Nick Mauss Brings NYC Modern Art/Dance Influences to Life at The Whitney

Dancers strike poses inspired by the surrounding works of art in a piece collaboratively choreographed with Nick Mauss

Cecil Beaton’s 1937 Vogue photo of poet Charles Henri Ford in a costume by Salvador Dali

Go when the dancers are there. Entering Nick Mauss: Transmissions, installed on the top floor of the Whitney through May 14, you’ll see them moving behind a transparent scrim as the elevator doors open.

The artist had a vision and the Whitney curators gave him the freedom to scour their deep-storage archives, delineate a space for dancers, install works of art, and write scintillating details about the fruits of his research.

Nick’s vision was to create a visual conversation about the collisions between modern art and dance in New York between 1930 and 1950 – a time when bon vivants, peripatetic painters, scandalous artistes, and boundary-pushing dancers expressed themselves in every manner possible.

He succeeds spectacularly. But the show isn’t laid out in a chronological manner like a history show. It’s more of a curated, free association experience that genuinely works.

Visitors encounter Whitney works that are almost never displayed, photos from the Kinsey Institute, works from the NYPL’s Jerome Robbins Division archive, ephemera from personal collections, and Nick’s own creations.

1928 dancer-inspired sculptures by Elie Nadelman stand in front of Nick’s mirrored mural.

Nick’s put a quartet of live dancers at the center of the swirl, encouraging and challenging visitors to explore clues surrounding them – private artistic photos, Diaghilev’s calling card, costume designs by Dorothea Tanning, a video of Balanchine in rehearsal.

As dancers quietly assume poses, visitors are left to move about and make their own connections. Do the dance poses echo the quiet Gaston Lachaise or Elie Nadelman sculptures, or the over-the-top expressions of NYC ballet superstars in Carl Van Vechten’s slide show splashed across the opposite wall?

Nick’s research unearthed an extraordinary wealth of information about relationships among artists, cross-currents of artistic influence, intimate social circles, and gay life. His idea was to inject a little more color to the American modern-art narrative.

One of 830 slides taken of American Ballet Theatre dancers by Carl Van Vechten, America’s first dance critic.

When the Whitney staff read the captivating associations that Nick uncovered as he selected objects for the installation, they decided that it was too rich to simply identify things in the traditional cut-and-dried museum label card format

The curators mounted Nick’s extraordinary background stories next to the artworks, photos, stage set mock-ups, and costume designs to let visitors get inside Nick’s head and share in his fun.

The stories – like the dance quartet – encourage visitors to connect their own knowledge about the origins of modern dance and modern art in New York with what they see and read:

What impact did modern dance pioneers Loie Fuller and Ruth St. Denis have on 1920s sculpture? How did a Ballet Russe-obsessed cultural impresario convince George Balanchine to start the New York City Ballet?

Reflected in Nick’s mirrored mural, a monitor shows videos of Balanchine rehearsing the New York City Ballet.

What was a sophisticated dance critic doing in his studio with props, costumes, Agnes de Mille, and stars of the New York ballet world?

The beauty of Nick’s installation is that people wandering about the space are able construct their own visual and mental narratives and understand the swirl of modernism from that time in a new way. Take a look at our Flickr album to view some of our favorite works in the show.

The choreographed piece was developed collaboratively by Nick and the dancers. The complete experience is poetic, revelatory, interactive, and constantly in motion.

The dancers perform from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily, and also on Friday nights from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Here’s a short clip of the quartet of dancers performing in the gallery:

And another short clip of duets:

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