Visual artist Suzanne Bocanegra opens Danspace Project's fall season with the New York premiere of Little Dot. This 12-hour installation—part dance, part sculpture—takes inspiration from George Seurat's painting Young Woman Powdering Herself (1890). For the piece, pointe shoes, dyed to match the 14 colors in the painting, sit on poles with markings to show how many times a color was used; 14 dancers from New York Theatre Ballet—who lace up and unlace their pointe shoes accordingly—tap out each color on an amplified stage. (Sound is by Jody Elff and David Lang.) Bocanegra spoke about her obsession with ballet, Seurat and Little Dot, the comic-book character she loved as a child.
I’m sure you have to see it to really understand it, but could you explain your idea behind Little Dot?
It’s funny that it’s going to be at Danspace, because I feel like it’s more of a sculpture—it’s like a 12-hour sculpture with ballet dancers. It also lives in the dance world, because the dancers are performing for the 12 hours. I was talking to a friend about it the other day that 12 hours is a long time for a dance, but for a sculpture that’s not very long. It’s based on a tiny Seurat painting that I saw as a girl in the Houston Museum of Fine Arts called Young Woman Powdering Herself. At the time, I was immersed in Little Dot comics. It was a cartoon about this girl who was obsessed with dots: She wore dots, she painted dots on everything, she saw dots everywhere, and she imposed dots on her environment. I was totally obsessed with Little Dot, and when I saw that painting, I was immediately drawn to it, because it’s made up of all little dots. I would stand in front of it whenever I got a chance and would imagine all the dots falling to the floor and sorting them. About seven years ago, I was in the museum and I thought, I’m just going to do that.
What did you do?
I got a reproduction of the painting, and I sat in my studio and counted all the dots. I divided them according to color and area of the painting, like the hair, the dress. I had this chart for ages. Then I had a show at the Tang Museum at Skidmore, and the director said, “Is there a new project you want to do? We’d love to commission something new,” and I said, “I’ve always wanted to do something with this chart.” I was reading a couple of books on the history of ballet at the time: Apollo’s Angels and a Lincoln Kirstein book. Anyway, I started thinking about ballet. It’s also this very beautiful art form based on very strange and nutty rules and that’s how Seurat developed his painting technique. He was looking at color theorists at the time, and he looked at what scientists were thinking, and he made up his own nutty rules about painting based on that.
He had these ideas that complementary colors would blend if you put them in little dots next to each other and that would look more realistic than if you used the traditional blending techniques. Which it doesn’t! It still looks like dots! But I think that was what was so brilliant about it. The rules he imposed on himself—all the figures are very stiff, and there’s something about the whole image dividing into these tiny bits of paint that is fascinating. I started thinking about the analogies between that and ballet with all of its rules and positions. I thought, Maybe I could interpret the chart into ballet movement and bourrée movement seemed so perfect because you’re on your toes, and you’re dotting the floor. I built a stage that’s kind of a sculpture. It’s based on a rough outline of the figure in the painting and there are 14 poles, and you have 14 colors of the painting; each ballet dancer is one of the colors. Basically, they are tapping out the chart. Once I was experimenting with it and heard the sound on the stage, I started thinking of the ballerina as a percussionist. I worked with Jody Elff and David Lang to mike the stage and process the sound of the dancers tapping.
How do they process the sound?
Jody is a sound guru. He used contact mikes on the stage to pick up the sound of the ballerinas and then the painting is like a figure-ground painting—it’s a figure of dots. I prerecorded one dancer on the stage dancing all the dots of the ground. I’ve done this twice before. Originally we embedded that in speakers inside the stage. That created the “sound ground” for the live dancers to dance on. That tapping is going on all the time, and then they come on and do live tapping. They are tapping out the figure and the powder puff on the sound of the ground, and then that’s processed. David worked with Jody to find a really interesting way to make that sound huge and to make it almost ominous. One of the interesting things I found out later was the history of the painting. It’s a portrait of Madeleine Knobloch, who was Seurat’s mistress, and it was the only painting that he ever did of anyone. He died in his early thirties, and Madeleine was actually living with him and nobody knew about her. They had a child. He showed up on his parent’s doorstep with Madeleine and this child, and he died a couple of weeks later. Then the child died. Then she was pregnant, and that child died.
She disappears in history. After finding out about the history of this painting, I was like, Wow. Because you look at it and it’s just this woman who is, interestingly enough, dotting her face with a powder puff. Then you find out that there’s something going on. [Laughs] I was also interested in taking this tiny painting with these delicate dots and making it gigantic. The other thing I should add is that I’ve done it twice before, and we’ve decided that embedding the speakers inside the stage doesn’t give quite the right sort of sound for the ground. Now we’re going to mount speakers in the hall. So the sound of the ground will be coming from all over the place.
That’s great, especially for a space like St. Mark’s Church. Why did you choose dancers from New York Theatre Ballet?
I became really interested in New York Theatre Ballet because they are carrying on this tradition of Cecchetti. I read about him in Apollo’s Angels. He created this school and a very specific idea of how to train people in a particular kind of technique. I was fascinated by his rules. I started this piece with contemporary dancers who had a little bit of ballet training, and they did a beautiful job, but what I realized as I got deeper into this project was ballet dancers have this amazing training—the way they move their bodies even on the simplest step is fascinating to me. It’s a very rule-based discipline and contemporary dancers—they don’t go there. They use rules for whatever they need them for, but they are much freer in their interpretation, and I was thinking of ballerinas as thoroughbreds. Even though it’s one simple move, the way they do it has so much that they bring to it.
So they actually dance the chart?
Yes. I think the first thing they dance is the hair. Each dancer plays a color, so they’ll all come out at some point on the stage and dance however many colored dots there are in the hair. Sometimes there are no light-green dots in the hair. So that ballerina will come out, she’ll take her shoes off the pole and put them on and then just take them off and put them back. In her case, there will be no dots; there will be a gap in the painting, the same way that in Seurat’s paintings, there are little gaps that add some luminosity to it. Also, I got really into toe shoes. They’re so beautiful! Every ballerina sews their own ribbons on and has their own particular way of padding their toes, and so they’re going to be putting on their shoes and taking them off all the time. I found that fascinating. But, you know, it’s a little boring too. [Laughs]
No, I like the rigor. Was it difficult to dye the pointe shoes?
Oh my God, we’re in a dying crisis right now! We got Tim Foster from the New York City Ballet to dye them. He’s done it before, but we had this bright idea, Why don’t we get old toe shoes from the dancers, because they’re already broken in? But they looked terrible dyed, because they’d been used and were too scuffed up, so all of the dancers had to get themselves fitted for new shoes. I want them to look beautiful! This a sculpture.
Little Dot is at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery Sept 27, 11am–11pm.