The Art of Dance: Another View on ‘Borderlands’


This is a guest post by Peter Denny, Public Relations Associate at SFMOMA:

I’m not a ballet connoisseur. I went to SF Ballet’s Program 1 expecting to not understand what I was seeing but nevertheless to fully enjoy an evening of dance, taking cues from the rest of the audience on when and how hard to clap. Before it started my boyfriend whispered, “I usually prefer the ballets that have clear stories.” I nodded in agreement.

Set design for Wayne McGregor's Borderlands (© Erik Tomasson)


But then the curtain lifted for Wayne McGregor’s newly-commissioned Borderlands, to reveal a stage inspired by a Josef Albers painting. Working at SFMOMA — where two Albers paintings are currently on view — and having studied modern art, I knew this was my big chance to finally understand a contemporary ballet (!). Watching the piece, I felt similar to how I feel in the galleries of the museum. Borderlands is a performance that blends dance with space, lighting, color, architecture, music, and technology; a convergence of mediums that is present more and more in the fine arts, and often demands a letting-go of traditional narrative expectations.

I let go of these expectations with modern art long ago. One of the first things I learned was to stop insisting on finding the answer to “what does this mean?” I learned to stop saying “I don’t get it” the moment I was confronted with, say, a completely blank canvas or a toilet in a gallery. I stopped trying to get into the mind of the artist, and instead reversed the flow and let the art get into my mind. I accepted that art is not black and white (even when it is), and that its power stems from its potential to provoke multi-directional thoughts and dialogue.

I had never approached dance in that way, until Borderlands and its insistent Albers connection inspired me to watch with this perspective in mind. I experienced the ballet as I never had before. I was inexplicably engaged, and I was okay with not having an explanation.

I had many, many thoughts:

  • I thought the music was unpredictable, engaging, industrial, and at times sentimental, like a mix between factory noises, techno music and the a romantic movie soundtrack.
  • I thought the dance sequences — alternating between intimate couples, energetic ensembles, all-male groups, and all-female groups — hinted at a kind of sexual and emotional openness without traditional gender roles.
  • I thought the stage design and lighting was arresting, at times seeming cold and empty, and other times warm and humid.
  • I thought it fit perfectly in the right time and place; the balance of art and technology in the piece at a moment in history when mediums are converging — photographs, videos all one button or Google search away in our pockets — in a region that is the center of this innovation.

The list goes on. The point is, I’m happy to let all of those thoughts float around and grow in different directions. There is no need to line them up in a row and create a story that will help me understand. It just was what it was, it was many things, and I will never forget it.

One of the main reasons why I love what I do — public relations for SFMOMA — is knowing that I help to raise awareness for the museum and bring in visitors regardless of their familiarity with the subject matter. Everyone can enjoy art. And at SF Ballet, watching Borderlands, I was reminded of that message once again. Everyone can enjoy dance.

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  1. avatar David Romano
    Posted February 4, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Boderlands may indeed succeed as a work about “space, lighting, color, architecture …” but it does not succeed as a work of dance or music; it is not a work of art.

    After the success of McGregor’s “Eden Eden” and “Chroma,” it’s not surprising that Helgi Tomasson would commission a work from the renown choreographer but, unfortunately, Borderlands is not just disappointing, it’s disturbing. The dancers don’t dance; they writhe and contort and stare vacantly as they point skyward and march around. The movements are abrupt and hostile when not almost moronic. It is unrelentingly grim, with never any contrast to the cold emotional tone of the piece. There are no costumes to speak of; the men and women are dressed alike, in leotards, with bare legs. The music was loud and relentless. There are signs warning that strobe lights would be used during the performance. The strobe lights were nothing compared to the assault on the senses from the volume of the, I hesitate to call it, music. This original musical score was so boring and derivative that to call it original, or even music, is a stretch. The sheer painful volume of it added insult to injury. They were making more interesting electronic music than this in the 1960’s. A number of patrons left before Borderlands began. I wish I had gone with them.

    There is nothing new in Borderlands. McGregor is stuck in a rut. “Eden Eden” and “Chroma” were brilliant and did everything that Borderlands aspires to do but can not. Truly, the emperor has no clothes. If I were Helgi, I’d ask for my money back.

  2. avatar Roger Green
    Posted February 4, 2013 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    There is one difference between Borderlands and an art museum. Paintings do not threaten you with hearing loss. The noise level in Borderlands was often WAY too loud.

  3. avatar Lisa
    Posted February 4, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Maybe the best piece of dance criticism of our generation.

  4. avatar R2D2
    Posted February 28, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Work like Borderlands is the only thing that gets me excited about ballet. Thank you Mr. McGregor for giving me glimpses of such fantastic worlds.

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