Ralph Lemon talks about the new wave of dance at MoMA

Ralph Lemon discusses the new MoMA dance series "Some sweet day," which features Steve Paxton, Jérôme Bel, Sarah Michelson and more

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Some sweet day, Jérome Bel

Some sweet day, Jérome Bel Photograph: Mussacchio Laniello


Choreographer and visual artist Ralph Lemon discusses "Some sweet day," a dance series that he has co-organized at the Museum of Modern Art. Dance performances will be held in MoMA's busy atrium and feature the pairings of six choreographers: Steve Paxton and Jérôme Bel, Faustin Linyekula and Dean Moss, and Deborah Hay and Sarah Michelson.

When Ralph Lemon found himself inside the atrium space at the Museum of Modern Art, where he performed Untitled, a duet with Okwui Okpokwasili in 2011, he had an epiphany. “I felt I was a beginner again,” he says. The atrium—packed with tourists—is a diabolical place for a dance performance, but for the veteran choreographer and visual artist, pushing past his comfort zone is home. Lemon, along with Jenny Schlenzka and Jill A. Samuels, has co-organized “Some sweet day,” a three-week program of dance at the museum beginning October 15, featuring pairings of six choreographers: Steve Paxton and Jérôme Bel, Faustin Linyekula and Dean Moss, and Deborah Hay and Sarah Michelson. The days ahead are sweet indeed.

Time Out New York: How did the idea for “Some sweet day” originate?
Ralph Lemon:
I was asked to curate a performance series that was going to be part of an art exhibit at ICA in Boston, and the idea was to do some kind of performances around this show they were creating called “The Blues.” It was addressing the idea of blues as a particular kind of American culture aesthetic—not so specifically about American blues music, but its metaphorical relationship to American culture and art. And it interested me. It was one of the first requests for me to do something as a curator. This was around 2007, before Judy [Hussie-Taylor] and I got together to do that stuff at Danspace. I thought the only thing that interested me about this was that I would get to curate. Not the only thing—I am very interested in blues music, but I didn’t want to get too located into the music end and its racial confinements. I thought it might be interesting to let some of the artists that I really love translate what that might mean to them. I opened it up racially and I thought of Sarah and Deborah and Faustin and Dean—I kept it pretty much about the blues idea. How would you guys relate to this as music or just sound? I also wanted to pair these artists together. On a personal level, I wanted to have a week where artists were having some kind of a meta-conversation that was, again, about me personally looking at two people in the same place, in the same time. A Deborah Hay and a Sarah Michelson—these two iconic figures from different generations and, obviously, a different kind of work. I felt there’s some historical relationship here that’s about the past but also the present, and it would be interesting to have them in a similar context.

Time Out New York: But the ICA project didn’t happen?
Ralph Lemon:
There was not enough money for it. Another thing I wanted to have happen was to get a lot of money for a commission. There were some political buttons I was trying to push: Get a lot of money for artists to make work and have these artists work within a conceptual frame that wasn’t theirs. It was kind of great because most of them were interested in it. Sarah’s remark to me was, “Ralph, I never do this, but I find it kind of interesting.” [Laughs] So I let it go, and then when I was invited to On Line [part of MoMA’s Performance Exhibition Series, in conjunction with the group exhibition “On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century”], I got inside that atrium space and it was so remarkable to me: being inside this container that up to that point really made no sense to me. It’s a space that’s so big and so public, and it’s not a theater and yet it’s extremely theatrical. And then to hear the arguments afterwards—“God, I hated being there and watching all that noise around you”—[about] the general lack of attention in the atmosphere of the watching. Others were extremely excited about that very conflicting energy.

Time Out New York: What was it like for you?
Ralph Lemon:
Inside of it, I felt forced to inhabit a dance in a way that I hadn’t inhabited it before. I was very excited and loved it on a lot of new levels. A year passed, and I thought, Maybe I’ll pitch a series to Kathy Halbreich at MoMA. Kathy loves dance, and she’s from the Walker; she comes from an environment that doesn’t have a hierarchy about the visual arts [being] better than performance, at least in my gleaning, and she loved all the artists that I proposed. She opened up the door to making it happen.

