The Animate Life of Art

The Animate Life of Art

Photo by Presenting Denver.
Photo by Presenting Denver.

When you enter the Denver Art Museum (DAM) and go up the grand, modern staircase, there is corner space to the left. Recently, this space had a brain map on one wall, a video projection on another, metal structures, and a couch. For museum visitors it was an exhibition space; for Laura Ann Samuelson it (along with the rest of the museum) was her creative hub, thinking, and exploration space. During the month of July and August, choreographer, dancer, and teacher Laura Ann Samuelson was the DAM’s creative artist-in-residence. Through grant funding, the DAM invites local artists into the museum to collaborate and enhance visitors’ experiences through exposure and participation in these artists’ productions.

The intent of Samuelson’s residency, which ran July 1st through August 20th, was to expose the process of making a solo dance piece to the museum’s visitors, and furthermore explore the human process of experiencing art. This residency was a continuation of Samuelson’s previous experiences as an artist. The process challenged her thinking of movement and art, and allowed visitors of the DAM to be exposed to, and participate in, a challenging process.

Samuelson, of Boulder, Colo., is an acclaimed artist, the recipient of many awards and titles, and has taken her work internationally. Under the production name Hoarded Stuff Performance, Samuelson creates original works in various, unexpected settings-a swimming pool, for example-which challenges the human’s external environment norms. She is a predominantly modern-trained dancer who has reached into other fields such as theatre and sound. Instead of keeping these experiences separate, she converges them to add to her work as an artist. Hoarded Stuff Performance has worked in collaboration with various other artists and dancers in the Denver and Boulder communities.

Witnessing the beginning of Samuelson’s creative process was inspirational. Immediately upon meeting Samuelson, she invited myself and to her team at the DAM to join in what quickly transitioned from an interview to an interweaving discussion into her inspiring mind. Samuelson discussed her previous work as an artist, how this was guiding the current residency, and the goals of the residency for herself and the audience. Additionally, I was able to see the rehearsal component of the residency in action.

Photo by Presenting Denver
Photo by Presenting Denver

Samuelson’s thoughts and ideas didn’t tract linearly but instead intertwined, like a web of yarn. She told me about her piece, Practicing, which was the original impetus of the current work in progress. She then shifted to her observations in how audiences perceive and observe art. How they stand, what they say, what they choose to stare at and what they choose to pass by.  She was interested in finding out how terrains could migrate–how what she does in one space of the museum shifts to another. How is this the same? How is this different?

At this point in her project, the final outcome was unclear. She had ideas she was exploring, and was doing so in the museum space. She allowed the plan to be somewhat malleable and was willing to face the challenges. What was clear, is that she wanted to be vulnerable in the process. Samuelson wanted to allow the visitors to take part in the artistic process.

She had selected that day’s rehearsal space based on a previous day’s work. At the time, she was intrigued by a vibrating platform of grass and a video projection of a terrain timelapse. These works paralleled her process of migrating terrains and how what is happening in one location can then be transported to another. Starting in the corner, with a sign standing by to inform viewers of what was happening, she began moving in mime-like motions. Samuelson’s movement was captivating and interesting–moving as if stuck, but then quickly releasing herself. But as an observer of the entire process, I noticed not only her dancing, but the museum visitors observing her.

They came upon her unexpectedly, and her moving body caught several of them off guard. She was the moving, animate object among all of the inanimate works of art in the museum. One woman turned the corner and quickly walked the other direction as though she interrupted a meeting. Others would walk through quickly to avoid being caught in the moment. Then there were the brave observers who stayed to watch Samuelson.

After a few moments, the artist paused and engaged with her viewers. She introduced herself and explained that she was doing a residency to show off the process of making a solo dance piece. With the similar warm welcome she showed me, she began talking to each of the viewers. She asked what they saw, what stuck with them, what they were unsure about.

When asked what her ultimate goal was for this residency, Samuelson responded, “I want to be more brave.” It was clear she understood this wasn’t going to be easy, and there were probably going to be many moments of questioning the why and what, and having viewers challenge what she may perceive to be the answers. However, after hearing about the impetus of the process and witnessing the rehearsal process in the museum, it was evident she was already on the road to bravery.

The art at the DAM is preserved well. They are pieces that can be seen and stored; they are tangible. However, dance is not easily preserved. Yes, video productions of dance can occur, but it doesn’t allow for the visceral reaction you often feel when watching dance. Samuelson admitted the inability to preserve dance is both beautiful and sad-it makes dance that much more special and puts much more value into its performance. The common thread between the art at the museum and dance is that the process of their creation is hardly ever seen. Through this residency, and Samuelson’s bravery, museum goers were able to not only witness the rehearsal process, but to be a part of it. They were able to see someone’s thinking in one corner of the museum and watch the physical outcome of that thinking in another.  Perhaps this will empower these visitors to view art differently. They will question the process, the “why” behind the piece, and how brave the artist was to share it.

Sutton Anker currently lives in her hometown of Littleton, Colorado. Her love of dance took root at a young age when she began dancing at a local studio. This passion grew and carried through into college and beyond. Sutton earned a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Dance Science from the University of Wyoming, followed by a Master’s of Science in Dance Science from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London.  Her technical training is in ballet, release technique, Horton, modern, tap, jazz, vertical dance, hip-hop, pointe, and functional fitness. Throughout her B.F.A. at UW, Sutton performed in various productions including From the Ashes: A Cinderella Ballet, Duet and Power/Full (a Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company production), The Nutcracker, Boxed Set, and Six Songs from Ellis.

Sutton has a keen interest in motor learning, motor development, and pedagogical techniques, taking several kinesiology classes in her undergraduate and graduate programs. Sutton has presented at several dance science conferences, including the 2010 Performing Arts Medical Association Conference (Specific Stretching for Individual Needs), the 2013 International Association of Dance Medicine and Science Conference (Effect of Mirrors on Dancers’ Ability to Learn Movement), and the 2016 International Association of Dance Medicine and Science Conference in Hong Kong (Master’s thesis –  An Investigation of the Pedagogical Rationales for Current Mirror Use in a Ballet Technique Class).

Sutton currently works at Foothills Park and Recreation District in Children’s Programs. She has a passion for empowering kids’ creativity and educating youth on physical and mental health. Sutton continues to engage in dance by teaching at local studios, participating in classes and workshops, volunteering with Presenting Denver, and pursuing her research interests.