Ralph Lemon

Ralph Lemon talks about “Some sweet day” at the Museum of Modern Art

Steve Paxton, Satisfyin’ Lover, 1967. Performance view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 17, 2012.

Ralph Lemon has never been about just one thing. A celebrated dancer, choreographer, writer, and visual artist, Lemon turns toward the curatorial in his latest endeavor, “Some sweet day,” which stands to be a significant touchstone in developing conversations on the role of dance in the museum. Here he talks about the project, a three-week series of dance performances featuring six choreographers at the Museum of Modern Art that he coorganized with Jenny Schlenzka, associate curator at MoMA PS1, and Jill A. Samuels, producer in the department of media and performance art at MoMA. The program runs through November 4.

“SOME SWEET DAY” grew out of a project that didn’t happen. In 2007, I was offered the chance to curate a dance series at the ICA in Boston as part of a visual art show they were putting together on American blues music—blues as an American aesthetic. And I thought, well, I don’t want to racialize it, but they’re calling me because I’m a black artist, probably thinking I might have some relationship to the idea of the blues, which I do. But that part didn’t interest me as much as just curating a series of dances. I thought about creating a framework where the performing artist would work with a visual artist from the show on something that would inhabit their theater. Then I thought of pairing performing artists. I was really interested in this idea of having two artists in the same place at the same time, giving the series some generational or historical or aesthetic point of view, a generative collision of my choosing. I thought of artists like Deborah Hay and Sarah Michelson, these two very iconic, very different women makers.

Long story short, it never happened. But it remained a kind of a bee in my bonnet. And then a couple years later, Connie Butler invited me to be a part of the exhibition “On Line” at MoMA. There was an untitled duet I had made with Okwui Okpokwasili in 2008 for a private, invited audience at Dancespace. I thought it would be interesting to remap that work for the very unprivate MoMA atrium. The performance at MoMA changed the work, of course, but also my idea of how to be in my body in front of that particular kind of audience, sharing the work. Because the audience is so at odds with itself and the space. There were at least three different kinds of audiences we were dealing with—people from dance who dutifully came to see Okwui and myself, people from the visual art world who came for “an event,” and the incidental audience, passing through. All of that happening simultaneously was extraordinary. From performance to performance, it continued to surprise me. It felt like something I wasn’t going to conquer as a performer or performance maker for that kind of environment.

When the performances were over I thought this was wonderful and I wanted other people in my perceived “tribe” to have the opportunity. I wrote Kathy Halbreich and said, “I’ve got this idea. This blues project never happened at ICA, and would you be interested in some reconstituted form of that project?” Kathy loves dance, and she was thrilled about all the artists I brought up. She opened that door to the museum. And then it was a matter of refining what the original idea was to something that was appropriate to MoMA and the atrium space. The most important curatorial question or problem would be how does a dancer or choreographer deal with that space, which is not a theater. It can’t be. An artist has to go into the atrium on its terms.

There were four artists from the original blues project that stayed in the lineup: Deborah and Sarah and Dean Moss and Faustin Linkyekula. And for many years I’d been thinking about Steve Paxton and Jérôme Bel—their generational, historic, and aesthetic kinship, same and different points of view on the ordinary body. When I contacted Jérôme he immediately mentioned he had been thinking about doing The Show Must Go On in the atrium. I thought that fit my curatorial terms fine, and I said, “I’d also like you to share that week with Steve Paxton just because I see both of your work fitting in time.” And he was like “Yeah, let’s do this. Let’s see what happens.” And I thought, that’s what this whole thing is about. “Let’s see what happens.”

Jérôme arrived just today, coming off the great success of Disabled Theater. It opened in Paris last night and he gets on a plane and a few hours later walks into the atrium and he’s like, “What do I do in this space?” He doesn’t know. It’s brilliant, right? And Sarah, who controls everything, it’s been incredible to watch her for months try to figure out how to control a monumental mise-en-scène she can’t really control.

In some respects, the most profound part is the things that MoMA can’t predict and control, and the things that we can’t predict and control. MoMA, to its credit, from the top down, has been really open to this. But we’re opening up a can of worms. Some people will point to the surface layer and say it doesn’t work. And my point is, of course it doesn’t work. Now let’s see, within that, what are the opportunities, what do we discover about it not working? From my point of view, if it’s not working that means it works. We know the old model.

Some sweet day is an old gospel song. The title just felt . . . appropriate. Dance in museums. We’ve been getting such short shrift, and some sweet day we’ll be a part of all of this. Maybe.