Loie Fuller / Jules Cherét / Color lithographic poster, 1897 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the Paul M. and Christine G. Wick Fund / © 1966 Ronald Seymour/Maurice Seymour
“American culture in motion” is how Amy Henderson, curator of “Dancing the Dream,” describes the National Portrait Gallery’s latest exhibition, which opened on October 18, 2013. A poster from the late 1800s of Loie Fuller from the Folies Bergère greets visitors as they begin the journey through dance history. According to Sarah Kaufman of the Washington Post:
The enchanting exhibit “Dancing the Dream” at the National Portrait Gallery begins with a magnificent art nouveau poster of Loie Fuller in all her silk-swirling, Folies Bergère radiance. It ends with an image of a leather-clad Lady Gaga in a reptilian crouch. The logic is clear: Fuller, who set Paris aflame (in more ways than one, as we’ll see) and inspired a generation of artists, is Gaga’s great-grandmother, in spirit, at least.
Covering the past 100 years of dance in America, the photographs and film clips, most from the National Portrait Gallery’s own collection, are divided into five distinct categories: Broadway, Hollywood, Modern, Classical, and POP. Walking the red carpet sets the tone for lush, vibrant colors that wrap the ceiling and walls of the exhibition space, creating the illusion of floating (or dancing) portraits.
No exhibition about dancing would be complete without actual video footage of the dancers themselves. The Hollywood film clips include the grandmother of shock dancing, Josephine Baker; classic Busby Berkeley synchronization; the unbelievable acrobatics of the Nicholas Brothers; and John Travolta’s iconic Tony Manero, among others. Film clips in the POP room highlight more current figures and include Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Beyoncé, as well as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Misty Copeland.
Broadway and the American dream provide rich subject matter, including posters of both the classic Isadora Duncan portrayed in her infamous flowing robes and a contemporary Savion Glover in Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk. Additionally, director and choreographer Susan Stroman is shown in rehearsals for The Producers, while the prolific Al Hirschfeld captures Jerome Robbins in a classic ballet pose. Images of George Balanchine, Rudolph Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Suzanne Farrell, and an incredible photograph of Misty Copeland in The Firebird illustrate the rise of American ballet.
Transitioning from New York to Hollywood, the exhibition includes a plethora of illustrious stars dancing their way into our hearts. The earliest, Rudolph Valentino in 1921, opens for Hollywood classics: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Fayard and Harold Nicholas, Gene Kelly, James Cagney, Ann Miller, and Liza Minnelli. John Travolta’s iconic photograph from Saturday Night Fever introduces the dance films Dirty Dancing, Black Swan, and The Artist.
Of course these artists would have nothing to dance to without their choreographers. Some of the best in modern America include Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Judith Jamison, Bill T. Jones, and Twyla Tharp. However, choreographers are not only responsible for making Broadway and movie stars look like they’re dancing on air; pop culture has benefitted also. Music icons such as Elvis Presley, James Brown, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, and Lady Gaga are sure to steal the show.
The National Portrait Gallery is hosting a variety events and programs related to “Dancing the Dream.” Among these are open rehearsals and dance performances by the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company; portrait stories about Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, and others; Isadora Duncan as the subject of Young Portrait Explorer activities; an NPG pop quiz; screenings of West Side Story; and a double feature of films choreographed by Busby Berkeley.
The exhibition remains open until July 13, 2014.
—Sharon Savelli, National Portrait Gallery volunteer