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This article was written on 16 Apr 2012, and is filed under Guest Writers.

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Worth Noting

Jodi Bender (foreground) and Carly Pansulla in Tara O’Con’s “Walk It Once” at The Chocolate Factory Theater, with lighting by Holly Ko and costumes by Mary McKenzie. Photo: Ryutaro Mishima.

By Sarah Maxfield

Like many dancers, I grew up in ballet studios full of Degas posters. I have one in my apartment even now. It is from an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the 1998-99 season. It is of a negative from a photograph by Degas. The subject of the photograph is a woman—a dancer. The arrangement of the photo is lovely, the solarization on the negative is interesting—Degas’ eye and mechanical expertise certainly contributed to the success of the image. But the reason I bought this poster, and the reason I still have it up in my apartment, is that I connect to the woman pictured.

I have no idea who she is.

The poster lists various credits, including sponsors and partner institutions. She  is not included. She, the subject, very likely received very little in return for her contribution to this image. She certainly doesn’t have an estate receiving royalties from the sale of this poster so many years later, as Degas surely must. She is not worthy of credit. She is a non-entity. She is an artist’s model.

She is a dancer.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published a photograph by Librado Romero, taken at the press preview for the Whitney Biennial. The photo features Charlotte Cullinan, in a brown unitard and costume horse head, representing a work in the Biennial by choreographer Sarah Michelson.  The caption to the photo reads, “A dancer in Sarah Michelson’s ‘Devotion Study #1 — The American Dancer.’”

“A dancer.”

Ms. Cullinan, listed as a dancer in the program, is also the visual artist behind the drawings of Michelson’s silhouette, which featured prominently in the work. But here she is reduced to a type of artistic media—like bronze or gouache.  Perhaps in this case, the reduction was due to the more than usual layers of data surrounding the identity of the person pictured.  The costume (designed by Michelson and James Kidd), which obscured Ms. Cullinan’s face, was worn by another performer—Kira Alker—in the formal performances of the work. And yet, regardless of  potentially tricky explanations, a performer should never be reduced to a common, anonymous noun.

When I originally saw this photo with the offending caption, I aired my annoyance on Facebook, the soapbox of our digital age, and I was further disturbed by some of the responses I received. Though some commenters were supportive of my ire (thumbs-up!), others defended the Times’ omission as a necessary casualty of clarity in captions, or the result of woefully understaffed newsrooms. I was told that it is generally accepted practice in journalism (even dance journalism) to identify only those dancers whose faces are visible in the photographs. As the photo in question contained a dancer whose face was obscured, said dancer did not require identification. This is standard practice, I was told.

Hmm.

I will grant that concern for clarity, or research restrictions caused by limited resources, can sometimes preclude full crediting in photos. But those aren’t the real issues here. First, why limit standard crediting practice to the visibility of a face, when dance as a medium is about the body as a whole? Surely we recognize the unique value of Margot Fonteyn’s arms, Savion Glover’s feet, Wendy Whelan’s back? Shouldn’t this valuing principle extend beyond famous dance artists when crediting photographs of dancers in the press?

Further, there are deeper, much more insidious issues tangled up in this, which I think we really need to question. We need to ask:

  1. What is the current hierarchy of art forms and how is it biasing how we engage with work?
  2. Why is the body neutralized, de-humanized, and unworthy of identification when the face (our visible connection to the mind) is obscured?
  3. How does this anti-body bias affect our cultural engagement with dance generally?
  4. How does it affect our engagement with our bodies generally?

This isn’t really all about some caption. The caption is just a small symptom of a much larger cultural dismissal of the body and those who have expertise in body-related work.

Dancers work in a medium that intersects with two primary social taboos: the body and sex. In centuries past, dancers were synonymous with prostitutes, and dancers still have an incredibly difficult time achieving serious recognition in the high art world (or in higher education, for that matter). Yet, during those previous centuries as now, dancers have contributed inspiration, expertise, and skill to that same high art culture which so quickly dismisses us as inert material, waiting for an expert hand to shape us for display.

It’s no coincidence that most of the unidentified bodies in centuries of art—particularly nudes— have been women. Women especially struggle to be seen as humans, rather than objects. It’s been ok for ages to refer to a visual art subject simply as “Nude.” “Dancer” is just a short leap of thought away. Why use a name, which might raise tricky questions of creative ownership and idea-generation, when you can simply use a generic, reductive noun? The muse has no voice of her own. She must be interpreted. That’s where the true genius lies. (Pun intended.)

Bodies-as-subjects rarely receive any credit for their contribution to visual art (unless, of course, those bodies are famous, in which case names are displayed prominently to help attract attention and sales). One could argue that this should be expected.  One could argue that artist models are brought into work specifically to be a subject (or object) and not a creative contributor to a work of art. One could argue that a model agrees to this arrangement by agreeing to model.

Perhaps that argument holds true in some cases, but certainly for dancers (and for professional artist models, who it turns out are frequently also dancers), there is a level of expertise and skill—largely unrecognized and highly undervalued—that absolutely contributes to the success of a work of art and shouldn’t be exploited and then dismissed. (Try holding the pose you’re in right now for the next 40 minutes. Now try holding that pose for 40 minutes naked and in public. Now try with more tension in your left arm, but keeping your neck relaxed. Get the idea?)

It is important to recognize contributed skill and artistry by dancers to visual art, and it is even more important to recognize these elements in performance that is presented as visual art. As visual art institutions become increasingly interested in presenting live art, this dismissal of skilled artistic contribution becomes more prominent and more painful. It’s one thing for the representation of a living body to go unrecognized; it’s significantly worse for that actual living body to go unrecognized.

Sadly, this lack of recognition is not limited to the visual art world; dance institutions and choreographers are often guilty of contributing to the perpetuation of the dismissal of dancers as less-than-equal artists.  Many season brochures do not identify dancers pictured.  Many choreographers refer to the artists with whom they work as “my dancers.”  The list goes on.

As far as we think we may have come from the days of dancers being awarded as mistresses to wealthy patrons of the Paris Opera Ballet, dance still suffers from an inequality of value among the arts. This inequality can create desperation for recognition and funds, leading too easily to exploitation. In this moment when large, visual art institutions appear so interested in dance, we dance artists must keep our eyes open and our voices heard. We are like indie musicians facing a record deal. There is potential for wider success, yes. But there is also a danger that we will lose everything we are, if we’re not extremely careful and attentive to how we are being packaged and sold.

If it’s your ass on the line, demand the credit for it. I certainly will.

 

Sarah Maxfield investigates contemporary performance and its history through practice, discussion, and critical theory.  She creates live performance and, with equal focus, creates structures for viewing and discussing performance and its context.  Maxfield’s work has been presented by The Chocolate Factory Theater, P.S. 122, and the Museum of Arts and Design, among other venues in NYC, as well as Philadelphia Fringe Festival and the Metcalf Experimental Theater in Illinois.  Maxfield contributes articles to The Brooklyn Rail and The Performance Club, and she was a Context Notes Writer for Dance Theater Workshop’s final season (2010-2011).  Maxfield currently serves on the New York Dance and Performance “Bessies” Awards committee, curates two ongoing performance series, and is conducting an oral history of experimental dance and performance in New York, which will be compiled into a book titled Nonlinear Lineage.

14 Comments

  1. Aaron Mattocks
    April 16, 2012

    Dear Sarah,

    I have a confession to make. In a review of Sarah Michelson’s “Devotion Study #1 – The American Dancer” I provided my editor at Hyperallergic with a link to images that had been sent to me by the Whitney Museum’s public relations staff. I downloaded the folder just to make sure the link worked, opened the images and saw that there weren’t dancer credits, didn’t stop to make a fuss, and forwarded the email. I have felt guilty ever since. None of the published images had any performer credits, AND I also failed to mention dancers by name in my essay. I would like to state the following, for the record: the incredibly moving and amazing dancer in blue, who never, ever wavered, was and is and remains forever Nicole Mannarino. She is the person pictured three times in my post. Also pictured, and also mentioned though not named, is the seismic presence of Eleanor Hullihan. She wore army fatigue green. And finally, I mention a woman only wearing a white leotard. She is Maggie Cloud. A youthful grace with a powerful, muscular approach. The other dancers were James Tyson, Moriah Evans, Kira Alker and Charlotte Cullinan (according to the program). Now, to be honest, I am almost certain I only saw six performers. But, as this is about apologies, I am happy to overcompensate. Your article seems to clear this up, though Sarah Michelson didn’t seem so concerned.

