of its scientists. In spite of scant publicity for the one allotted performance of Ballet Mori, Maffre and Smith danced to a full house, and received a standing ovation for their work.

Body In-Sight: Action Drawings from the Dance Studio

After retiring, Maffre added a Master’s degree in Museum Studies to her credentials, and produced, directed, and starred in the play, A Soldier’s Tale, at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, in which her co-star was a life-sized puppet. She also began teaching ballet at Stanford University. So it was more of a pleasant surprise than a shock to learn that Maffre has been appointed Director of The Museum of Performance and Design. Given notice that the museum would have to move yet again, she decided to mount an exhibit of a project she has not only had a hand in curating, but also conceived of personally, several years ago.

Body In-Sight: Action Drawings from the Dance Studio

In June 2010, at the invitation of the Marina Abramovic Institute West, Maffre together with Smith, dressed in white practice clothes, positioned themselves at a ballet barre with white butcher paper under their feet. Aided by mirrors installed in their jewel box set, the gallery audience watched as they performed barre exercises, first dipping their feet in charcoal powder, so that the trajectory of their leg movements would be registered on the paper. One could easily imagine a sterile “etch-a-sketch” outcome, but the resulting drawings were in no way linear, and in fact, captured the movements in more of a solid than plane geometrical construct. Each of the two dancers’ foot art was as individualized and unique as a set of fingerprints. One has to also take into account the new dimension of awareness that the dancer records mentally as he or she moves through the exercises. The quotidian dancer’s self-talk at the barre is: “How is this barre different from all other barres? Are my transitions from one step to the next working? How can I use this to improve this or that hiccup in my technique and alignment, or the details of my arm-hand relationship to head and feet? How can I use this barre to not worsen an injury or correct a deficit? How does what I am doing compare with the work of others in my class? How does it look in the mirror?” The butcher paper exercise not only confronts the dancer with an objective mirroring of his or her work in a different medium, but it releases him or her from the trappings of traditional barre anxieties. Perhaps it introduces new ones, but certainly the experience adds a level of conductivity that is normally absent in the studio.

Body In-Sight: Action Drawings from the Dance Studio

What an added incentive for ballet students to “learn” their bodies! Maffre brought her workshop into the studio at Stanford, and the resulting student work to the Museum of Performance and Design on July 13 in an exhibit called Body in Sight. With the help of Maffre’s assistant, Julie Balériaux, Body in Sight shows the gestural traces created by five Stanford students whose feet had been steeped in liquid pencil: Carolyn Chu, Katherine Disenhof, Laura Drohan, Jenny Koenig, and Sanjay Saverimuttu. Their work is mounted in a horseshoe formation in a gallery décor that features womb-like cherry-brick red tones, and where the “fourth wall” displays a black and white video clip streaming Maffre taking barre. Maffre is a virtuosic dancer, and her barre is a work of art unto itself. The current space is clearly in transition, as museum and library staff prepare to pack up their wares and move to a temporary space until a permanent one can be readied. So there is a palpable “take out your handkerchiefs” feel in a salon that has hosted such significant dance figures as Arthur Mitchell, Frederic Franklin, and Li Cunxin, and shown costumes from San Francisco opera and ballet performances, where the namesake ballet company is the oldest in the United States. The museum and library have been the official repository for the company’s archive, and will continue to play that role at the new location. Though much of the buzz at the Body in Sight opening was about transition, and the challenges of moving collections, there is a calendar of events that the museum will host, either in its current space or allied venues throughout the city.


Body In-Sight: Action Drawings from the Dance Studio
MPD Main Gallery, through September 1
Main Gallery hours: Wed. – Sat., 1 – 5 pm

Open Mic Performance
San Francisco Queer Open Mic
MPD, Friday, July 27, 7:30 – 9:30 pm
*This is a regular monthly event held every fourth Friday.
$3-$5 suggested donation

In conjunction with Body In-Sight
Live action drawings by three dancers at the barre
The Annex, 1420 Harrison
Saturday, July 28, 2 – 3:30 pm

Benefit Auction
of live action-drawings by three dancers at the barre
Benefiting the Museum of Performance & Design
MPD, Saturday, July 28, 5 – 7 pm
Open to the public

1st Friday: …In Conversation With…
August 3, 6:30 – 8 pm
Artists TBA

Open Mic Performance
San Francisco Queer Open Mic
MPD, Friday, August 24, 7:30 – 9:30 pm
*This is a regular monthly event held every fourth Friday.
$3-$5 suggested donation

Kids Camp
The Annex, 1420 Harrison
Saturday, August 25, 12 – 3 pm
Drawing the dancing figure with live percussion

Leave a Reply

One thought on “Body In-Sight: Action Drawings from the Dance Studio at the Museum of Performance and Design, San Francisco”

%d bloggers like this: