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How is performance art different from the performing arts?

January 22, 2018

Performance 11: On Line/Trisha Brown Dance Company


Performance art, as formalized by artists in New York City in the 1970’s, largely explored how the body, normally used as an instrument in canvas painting and sculpture, could be seen as a material, an instrument, and a work of art in and of itself. Its differences between the performing arts were subtle in many ways, especially when seen alongside choreographers and musicians who were working in NYC at the same time.


Choreographers Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown, for example, were interested in the deconstruction of formalized dance practices from Balanchine’s New York City Ballet to American modern choreographers like Martha Graham. Rainer and Brown wanted to explore movement outside the standard technique – rehearsal – performance cycle and find moments where natural body movements, improvisation, and informality shed light on how our common, natural bodies might unite us in both public and private environments.


Composers Phillips Glass and John Cage were interested in a type of collaboration that fell outside typical compositional methods. Phillip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach,” a 5-hour opera, included installation, movers, musicians, and singers, was compositionally based on sketches and storyboards, and lacked narrative. Composer John Cage, who regularly wrote music for choreographers Merce Cunningham and David  Tudor, taught an “Experimental Composition” class at the New School. These classes, which have been since considered “Happenings,” included performance artist Allan Kaprow and helped to influence Fluxus.


Performance artists were also trying to break free from traditional discipline and technique, but I believe their work was different than Rainer, Brown, Glass, and Cage. Performance artists were more concerned with exploration than they were a final dance or opera.  Their final product was not something that could be replicated via dance notation or a score. It could not even be accurately documented through photography or video. It was an action that existed in a moment and then evaporated. It was a work of art – strictly in the present tense - that had not really existed before.


Performance art’s ephemerality was epitomized by Marina Abramovic’s “Seven Easy Pieces” at the Guggenheim New York City in 2005. Though the show recreated historic works by innovators like