    So – why didn’t I identify the dancers? I can’t exactly tell you. Something about naming each of them in the context of the review didn’t seem necessary at the time. I was writing for the visual arts audience, after all. What would they care about who was who? Except – that’s the damn point of your argument. It always matters. As I read here on P-Club’s own website, in a discussion with Claudia, Yve Laris Cohen mentions how he lists his own performing body in the visual art/museum way of listing materials (i.e. “oil on canvas”). He says “dancing transsexual” for his live performance based installations. I think this is really important. Using the body as medium requires some kind of specific acknowledgment, if not recognition.

    This is why I am disappointed in myself. Especially because, as recently as the March issue of Artforum magazine, I received a text message from a friend stating: “Your ass is in Artforum this month!” (speaking of ass…) Well, yes, indeed it was. Uncredited. I performed in a piece called Occularpation: Wall Street, by Zefrey Throwell, and was arrested and spent some (brief) time in jail. Claudia had me document my experience at The Brooklyn Rail. Great. But months later, in an exhibit at Gasser+Grunert, the photos used for public relations made no mention of anyone except Zefrey. Obviously, Zefrey should be credited. It was his work, his concept, everything about it was his. Except for what is mine – the body I volunteered to help make his project possible. How hard would it be for Artforum, or the Whitney, or the NY Times, to say, “who is pictured please?” Doesn’t that make it more of a truth telling document, an artifact? Aren’t we interested in not just what the image is, or what it looks like, but also who is involved in the image? The photographer would always (or should always) be credited. So why are bodies pictured but not acknowledged? It makes me think of the Marina Abramovic hoopla surrounding the LACMA gala. Using the human body is a responsibility that should not be taken so lightly. The artist is present – it is his or her gaze that has created the subject-as-object in the first place – but so is the performer. THE PERFORMER IS PRESENT. Or there would be nothing. We would do ourselves well to remember this.

    Yours,
    Aaron

  2. Nancy Dalva
    April 16, 2012

    Super interesting. On the other hand, perhaps better not to be outed as a horse’s ass? (note: I didn’t see Charlotte Cullinan in the costume, but did see Kira Alker.)

    Still, I do see it from the other side, don’t you?
    Something like this: You’re on deadline, you’ve got the story, you’ve got the pix, the photographer didn’t get the horse’s name, you could call the press office but maybe it’s too late or too early–but hey, are there any other photos without the horse? Well, not, so let’s just go with it. Or not run the story today. (In fairness to myself, I do identify everybody in a photo if it is at all possible–see partially obscured totally identified dancers in this blog post, second picture down, past the John Cage Cookies: http://mercecunninghamtrust.blogspot.com/– )

    Parhaps the underlying issue here is actually an overarching one: The desire of dancers today to be more than clay for the sculptor, but, in the 21st Century way, to be co-creators. If Artaud’s cry was NO MORE MASTERPIECES, yours is NO MORE ACOLYTES.

  3. Jeremy M. Barker
    April 16, 2012

    As much as I could appreciate Nancy Dalva’s point, I think Sarah’s right that this is systemic and degrading. It never fails to amaze me how many photos I receive from dance companies that don’t credit the performer. Theater companies never do that–or very, very rarely. It’s not just the publication though–both PR people and artists themselves regularly send me images without names for performers.

    I’d add something further–it bothers me that more companies don’t do line-ups of their performers. I have stacks and stacks of press kits at home, and I swear the only thing in them that’s ever useful is a line-up. In the theater it’s less important because we can associate a character by name with the performer in the cast list. But with dance? Short of knowing who each dancer is or asking afterward based on notes, it’s impossible to get to credit the performances that stuck out.