Time Out New York: Did you include all the same artists?
Ralph Lemon:
No. Paxton and Bel were not part of the original idea, but when I had more time to think about it, that was like a dream pairing. [Laughs] Personally, the whole French Conceptualist movement came from the history of Judson, and I think [Bel’s] The Show Must Go On is very honorably referencing Paxton’s Satisfyin Lover from ’67, so to have those two pieces at MoMA in the same week is quite the coup just from an aesthetic and historical point of view. I doubt the audience will get it, but it doesn’t matter. It’s more for me. [Laughs] I’m writing my own little collapsed history book.

Time Out New York: How did you set this up? 
Ralph Lemon:
I gave the artists three curatorial proposals that they were to engage the atrium space with; within that, there’s a whole world of its potential theatricality. It’s a museum space—how does one inhabit the architecture, the hybridity of it, its modernist language, its audience public? All those things are very complex in that space, so I feel like that’s enough in itself. Other than Paxton and Bel, everyone is doing a new work. The second proposal was that they would be sharing a week with another artist and that they could consider that in any way they wanted. It was not really about them creating something together, but just that that was happening. The third one is our secret. When I called the Bel and Paxton, Bel wanted to do The Show Must Go On at MoMA after Xavier Le Roy’s experience from two years ago [performing Self Unfinished]. I guess Jérôme was helping him in some respect; he’d been thinking about doing something in the atrium.

Time Out New York: What about Steve Paxton?
Ralph Lemon:
Paxton is a dance god, so he was kind of not interested in the project initially, but I kept badgering him and finally he gave in. I said, “Steve, just come and do what you want to do and it’ll fit within my little creative parameters.” The other four are really considering all the points. So we’ll see.

Time Out New York: What was your thinking behind the other two pairings?
Ralph Lemon:
Deborah Hay has been a real hero of mine for many, many years. I knew Deborah before she was as famous as she is now, when she was making work for nondancers in Austin. This idea of how a profile can shift or what enacts a particular kind of fame or recognition of work or art is interesting to me, and I feel like Sarah has been dealing—from a very different cultural point of view—with a similar kind of relationship to this idea of profile and fame. Both are making really brilliant work. I kept having conversations with myself about how there’s something very similar about how these two women inhabit the world.

Time Out New York: Because no matter how they’re acknowledged or what the status of their profile is, they are going to continue making work?
Ralph Lemon:
They’re going to keep making work, and in a sense it doesn’t really matter how they’re perceived. There will definitely be an ebb and flow, and Deborah Hay absolutely personifies that, because we’re talking about a very long arc in her career. Sarah’s been at it, but it still feels like it’s a beginning phase for her. I want to experience these two in the same space and time because I find them representing a rigor, insistence and discussion about the body that is uniquely emphatic, from two very different generational and cultural points of view. Watching their work makes me happy, reminds me what I love about dance. I could say this for all the pairings and artists involved in “Some sweet day,” I suppose.

Time Out New York: What about Dean and Faustin?
Ralph Lemon:
These two artists are black men. One is much more international—Faustin is Congo-Paris; he flows between worlds. He also represents an artist with a modern-Africanist point of view, and it seems to me he has access to all these different kinds of current languages, and he’s deeply embedded in something extremely ancient and traditional. And then there’s Dean Moss who is of a different generation and extremely experimental and American. It’s to collapse the idea of a black-male modern aesthetic about anything. [Laughs] Of these two artists—one could be white. For me, it’s a bit of a negation of something more obviously racial. So there’s that, and then it’s also that I think both of them are making interesting work. There is that underneath all of this.

