Viewing Dance in Public and Private: Embracing Ambiguity

The Philadelphia Museum of Dance as a concept lives at the intersection of event, exhibition, performance, and festival. The impetus for the project was to explore the idea of public assembly as a choreographic event. This project was conceived over the period 2015-2017, when such events as the global refugee crisis, acceleration of foreign and domestic terrorist attacks, and the political climate of the United States following the 2016 Presidential election gave rise to frequent public assemblies, where private political response took on new urgency through public gathering. The desire rose in our artistic team to examine how the embodied art form of dance could stimulate conversation and reflection on the tensions between public and private, and the impact of human assembly. What happens when the body, as the quintessentially private domain of an individual, is used as a voice of public opinion?

All dance encapsulates this tension to some degree. The private, individual body of the dancer is in service to the voice of the choreographer as a means of public expression. The navigation of bringing one’s personal self to a performance is often the difference between a good performance and a great one; a distinguished performer and a ubiquitous one. What happens when this tension is amplified by the inclusion of hundreds of performers in multiple works over a duration of time in a site-specific location, especially one associated with an infamous public/private debate? These were the organizing curiosities that motivated the Philadelphia Museum of Dance.

Thematic Exploration

Sociologist Jeff Weintraub refers to the public/private distinction as one of the grand dichotomies of Western thought. 1 As with most dichotomies, the distinction is a falsehood; this is really a continuum of realities. The terms, however, serve to define each other by exclusion; that which is private is so because it isn’t public, and what is public is by definition no longer private. This esoteric distinction collides with reality through social media. We expose our private domain to make it public, while maintaining that it is part of our private experience.

Weintraub further distinguishes between two kinds of orientations to this dichotomy: the first orientation of public and private distinguishes between things that are accessible (public) or hidden (private). The second orientation to this duality discriminates between the individual (private) or the collective (public).2 The Philadelphia Museum of Dance is housed in the second orientation; that of the individual/collective distinction, which takes the form of a demarcation between part and whole. This is repeated and reflected in the structures of the event itself. One could view the six-hour event as a series of separate performances that happen sequentially or view the six hours as one performative event. Certainly, the lead artist and co-curator Boris Charmatz viewed the event as one performance with a durational arc, not a serial festival of choreographic and participatory works. As with all choreography, structure has meaning, and it was essentially up to the audience members to decide if they agreed with the central artist’s perception of the meaning of the structure. Many saw this as an individual event; many saw it as a collective event.

The ability of the arts to allow us to tolerate ambiguity, even to train us to embrace that state of being, is a powerful one, and something that transcends both our performance and exhibition experiences, as it does our private and public existence.

Audience members bring their own truths and experiences to a performance. The perception of the project as an individual or as a collective structure might be tied to a deeper world view, depending on whether a viewer gives priority to the private self or the public collective. In feminist writing, the private is given primacy, whereas in political discourse, the public is often the foundational position. Giving audience members the opportunity to explore this for themselves was one of the goals of the project. For example, did audience members see the Solo Forest as a collection of individuals, or did they see the Solo Forest as one dance with the dancers dispersed in location? Perhaps this structure allowed viewers to embrace a third view, that which corresponds to the concept of “publics.” This construct, first explored in sociological discourse (e.g. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958) in the mid 20th century, refers to a space between public, aka the society, and private, aka the individual. This space is constructed of networks of like individuals who give up some personal preference to be a part of the group, but are nonetheless a subset of the larger public society. Certainly artists in the Solo Forest who were given feedback on how to shape their personal choreography to become part of the collective construction, might consider themselves as part of this third relationship to the theme; a part of the dance performer “publics” but not the greater public of the audience. Sociologist Alan Wolfe would describe this compromise as “a way of recognizing the importance of both the public and the private without absolutizing either”.3

To examine these distinctions is the point of the event. The project goal was to invite the audience to tolerate ambiguity — to have an opportunity not to know what it is they are seeing and to become comfortable with that reality. This is to see the continuum, rather than to take a side, something that is often lacking in our world view in the US at the time of this project.

Curatorial Process

To create this kind of an audience experience we were drawn to the work of Boris Charmatz. Charmatz considers his work to resist conventional definitions of performance by developing large public performance structures that take place outside of a theatrical setting in open spaces such as public squares, which include professional performers, amateurs, and audiences as participants. He suggests that these community inclusive performance events, often many hours in duration, place the expressive body on exhibition much like visual art exhibitions place objects on display. His renaming of the National Choreographic Center in Rennes as the Musée de la danse (literally Dancing Museum) reinforces his interest in highlighting the connection between performance and exhibition. Analogous to Albert Barnes, who sought out the leaders of the French New Wave in painting in his time of building a collection, we sought out Boris Charmatz, a leader of the French New Wave in contemporary dance.

Barnes collected artwork from 1912-1951 with a particular lens. He was interested in visual literacy, placing objects in juxtaposition to lead the viewer to a visual analysis of the paintings with respect to color, lines, light, and space. He created dense groupings, in which objects from different cultures, time periods, and media were all mixed together, in what he called his “ensembles.” They were meant to draw out comparisons between objects we don’t normally think of together. He wanted to look at the foundation or origins of these visual patterns, much of which he saw in the textiles and utilitarian objects from Africa. His original museum was situated on an arboretum, so nature and the natural world also played a role in exhibition of the artifacts. In keeping with these general concepts, we endeavored to curate a collection of dances, that while coming together as one event or ensemble, also placed elements in contrast or juxtaposition to one another. Perhaps the Solo Forest structure is the clearest example of this, containing traditional dances, (e.g. Cachet Ivey in West African dance) with their contemporary expressions (e.g. Raphael Xavier in Hip-Hop, or Raphaëlle Delaunay in contemporary black dance). Similarly, dances based on historical example (e.g. Isadora Duncan) were performed simultaneously with original contemporary compositions (e.g. Rebecca Arends). Within the larger structure of the Philadelphia Museum of Dance, the Solo Forest was a microcosm for this concept, not unlike looking at one wall of the Barnes Foundation collection. Several of these dances were performed in outdoor spaces, activating new outdoor “galleries,” framing the work within the natural world as Barnes did with his Merion museum and arboretum.