    My point isn’t to blame or absolve anyone–both publications and companies and their pr reps have obligations to properly credit the work of artists, even if they are essentially being reduced to just a model in a still photo. (Which also bugs me–I actually wrote about that a while ago: http://culturebot.net/2010/09/7828/7828/.)

  4. Siobhan Burke
    April 16, 2012

    Sarah, thank you for your insightful and incisive essay. This issue of when to identify a dancer is something I’ve thought a lot about as an editor. Incidentally, I came to your piece just moments after writing a vague caption for a photo that was about to go to print. It read “Members of [company name] in a work by [choreographer's name].” I identified the choreographer and the company, but not the three dancers. (Or was it one dancer? There was, after all, only one discernible face.)

    My reasoning, at the time, went something like this: In the 100-word blurb that the photo was meant to illustrate, the choreographer and company were mentioned, while specific dancers weren’t. Still, I thought it would be a good idea to include their names, which the publicist had, in fact, sent. I soon realized, however, that the names did not match up with the images; they all belonged to men, while the most prominent dancer in the photo was a woman. For a moment, I considered contacting the publicist. I knew that if I were those dancers, I would want some recognition. Alas. I was running behind schedule, and a co-worker was waiting on me to finish the page. I thought it would take too long to track down the appropriate names, and anyway, it was just one little picture. So I opted for company “members” (perhaps even more reductive than “dancers”).

    Of course, after reading your essay, I regretted that decision. But as it turned out, I had one more chance to review and edit the caption before the end of the day. I decided to just email the publicist, which took about 50 seconds. Approximately 120 seconds later, he responded with the correct names, and I reworked the caption. Not all publicists would have gotten back to me so quickly, but it was clearly worth a try.

    This is all to say that, as an editor, I can relate to Nancy’s comment about the hassle of hunting down dancers’ names. Impatience, busy-ness, and laziness do play a role in the lack of proper crediting. There are also aesthetic preferences and considerations of “the reader”: Art directors don’t like long captions that take up the whole photo; editors (myself included) are obsessed with conserving space. But I agree that underlying these feelings and preferences, or permitting them, is a deeper disregard—a “larger cultural dismissal”—of all that dancers bring to the picture.

    Everyone else is busy, too. I knew that no one was going to object if I didn’t add the dancers’ names. Thank you for holding me accountable.

  5. Nancy Dalva
    April 16, 2012

    Dear Siobahn,
    While that was my comment, it was also a projection of what I imagined the thinking to be at the copy desk. Generally, I am obsessive about intellectual property rights, dates, identifications. and as a documentarian, extremes of metadata (such as identifying everyone in a film of a class by attire, with a coded system top to socks). When writing, I like facts, they tether concepts. However, in this case, I probably would have thought,” I hate this horse anyway, do I want to make a point with it enough to deal?” “An unidentified performer in a horse costume” would probably have suggested itself as a solution if I didn’t get an answer back on an e-mail at deadline–or merely if I were feeling rather cross, I admit. That way, at least you are turfing off the lack of identity onto the supplier of the photo. And, at least on the internet, when somebody complains that you haven’t identified his ass, you can fix it….The cult of the personality of the dancer is another topic for another day….
    Very best,
    Nancy

  6. Sarah Maxfield
    April 16, 2012

    Thanks for these thoughtful responses. I’m thrilled that this is provoking thought – and action! (Also, it’s a great day for me when I’m linked even in a small way with Artaud. Thanks for that, Nancy. Though, I’d say my rallying cry is “NO MORE REDUCTIVISM!” or perhaps “EMBRACE COMPLEXITY.”) I hope that the primary take-away here though is not shame for the times we’ve under-credited, but an increased awareness of certain systemic inequalities of artistic recognition, to which we all contribute, and which we can all work together to shift.

  7. [...] delighted to have contributed this piece, on the importance of crediting dancers as artists, to Claudia La Rocco’s [...]