Time Out New York: You spoke about how profound it was to perform inside at the atrium. What do you think about watching dance in there?
Ralph Lemon:
I like the contradiction of it. As an artist and as someone who’s grown up in the theater with this particular performance form, I feel that I got too comfortable in knowing the environment. So even if I wanted to be radical or try to experiment with an idea, I was still controlling the situation. I knew it would start at a certain time, and I knew I could turn on and off lights, and I knew I could start music and it could be heard exactly the way I wanted it to be heard, or I could create a very experimental moment/experience and show an audience exactly how I wanted them to see it. That’s very satisfying. But an experience like MoMA’s atrium creates a push-back to that confidence, and I think it’s very important that a space exists to push back on my confidence, so that I’m allowed to experience the knowledge of what it is I think I’m doing after all these years. I don’t mean to be arrogant, but [I] felt like I would love to share this experience with these other artists that I think are great. Because I just feel like there’s something very generative about it. Maybe not. I also feel that on a certain level, the possibilities of this space defeating what these people are going to put inside of it are great. The space may be too unwieldy. All the works are happening in the middle of the day, where you have a visual-art audience coming to watch, and their attention span is much less than a theater audience’s. And then you have the people who are going to come to this to see these people—there’s going to be a dance audience who’s going to be fixed even if there’s a tension to their being fixed in the space. They’re probably not going to walk out. And then you have that public audience of people that are just sort of passing through. I think there are going to be three kinds of visitor politics happening simultaneously, which is what happened as you witnessed in the performance that Okwui and I did. I find that very exciting right now, only because it’s the 21st century—let’s open up what we do or what it is that we think we do and begin to think about it differently, for better or for worse.

Time Out New York: In terms of what exactly?
Ralph Lemon:
Our relation to the form and our relationship to audiences and space. That idea of space is key right now and is really one of the locus agendas for me. What are the new opportunities for space? Sarah and Deborah, getting back to these two icons, have both been addressing that differently for many years, and I think the atrium opens it up in a much more epic kind of way. And getting back to Sarah, as a metaphor for some of this, what I’m really excited about with her participation—and she and I have talked about this—is that she is so genius at controlling her spaces, in the reconstitution of them, and she won’t have that control at MoMA. That makes me salivate because at the same time I know she’s going to control something. [Laughs] It’s what she does! Does that mean she’s going to really control the unknown, like she controls those spaces where she is given the time and resources to completely alter them or reinhabit them? How can she do that in a space where she’s not given those more outwardly practical conditions? And she’ll do it. So I just think for her psyche, too, that changes her as an artist.

Time Out New York: You’re an artist working as a curator. Do you have a different relationship with artists now?
Ralph Lemon:
Yeah, I’m on the other side. It’s really hard! [Laughs] I’m going to be very forgiving when I come back. It’s intense. I have to say though that MoMA has been unbelievably supportive of this whole thing. They are absolutely not treating it as some sort of tangential, outlier event—I feel like the whole of the MoMA staff is excited about this or the unknown of it. We have prime real estate in the space, and the budget’s really good and the support system of people helping to make it work—even in the learning curve of it—has been very encouraging. That said, I’m just dealing with the contentious and humorous aspect of being aware of artists and their needs and how specific and pushy and important it is to try and give them what they want in a situation where they can’t really have everything they want. That’s always the case, and I always knew that, but it’s so much more real in this situation. Where is that place where both are okay with what can’t be done? My interest is on this side of wanting to give them everything they want. That’s been interesting. But I also love and trust these artists, so it also feels organic to want to make sure that this thing happens in a way that they’re all happy with it.

Time Out New York: Do you regularly check in with MoMA?
Ralph Lemon:
Yes, we meet once a week. This is how they deal with their projects. It’s very beautifully intense. I’m learning a lot. The rigor and care of language and space and time—it’s been very encouraging, and my hope is that if this works, and not on the level that the pieces are good or bad, but if we get them in there and something happens and MoMA has still felt like it went well, then there are opportunities for other dance/performance projects. I feel like the form needs to exist in as many iterations as possible right now.

