Ever heard the expression, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”? I didn’t make it up. It’s an effort to illustrate the futility of converting expressions uniquely conveyed by one medium into another.
But people write about music all the time—all over this blog, for one—with varying degrees of success. And it turns out that dancing about architecture isn’t all that rare, either: both movement and building design are about the use of space, so it’s not as much of a stretch as it might initially seem.
Which brings me to Contradiction Dance’s performance this evening at the Phillips Collection. No, not architecture—sculpture, which is close. The company will be doing a set of pieces inspired by the work of David Smith, a 20th century sculptor whose art is currently on exhibit at the museum.
According to Kelly Mayfield, Contradiction’s artistic director, using the human body to say something about an inanimate object is far from impossible; in fact, it’s pretty exciting. “It’s fun to think about dance from the visual world,” she says.
Mayfield began developing the work by reading about Smith and his background. Interestingly enough, the sculptor himself was inspired in part by modern dance pioneer Martha Graham, and made several pieces based on dancers; movement was a big influence on him. “He was enamored with dancers, especially the fight against gravity,” says Mayfield. “He liked to create horizontal shapes at a higher level that went against gravity.”
Mayfield developed the performance in response to the sculptures’ shapes, rather than using some interpretation about the pieces’ deeper meanings—and that was a relief. “I tend to make concerts heavily based on a theme,” she explains. “It was really nice to not have to do that.” The five dancers, in particular, enjoyed the change of pace. “It’s like body candy for the dancers,” she says. “I told them, this is a chance to indulge and enjoy the fact that you’re being looked at as a moving work of art; you don’t have to evoke anything else.”
But it’s not wholly visual. Smith, for example, was supposedly quite picky about how and where his pieces were viewed, and that’s something Mayfield incorporated into her choreography. “We’re playing with how people look at art,” she says. “Looking at art, but also people watching and being watched.”
So expect a bit of levity, which is welcome. Because if there’s one more thing modern dancers and sculptors have in common, it’s a habit of taking themselves and their work far too seriously.
The performance is at 6:30 p.m. at the Phillips Collection, 600 21st St. NW. $8 for members, $20 for nonmembers. (202) 387-2151.
Photo: Michael J. Avilez