Dance and Visual Art: Sharon Lockhart/Noa Eshkol at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through September 9

By Jane Rosenberg

Modern art and dance had a unique relationship in the world of twentieth century performance.  To name a few collaborations: Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham, Alex Katz and Paul Taylor, Isamu Noguchi and Martha Graham.  And early in the century, Ballet Russes choreographers such as Fokine, Massine, Nijinsky, and Nijinska utilized the artistic genius of Bakst, Benois, Goncharova, Picasso, and Matisse.

At LACMA, in a somewhat different vein, a singular collaboration between artist and choreographer is on view.  Consisting of five freestanding screens, a film installation by artist Sharon Lockhart displays dancers from Noa Eshkol’s Israeli company performing her system of movement.  Visually arresting, these horizontal screens inhabit the galleries, offering the viewer an intimate relationship with the dancers, who, projected life-size, move across our field of vision in hypnotic patterns.

To be precise, the photographer/filmmaker Sharon Lockhart’s collaboration is with the Noa Eshkol Foundation.  The Israeli choreographer died in 2007 at the age of 83, and it was her foundation that approved the filmmaker’s proposal in 2008.  The company, consisting of both younger and older dancers, offers us a glimpse into the mind of Eshkol, largely unknown outside of Israel.  Eshkol, along with architect Avraham Wachman, created the Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation system, “a combination of symbols and numbers to define the motion of any limb around its joint, this system can describe virtually every perceptible movement of the body.”

Faces impassive, dressed in black footless tights and black leotards, the dancers, move to the rhythm of a metronome, the only “music” in any of the dances.  To call them dances seems somehow imprecise.  It might be more appropriate to call them kinetic sculpture. Sometimes circling one another like warriors, sometimes moving like sleepwalkers on a nighttime prowl, or shamans praising the sun, the dancers offer up a catalogue of Eshkol’s fascinating gestures, putting the viewer in mind of tai chi, tribal rituals, animals and birds.  The LACMA website describes her work as “dance practice”; Eshkol chose to call it chamber dance – either description fits; and seen in five minute segments, it rewards the spectator who is willing to stand and focus.

Interestingly, there are no benches provided, and many museum goers gave the dances a cursory glance and moved on, which made me ask: is this work that can be sustained in live performance as dance concert or is it simply illustrated notation brought to life – a demonstration rather than a performance?  No matter what the answer, the conceptual and minimalist nature of Eshkol’s practice seems most aligned to the investigations of the visual artists who rose to prominence in the sixties and seventies, such as Sol Lewitt, Kenneth Snelson, and Agnes Martin to name a few.  Further proof of Eshkol’s allegiance to minimalist structures is evidenced in Sharon Lockhart’s attractive photos of wire and mesh models created by Eshkol and Wachman as teaching tools.  They are described as “models of Orbits in the System of Reference.” These beautifully constructed pieces illuminate in three dimensions the Eshkol/Wachman system and bring to mind Russian Constructivism, an art movement that had a profound impact on the Minimalist art that followed. Pages of notation, drawings, and archival material shown alongside the photos shed light on Eshkol’s concerns.

Also on display are “wall carpets” created by Eshkol from found and donated fabric scraps, which are entirely independent of her dance investigations.  Lockhart found these textiles interesting and chose to place them in the films as improvised set design.  This is not only the weakest decision in the show, but also absolutely contrary to Eshkol’s desire to have her dances performed without the interference of sets or costumes.  Unhappily, Lockhart manages to not only distract us from the dances, but also undermines the purity of her own filmmaking as well as the purity of the choreographer’s compositions.

Nevertheless, without Lockhart’s efforts to intertwine their two sensibilities, the “dialogue” between filmmaker and choreographer would not exist and those of us outside Israel would have been the poorer for it.

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Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets

Jane is also the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORYa: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children

To read more reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

Photos courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


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