  8. Jillian Sweeney
    April 17, 2012

    Super lovely thread, Sarah. Crediting was always such an enjoyable part of being a publicist for me, but often I was warding off deadlines to put my eyes on those gorgeous details/bodies/faces. Or, as Siobhan pointed out, perhaps it was more aptly labeled as the *feeling* of warding off deadlines. For the worker-bee, this can feel like getting a visit from Puck. Seeming diversion. (Also. I love Puck. Worker-bee is less natural in me. But, that was supposed to be a secret. Oopsy.)

    Anyhow, self-reflection aside, this line of thought easily gets rolled into minutaeland for an organization, especially the large understaffed ones. And visually it is a small detail. Captions are often 9 pt or less, yes? (someone fact-check me)

    We need the magnifying glass to see the names of performers. It’s a systematic hierarchy of our publishing system. Headline, picture, byline, body text, caption. (sigh) And embedded in that inherited structure is the idea of performance recreated in new form – the most invisible (and magical) thing about a good story. In that framework, the names of artistic collaborators multiply like those statistical factor trees.

    It is a good thing to take up the magnifying glass in the midst of all this. And by no means am I trying to belittle performance and performers with that metaphor. Performers are most nameable on the stage… and where I like them most. (in my unwritten memory, a close second)

    On the page, the work is different… which as you’ve pointed out, Sarah – bodes problems for our collective memory. Who and how much do we lose? And goodness, how did we ever remember before written-down storytelling became a new technology?

    I’m not sure if this is a directive for our institutions so much as a powerful, tiny change for our personal missions, which go unpublished everyday.

  9. Emily Wexler
    April 18, 2012

    This is amazing. Thank you for writing this. My response to this, and to the already complexly thoughtful responses included, is difficult to articulate. But let me try to further illuminate the basic disregard and indecency I have personally experienced with my history as a dancer (not to mention as a professional artist model). Because I think that is what is so poetically being addressed here – a call for a basic regard for the subjectivity of those whose bodies are somehow simultaneously so public, yet so painfully erased. In my own case, not only has my name frequently been excluded from an image in the press, a show, a credit, but also, sadly, my naked body has appeared in prominent publications without my permission. The times it has happened (more than once) no one ever asked me if it was ok. Seriously, I would just open up the magazine and there I would be. Sincerely, it occurred multiple times, in multiple works, with multiple projects (yet never my own). When I agree to dance nude, am I also agreeing to loose all of my rights of representation? Who owns my body? The choreographer? The editor? The journalist? The visual artist who is painting me? The student? The photographer? Who? Me? Right? I realize the slip (and most slips) happen simply. I am sure the choreographer gave the publication the images of me, and I am sure it was assumed that the choreographer had already received my permission, or the publication assumed the image was of the choreographer and not a dancer, or I dunno, some sort of misunderstanding. There are a lot of reasonable explanations for why incredibly important questions don’t get asked. But someone should have checked. Because I think if you adhere to basic consideration, then an image of a naked woman always requires double-checking. Otherwise she becomes just another nameless, faceless, voiceless, invisible, absent, replaceable female body in print. Even if the dancers are not nude, without a name, they literally become nameless. Which, I believe, is one of the crucial mechanisms underneath the systemic condition of insignificance.

  10. Sarah Maxfield
    April 19, 2012

    Emily’s comment brings up another crucial element of this discussion: the dance field operates primarily on an economy of ethics, as opposed to financial interest. As payment for most involved rarely reaches above the level of a token, structures that govern financial transactions – contracts – are barely used in dance and even more barely paid any attention. Things like image rights are generally not discussed in advance. Often it’s assumed that collaborators on a project all have the same goals, interests, and thresholds. Sometimes this is the case, but it’s certainly not something to count on without discussion. Perhaps it’s time again to revisit and update the Dancer’s Forum Compact…

    Also, I’ve been thinking about the point Nancy raises about the “cult of personality of the dancer.” I think the “cult of personality” is a huge cultural issue right now, that spans every cultural sector. I am interested in reducing our cultural need for stars. I don’t think a desire for recognition is the same as a quest for celebrity.