Cachet Ivey Raphael Xavier
Isadora Duncan Rebecca Arends

The creative and curatorial team of this project were also aware that issues of accessibility and representation are present in collecting and performing today in an entirely different way than in Barnes’ time at the beginning of the 20th century. Specific care was taken not to mimic the Barnes collection in the selection of dances, but to subtly refer to concepts within it, and more so to promote the general idea that a dense and complex collection stimulates a viewer in different ways than a simpler presentation of one art object at a time.

Audience Experience

Unlike Barnes’ directed and instructional approach to his collection, the Philadelphia Museum of Dance intentionally gave audience members a number of possible ways to view the art work. Each attendee could, and in fact needed to, choose how they would view the dances. During the Solo Forest, an attendee could go from dancer to dancer, seeing all or most of the 11 solos, or could stop by one performer and spend the hour with that single performance. In some instances the location for viewing the performance was up to the audience member. For example, Maria Hassabi’s work could be viewed from the Annenberg Court with the outdoors as a backdrop for the performance, or could be viewed from outdoors, with the dramatic backdrop of the museum’s architecture as a frame. An audience member also had the choice to participate or observe, at times. The public warm-up lead by choreographer Boris Charmatz and philosopher Romain Bigé invited the audience to participate physically and intellectually. The Soul Train, led by Clyde Evans, Jr., was formed entirely of audience participants.

Top · Maria Hassabi’s work could be viewed from indoors or outdoors.
Bottom · The public warm-up invited both physical and intellectual participation.

No two viewers had the same experience. In a traditional theater, a dance is framed by the proscenium. The choreographer’s craft leads the audience to look at the work from a particular viewpoint and dramaturgy, highlighted by lighting design that moves our gaze around the composition in a defined manner. Early site-specific performance pioneers, like Trisha Brown, rejected the frame of the proscenium and brought performance to a broader range of locations. Durational and site-specific events like Philadelphia Museum of Dance expand on this concept, giving the viewer even more levels of choice. Not only is there no specific lighting design to guide your eye within the frame of the stage, but there are also multiple options of which dances and how many to view within the same time frame. Perhaps this is most analogous to many art museum experiences—you can choose to look at one painting for a significant period of time; you can “shop” through the galleries, stopping only at what catches your eye; or stop and compare what you find in one gallery to another. This project offered the opportunity to replicate this experience for the performance viewer, questioning the gap between performance and exhibition spectatorship.


The Philadelphia Museum of Dance asked audience members to do two things: create their own viewing experiences and tolerate ambiguity in a performance, even after these choices were made. In choosing how and what to view, the audience took ownership of their own experience. In the context of today’s video sharing culture, where the videographer can direct what is being seen nearly down to a cellular level, this live performance event contrasted the clear directorial gaze with a self-directed one. In the context of a museum, where one risks analogizing the body to an art object, the viewer can take authority and autonomy on how they will see the body, transferring objectification to the viewer’s choices rather than the curator’s selections. And it is not merely observation. The artists were present and interacting live with the audience, which gave the attendees an additional dimension of interaction in which they could choose to engage or observe.

By not having set viewing guidelines, and by not having been given overt connections between each portion of the event, the viewer is poised to appreciate the ambiguity of the event or create idiosyncratic dramaturgy for their experience. The ability of the arts to allow us to tolerate ambiguity, even to train us to embrace that state of being, is a powerful one, and something that transcends both our performance and exhibition experiences, as it does our private and public existence.

1 Jeff Weintraub, Public and Private in Thought and Practice: Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy, Edition 1 (University of Chicago Press, 1997), p.1.
2 Weintraub, Public and Private in Thought and Practice, p.5.
3 Alan Wolfe, quoted in Weintraub, Public and Private in Thought and Practice, p.201

Miriam Giguere, PhD Bio

Dr. Miriam Giguere directed the dance program at Drexel University from 1992-2015, before becoming Department Head for Performing Arts in 2015. She teaches academic dance classes in 20th Century Dance History, Dance Pedagogy, and Dance Criticism and Aesthetics, alongside studio courses in modern dance. Also in this capacity, she directs the Drexel University Dance Ensemble, a 55 dancer company, and FreshDance, a freshmen only company of 35 dancers, both of which perform two professional caliber dance concerts each year at the Mandell Theater.

Giguere graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania earning both a BA in psychology and an MS in education in four years. She earned her PhD in dance from Temple University, where she was awarded the Emerging Doctoral Scholar award. Her dissertation was recognized nationally by the American Educational Research Association with their 2009 National Dissertation Award for Arts and Learning. Her research has been published in Research in Dance Education, Arts Education Policy Review, Journal of Dance Education, Arts & Learning Journal, International Journal of Education and the Arts, Selected Dance Research Volume 6, Public Scholarship in Dance, and other publications. Giguere was the keynote speaker for Dance Education Conference 2010, Singapore, an invited presenter at the Dance and the Child International conferences in Taiwan in 2012, Denmark in 2015 and Australia in 2018. She is an associate editor of the journal Dance Education in Practice where she writes a regular column entitled “Dance Trends". Giguere is also a peer reviewer for the Journal of Dance Education, the Journal of Emerging Dance Research, and the author of the textbook Beginning Modern Dance, published in 2013 through Human Kinetics.

Miriam Giguere, PhD
Project Director, Philadelphia Museum of Dance