Modern Mondays at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art provide museum goers a unique opportunity to talk about art with museum professionals. Starting off as small lectures, the series has morphed into short programs offering an interactive performance and discussion aimed at deepening the understanding of the myriad of art forms presented. On Monday evening at 6:00, the Bechtler Museum presented Danstallations by Martha Connerton/Kinetic Works set to the background of The Art Books of Henri Matisse on display at the Bechtler until September 7.

Monday’s event was very well planned and executed. The artistic experience started the moment the elevator opened onto the 4th floor gallery. I walked into a scene of dancers posing and moving amongst selections from Matisse’s richly diverse art books. I wasn’t sure whether I had entered mid performance, as if I were already being taught a lesson about art before the art lesson officially began. I made my way into the designated performance space and took my seat observing the brightly hued pieces from Matisse’s Jazz collection. The dancers and the director of Kinetic Works, Martha Connerton, processed through the audience. Her short introduction encouraged the audience to consider examining the dance as a visual art in the same way that we would a painting.  “What are the juxtapositions and compositions that you see?” she asked. She proceeded with the game plan of the evening: A short dance presentation would be followed by a short period wandering through the works of Matisse and ending with a discussion. Questions typed on notecards on our seats were to guide our thoughts. What were our observations and questions? Were our expectations of the dance and art met or contradicted?

The dancers Kelly Craig, Allie Nunweiler, Sarah Mattox, Elizabeth Sanford, and Julia Shockley initially disappointed. Dressed in black and covered with laminated cardboard cutouts of a yet-unknown-to-the-audience work of Matisse, the dancers stepped, clunked, twisted and flipped to the background of a pulseless didgeridoo drone. This choreography of intermittently held positions was made even more awkward by a fifth dancer who would loudly and seemingly randomly rip off the cardboard pieces (the cardboard pieces were attached with Velcro) and reposition them on different dancers and different body parts. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be watching or seeing, and only the ending made sense to me. The dancers came together combining all of the individual cardboard pieces to form Matisse’s Amphitrite, from the Jazz collection. At that very moment the painting was projected onto the wall behind them, offering a representation of the real painting and the painting come alive by the dancers.  

At this point, the audience stood and walked around the exhibit, looking at paintings from four of Matisse’s art books. I wandered and gazed at the different colors and shapes of Matisse. I tried to connect the dance to the art. The dance itself seemed jagged to me, and stiff, yet the dancers came together to form Amphitrite, the goddess queen of the sea, and a painting full of squiggles and twirls, bringing to mind the fluid undulating of seaweed in the ocean. It seemed to me a complete juxtaposition. Was that the point? What was I missing? 

What Modern Mondays at the Bechtler offers that is so uniquely wonderful is the deep understanding that can be obtained when you allow art to inform art to inform art, and so on. Christopher Lawing, the Vice President of Programming, began the discussion section with a brief history of the importance and relevance of the art books. He drew our attention to the improvisatory nature of Matisse’s collage making. A bedridden Matisse cut out shapes and manipulated them over and over again until he eventually found the combination he wanted. The dance, with its at first seemingly aimless choreography painted that picture perfectly. The dancers positioned and repositioned themselves, all the while manipulating the shapes on a colorless background (the didgeridoo) until they came together to form the final piece. The dance, like the artwork, was abstract, the intentions murky until the final product or ending.

The ensuing discussion further opened my eyes to what I had experienced. Astute and thoughtful audience members illuminated how the jagged edges of the dance represented so well the jagged edges of the Matisse collages. “Dance defies expectation,” one audience member declared. The didgeridoo music wasn’t random, but purposefully chosen because it didn’t distract and its swirls of resultant overtones represented the rich saturation of Matisse’s colors.

It is certainly fun to go to performances that wrap you up in the cozy warmth of what is familiar and expected. However, those performances rarely stick with you. It’s the performances that challenge and surprise that alter your perception and understanding that leave you feeling like you stumbled across that hidden part of yourself and for a moment, you finally understood it all.