  11. Nancy Dalva
    April 19, 2012

    Dear Emily,

    I am struck by the seriousness of the issue you raise, and your hope that someone other than you can protect you from such violation. Perhaps DANCE NYC could sponsor a symposium or presentation on the intellectual property rights accruing to such images, and how to control them. Meanwhile, and I mean to be protective and supportive not critical, because I don’t want you to experience this again:

    First: in re: “Someone should have checked.” That’s unrealistic, and turfs off the responsibility after the fact. You put yourselfin a public performance that was photographed, and at some point in the process, preferably at the onset, you should have either demurred,or inquired closely about the potential use of images. (While keeping in mind that no choreographer or presenter can effectively prevent somebody with an iphone from taking a picture; it’s horrid, it’s constant, and it’s very difficult to stop. And even if you do stop the person, the image is already in the phone, and no one is going to expect ushers to seize cell phones.)

    Second: From the point of view of a writer (and sometime editor): When I receive photos from a press representative or choreographer of a public dance performance including naked dancers, my assumption is that they were performing, that their nudity is in essence their costume, that they knew they were being photographed for press photos, and that the nude image is a part of the actual performance, not snapped on the way to or from the “stage,” whatever that might be. (That would be a violation of privacy, because it would not be “performance” per se, though one could argue it from the other side. It’s why nude dancers wear robes in bow lines.) And, I would further assume that the photo was captured with the awareness of the person depicted. It would not occur to me to directly contact the dancer and ask if were okay to print such a photo.

    Third: At first there is not much apparent distinction between dancing naked for 50 people and appearing naked in a press photo except economy of scale; and, yet, there is. Most significant is the total lost of control of context. You create the possibility that people will see it who would otherwise not, and put it to uses you would abhor, in terms of specific viewers and also in terms of unknown viewers. In other words, if you don’t want your grandmother who lives far away to see you dancing naked; and if you don’t want to be come an inadvertent porn object, in today’s 24/7 internet culture, probably best to stay dressed, and if you don’t ask at least for photo approval. Then if a photograph objectifies that in a way you find offensive, you can kill it.

    Four: “Taking nude production photos of me are okay but I control who publishes them on a case by case basis” might be something that would be formally agreed to–if your participation were highly valued–and yet, people boost things on the internet anyway. You never know where things will end up, out of context.

    About being an artist’s model I know nothing, I am not addressing that. Just nude pix in press kits.

    Again, I am sorry this is such a source of sorrow to you, but yes, when you agree to dance nude and allow photography, ABSENT A CONTRACT STATING IT TO THE CONTRARY and stating the parameters you permit, you are indeed tacitly giving away your “rights of representation,” because it is fair to assume your permission. A court might deem otherwise, I don’t know, but by then the cat is way out of the box. You do own your body. Unfortunately, who owns representations of it is actually an entirely different thing. For instance, slightly different but you will take the point, when I film events–such as a dance class, or the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Dia:Beacon or at the Park Avenue Armory, there is prominant signage indicating that the dancer’s presence in class or the audience’s presence in the room constitutes an agreement to be filmed. (And photos are taken of the signage, time and date stamped, to prove it if need be.) As it happened, there were no audience members who chose to be nude, and if there had been, I wouldn’t have used the shots. But I would have had the right to, without further inquiry. (Meanwhile, the images of the dancers proper, were controlled by their AGMA contract.) You see the complications. And the attendant reliance upon good will, which is sweetly unrealistic, or a contract, which involves legal expense, and perhaps the creation of conditions that don’t smack of good will, and which might preclude your participation. I wish you the very best with this.
    Nancy

  12. Harmonica Semis
    June 6, 2012

    Does anyone really want to be “clay for a sculptor”? Has that really ever been the case in the dancer/choreographer relationship? Choreographers have always relied on the intelligence and capacity of the dancers they are working with. The combined systems of imposed hierarchy and nonverbal communication result in a murky pond where attribution and credit for creative work is submerged.

  13. [...] projects and has worked with me as an art model, recently sent me a link to this very interesting blog post (by Sarah Maxfield) with extensive discussion in the comments section.  The beginning of the discussion here is about [...]

  14. [...] Note: So … remembering the conversation sparked by Sarah Maxfield’s essay on identifying performers, and because I am trying, when possible, to avoid being another journalist who does not make the [...]

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