Dallas — Apparently, the big news in dance right now is a sculpture by Jeff Koons installed this week in New York City’s Rockefeller Center. The dance world is jumping to their feet to view the work and provide us with their critical opinion. And by critical, I do mean that literally. In the last 24 hours, I’ve seen colleagues and peers posting photos and sharing articles (one in particularly from Dance Magazine) about the installation, each one of them criticizing Koons’ depiction of a dancer.
“How dare he make a sculpture of a ‘pretty ballerina?’”
“Just look at her, I can’t relate to that girl. I would never wear my hair in a ponytail to ballet class.”
“Who ties their pointe shoes like that?”
“She is just one big stereotype.”
Ok, calm down, dancers. Sure, maybe it can be seen as one big stereotype, but maybe, you're missing the point of Koons' work. Ever think about that?
“Seated Ballerina,” the work in question, is part of Koons’ “antiquity series,” and is based off a turn-of-the-century porcelain figure. According to the Rockefeller Center’s website, “The sculpture acts as a contemporary iteration of the goddess Venus, and symbolizes notions of beauty and connectivity.” For Koons, he created the work as a way to communicate hope and optimism, and for the reflective surface to create a mirror of environment surrounding the sculpture. He stated that he hopes the installation “offers a of affirmation and excitement to the viewer to reach their potential. The aspect of reflectivity emulates life’s energy; it’s about contemplation and what it means to be a human being. It’s a very hopeful piece.”
Koons’ isn’t trying to do what Degas did for ballet, which was claim it for modern art. He is instead giving us another interpretation of classical beauty; part fact, part fantasy. Which we do have Degas to thank for. If it weren’t for Degas and he is interpretation of the classical nature of a dancer’s movements, and his eye for modern realism which depicted the dancers in an untraditional composition – asymmetry body lines and radical viewpoints – we wouldn’t have contemporary images of dancers today and we wouldn’t have all the Instagram feeds of our favorite ballerinas. Degas gave us drama. And we love drama. We want to know what goes on backstage and in the rehearsal studio. We desperately attempt to strip away poetry and illusion at all costs to show something “real.” Degas’s most celebrated sculpture, the Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, is about as real as dance has ever gotten in classical art, and at first, it was hated. When it was first shown at the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881, the work was adorned with a real costume and hair. Two-thirds life-size, it was too real for many viewers, who found her “repulsive,” a “flower of the gutter.” But a textbook example of a ballerina’s port de bras, shoulders held low, head lifted. Is that what you really want to see in Rockefeller Center in 2017?
Sometimes we need a little bit of fantasy. We need to escape to sugarplum fairies and music box princesses. We need to remember what it was like to be full of innocence and pure passion, to be child-like again.
I respect the opinion that Koons’ “Seated Ballerina” this is not the best interpretation of a dancer, but what qualifies as the best? What rubric are we working off here? Choreographers and dancers fight all the time against critics who make claims that their compositions or performances aren’t up to par and don’t meet that invisible standard of greatness, and they are told time and time again that they are not the “best.” But what makes greatness? If some young child walking through Rockefeller Center is inspired by the 45-foot inflatable sculpture of a dancer, and they want to then take a dance class, what’s the problem?
A function of art is to inspire, innovate, and invigorate the senses. If we are to look to Koons for a realistic representation of the human body and the human condition, then we’re forgetting that art does not always have to be reality. If I wanted to view images of strong and powerful ballerinas who illustrate athleticism, beauty, and discipline, I could pick up my phone right now and scroll through numerous social media feeds of iconic dancers. At any hour of the day, you can see an inspiring photo from Misty Copeland, Sara Mearns, Laurent Liotardo, Melissa Chapski, Diana Vishneva, Stephanie Williams, Isabella Boylston, Wendy Whelan, Shiori Kase, Michaela DePrince, Katie Williams, Katie Boren, the popular Ballerina Project… this list could keep going. Koons’ didn’t miss an opportunity to depict ballerinas as they are – they are doing that for us. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with him, an artist, being inspired by traditional and historical references of dance and creating a whimsical piece of spectacle.
Furthermore, we should probably take a step back and remember that “Seated Ballerina” is a large-scale public art installation, which, considering our country right now, is not something to bash, but something to revere. You may not agree with the aesthetic quality of it, but this work was commissioned to raise awareness for National Missing Children’s Month, drawing attention to organizations such as the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. It is often too easy to focus only on the things with which we disagree. It may be slightly more difficult, but whether or not we are experienced in dance, we should focus on supporting the elements of public art which can connect us—promoting beauty and hope.
» Danielle Georgiou is a dance educator, critic and writer. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of DGDG (Danielle Georgiou Dance Group) and is a working dancer and performance artist. Her column Sixth Position appears on the third Friday of the month on TheaterJones.com.
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