By Muriel Maffre, Executive Director of Museum of Performance & Design
In advance of his San Francisco Ballet farewell and the conclusion of his dancing career, Principal Dancer Damian Smith is re-imagining how dance as embodied knowledge can be recorded and kept alive. Over the course of his final few weeks with San Francisco Ballet, Smith is creating tangible and permanent records of his work at the barre in the form of action drawings on cotton paper and canvas.
You will be able to experience his process live during San Francisco Ballet Open Company Class on May 3. That morning, Smith will apply white paint to his dance shoes then complete a ballet barre while simultaneously recording the path of his movements on black coated canvas.
This documentation project, developed in partnership with San Francisco Ballet, the Museum of Performance + Design and Catharine Clark Gallery, explores the interplay between dance and the visual arts and honors the craftmanship behind dance making. When inscribed on canvas or paper, the gestural traces make visible the particular qualities of a dancer’s embodied knowledge while fixing an otherwise ephemeral art form.
Smith is creating a total of six 30” x 72” action drawings that will be signed by the dancer, exhibited at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco June 7 through July 19 and made available to the public through live auction to benefit the Museum of Performance + Design at a reception celebrating Damian Smith’s career in dance on June 21, 4pm at the Catharine Clark Gallery.
“Doing a barre” is the bread and butter of a ballet dancer. It is a warm-up routine that consists of a measured progression of exercises designed to prepare the body for the specifics of ballet technique: verticality, turn-out, symmetry, and lines. A barre slowly develops from the basic five ballet positions (a series of conventional positioning of the feet and arms dating back 350 years to the dancing French King, Louis XIV) to combinations of movements involving complex coordination of the lower and upper body and increased amplitude, extension, and velocity of the legs.
The barre (Fr.) takes its name from the long rod (also “barre” in French) traditionally affixed to the wall of the dance studio. One hand clutching the barre, the other acting as a counter-balance to the exercising leg, dancers push their body to become more pliable, resilient, and agile. A barre, is the ABC of budding ballet dancers dreaming of a stage career. It is the groundwork of professional ballet dancers readying their bodies for a productive and injury-free day of dancing. It is a place of safety where novices can gain strength and balance, and where professionals can retain their know-how.
In the context of a ballet class, a ballet master instructs a barre respecting a set order of exercises. A basic sequence starts with pliés and follows with dégagés à terre, dégagés en l’air, ronds de jambe à terre, fondus, battements frappés, grands ronds de jambe en l’air, petits battements sur le coup de pied, and grands battements. The sequence of steps, combined with their changing musical meter, affects the muscles’ ability to flex and extend alternatively in weight bearing positions and in the air.
Over ten years of training, a dancer internalizes a kinesthetic knowledge that is the foundation for moving harmoniously, rhythmically and with a quality of intent focusing on an aesthetic of movements. Smith’s action drawings provide a visualization of this internalized knowledge while permanently documenting a few moments of his dancing life.