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.’”
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.
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:
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.