On Display Now at Williams College Museum of Art

Dance We Must: Treasures from Jacob's Pillow, 1906-1940
            (though November 11, 2018)
RAWR! A WCMA Bestiary (though October 31, 2018)
Williams College Museum of Art
Williamstown, MA
Free admission

Click on any image for larger size.

Most visitors to the Williamstown area head for the Clark Institute of Art, Mass MoCA, or one of the area's numerous summer stock theaters. All are worthy, but one of the region's underappreciated gems is the Williamstown College Museum of Art (WCMA). The WCMA launches shows that bigger museums would ignore, and the level of curation is consistently top shelf quality. Here are two shows that are well worth seeing.

If you are a fan of modern dance, you probably already know of Jacob's Pillow, located near the town of Becket, approximately 35 miles southeast of Williamstown. It is, simply, one of the most important venues associated with modern dance in the country. Jacob's Pillow opened its doors in 1933, just three years after founder Ted Shawn (1891-1972) split with his wife, Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968). The two were a modern dance power couple upon their marriage in 1914, a union that wasn't destined to last given that Shawn was, in fact, a closeted gay man. That wasn't known for some time, though it wouldn't have been hard to surmise given that Shawn's original company at the Pillow was titled "Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers," and he often presented himself in a stereotypically fey fashion. Many also knew that he and Burton Mumaw (1912-2001) were longtime lovers.

The WCMA show doesn't say much about this, which is a sad omission in my view, though it is to their credit that it does give Ms. Denis equal billing in its display of costumes and photographs that span the years 1906 to 1940. The costumes dazzle in several ways.

First, when seen close up, one appreciates the illusion of the stage. What sparkles like magic just three rows back is revealed for what it is: the magic of seamstresses working with cut-rate fabrics and jazzing them with paste jewels and gild.  My wife's (late) grandmother once served as wardrobe mistress at Jacob's Pillow. One of her biggest jobs was stitching splits and installing costume patches—often in wings during a performance. Her greatest talent was that the audience seldom noticed! Seen off the stage, we can appreciate that the stage ware is imaginative, enchanting, and cheap. It served its purpose well. Modern dance dispensed with the conventions of traditional ballet in service of movement that favored free movement, artistic expression, and emotion rather than rigid form. In essence, the costumes accentuated bodies and dramatized movement. One was meant to watch the character/dancer contained by the clothes, not stare at the wrappers.

The second thing you will notice is the sensuality of modern dance. Call it another nail in the coffin of Victorianism. During the early years of the 20th century, the amount of skin on display on the dance stage scandalized older Americans. That was partly the point. Dance was one of the things that were new about the artistic movement now labeled modernism. Think of scanty dancewear and revealing movie clothing as akin to the way flappers sought to unbind the body.

Kudos to the WCMA for owning up to another aspect of modern dance: it was not at all politically correct. Today we'd use terms such as cultural appropriation or Orientalism to describe how non-Western expressions and clothing were stereotyped. Many early 20th century artists felt they were paying homage; in our day, we recognize that exoticizing another person's culture is problematic—even if intended to be benign. A classic example of this can be seen in Shawn's "Indian" costumes. Not only are they more homoerotic than authentic, in some cases—such as clothing designed to look like kachinas, dancers actually violated religious beliefs.

Modernism was a revolutionary. When barriers crumble, older norms of propriety collapse for good or ill. Dance fans and social critics alike can enjoy Dance We Must. Call is equal parts fascinating and shocking. 

Pieter Hugo, man with hyena, Nigeria
Also provocative is a show that draws upon the museum's collection of prints, paintings, drawings, and photographs that depict animals. RAWR! A WCMA Bestiary calls into question whether humans are special, or merely an animal that exerts hegemony over various others. It examines the relationship between humans and subordinate creatures in all the ways we relate to animals: as pets, companions, food, prey, enemies, entertainment, or objects of worship.

Robert Doisneau

Most of the images speak for themselves. This exhibit will make you laugh, upset you, and even horrify you. In each case, it will make you ponder the realms we (perhaps too glibly) label "human" and "animal."  

Robert and Joseph Cornell, Two Mouse Musicians
Marc Chagall

Rube Goldberg plan for improved smorgasbord

Rob Weir


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