Time Out New York: What was MoMA’s reaction to your performance?
Ralph Lemon:
Terribly excited, and I think that’s why I was able to get my foot in the door to do “Some sweet day.” I think there was a realization that it’s a good space for performance. MoMA will never have a theater as we know theater, so this becomes an interesting proxy for that. It stays within their more ensconced art language of performance—for now. By the time On Line came, and Trisha [Brown] was there and Anne Teresa [De Keersmaeker] and Owkui [Okpokwasili] and me and others, I think that project went well. The way it’s being perceived in MoMA is it’s bringing a particular kind of energy to the space, and that’s great, right? If you really define success as that then I’m terribly happy. I feel there’s something very advanced in MoMA’s thinking about it that suits how I think about it or how I’m sharing this thing with that world.

Time Out New York: What do you mean by energy?
Ralph Lemon:
The body versus the object. It’s an object-based space, and it’s very good at that—how to frame and contain and hold that. You bring a body or movement to that space, and it starts to shake a little bit. The space itself, how it’s understood, how an audience engages it, and yet nothing has yet brought the walls down. At this point, it’s okay. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: How much longer does dance have in this kind of environment? Is it just a trend, or is it here to stay? 
Ralph Lemon:
No, no, no. I have a feeling: This is very different from the ’60s, from the ’50s. I have talked to Deborah and Steve Paxton, and the way they describe being in those spaces, it felt much more invisible and temporary, and this feels more welcomed, and when you think of Sarah Michelson winning the Whitney prize [2012 Bucksbaum Award] as a choreographer? That was an incredibly radical act! Plus, the beauty is that the work will never be seen again, because it was so much about being in that space—and now the space itself is going to disappear. For MoMA to be doing what it’s doing with “Some sweet day” is a huge endeavor. This is not throwing a few dances in a basement gallery or in the sculpture garden and seeing what happens. I feel like there’s an investment being made. It may not be “Some sweet day” or what happened to Sarah at the Whitney Biennial, but it’s not going away. I also feel you have artists like Trajal Harrell and Maria Hassabi and Luciana Achugar and Miguel Gutierrez and everyone under 30 years old who are really thinking about movement and space differently than my generation did. There’s going to be a conversation now because you also have young visual-art curators who don’t have the same kind of hierarchy [about dance and visual art]. A lot of them really love interesting dance and they don’t go, “That’s dance, that’s performance.” A lot of them question the idea of the object and its relevance. We’re definitely looking at some new relationship to dance and performance and audience and space. That’s what we’re talking about.

It brings up great questions about what the State Theater [now the David H. Koch Theater] represents, and ballet and Balanchine and Ailey and Broadway in relationship to these other things. Maybe the camps never go away, but in our little modern world it seems to me that the intentionality of the way modern works is that it’s about asking these kinds of questions. That’s the point, and it’s about pissing people off. Not necessarily purposefully, but it’s about confronting the known and the unknown. How does one address that long term? [Laughs] The piece Sarah made in the Whitney was so beautiful to me, and it was because it was in the Whitney and not the Kitchen. It had to be in that space to be that beautiful. In this crossover, in this infiltration of us going into these different kinds of spaces, there is also the possibility of the breakthroughs, and not just the interesting good/bad experiments. There’s going to be a lot more of that, but every once in a while there’s going to be magnificence. And at the end of the day, it’s about the art. The good artists are going to make good work, and there aren’t many. It’s really that too. [Laughs] I was talking to [president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council] Sam Miller the other day about how there are a lot of people making work and a lot of it’s promising. And then there are those who are doing better than making good work. There are not many.

Time Out New York: But there never are.
Ralph Lemon:
Exactly. I feel it’s a beginning of this conversation, of inhabiting these kinds of spaces with this kind of welcoming and volume. Which I find a little surprising because it also feels like, What’s the big deal? It’s happening, and it should be happening. It doesn’t necessarily save the form, but it’s another opportunity for the form or forms, and that’s good. It’s an opportunity and an experiment, and I feel that’s all it can be. The political part of me, my hope, is that it generates a conversation about what works, what doesn’t work, what we like and what we don’t like. There should be some part of this that’s useful. [Laughs] Maybe.

“Some sweet day” is at the Museum of Modern Art Oct 15–Nov 4.


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