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This summer I decided take on my dream to live in France for four months. There have been lots of great things about being here: perfect baguettes, the thrill of the speaking another language, living in a XII century farmhouse. One of the daily treats has been flipping on the radio for the BBC report. At home NPR is a constant in my kitchen. It is great, but the truth is, we simply do not get much international news in the US of A. Here, I get a clean hour of stories about the rest of the world, followed by the U.K. weather report in mind-blowing detail  (yup, county by county), and great culture/human interest stories. I was particularly struck by this story a couple weeks ago:

London’s National Gallery, which houses great works of classical art, is featuring an installation based on Titian‘s trilogy of paintings depicting the myths of Diana and Actaeon. The exhibition, called Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, puts three Titians “alongside new works made in response to them by three British artists: Mark Wallinger, Chris Ofili and Conrad Shawcross,” and “is part of an ambitious project that spans four art forms and two major cultural institutions, the Royal Ballet and the National Gallery. Using the Titians as the starting point – themselves artistic reworkings of an episode from Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses – the artists have also designed three new ballets that premiere at the Royal Opera House on Saturday.”

Of course, the idea of visual artists designing for the ballet revives memories of exciting sets and costumes for the Ballets Suedois by popular artists in 1920’s Paris. Just last winter, Stella McCartney costumed the NYCB dancers for the premiere of Ocean’s Kingdom, the collaboration between her dad and Peter Martins, the company’s Ballet Master in Chief. While the costumes were not deemed a total success, it was a flashy idea to invite a prêt-a-porter designer into the dance studio.

Works of art, and the cultural concepts behind them have influenced dance, and vice-versa, for centuries. During my performing years, San Francisco Ballet presented Leonid Jacobson’s collection of choreographic miniatures based on five famous Rodin sculptures in which each sculpture comes to life, depicting the moments leading up to the image captured in marble. ODC’s Brenda Way set a dance bringing the cartoon Krazy Kat to life on the Opera House stage, complete with falling cardboard bricks. Yuri Possohokov invoked the surreal spirit of Rene Magritte for Magrittomania, in which dancers donned bowler hats and appeared to float above the stage. In these instances the choreographers created movement informed by the style and texture of the artist or the work of art. Some brought the story told by the piece of art to life in choreography, others riffed on the concepts and visuals. The question I ask is: does the piece invoke the spirit and concepts in which the original artist made his work?

A great work of art steps past the comfort zone of the times, prods taboo, and wakes up its audience. It invokes a physical and emotional reaction that leads the viewer to reject, question, or cling to the status quo of social mores, politics, and ethics. Think of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring or Manet’s Olympia, Dante’s Inferno, or Socrates’ philosophy, and you encounter ideas that challenge us now, as they did when the ink was still drying. This is where I believe the exhibition at the National Galley succeeds: it puts a peep show in the middle of a fine-art gallery. It is difficult to truly shock and titillate in today’s society, yet putting up a old-fashioned girlie show smack in the center of a bastion of good taste just may remind art viewers that there was a time when the “dead” art, now hanging like so many pelts on museum walls, made people recoil and say, “But that’s just wrong!”

I hope the choreographers dared to keep up the good work, and I wonder what “shock” looked like in the Opera House.

To read a review, and see photos of the exhibition, click here. More photos can be found here.

View a clip of the collaboration between Royal Ballet choreographers and exhibition artists:

To read a review of the triple bill, click here.

Written by Sara Sessions

Sara Sessions is a Dallas-based promoter arts production and industry. Transitioning from a 13-year career with San Francisco Ballet, she discovered a passion for teaching Pilates as a way to share her professional expertise and connect people with the power of movement. This passion recently inspired her to found Dance Big D and host the first National Dance Day flash mob in downtown Dallas. Plans are under way for a citywide NDD 2014. Sara is completing her B.A. in Performing Arts through St. Mary’s College of California L.E.A.P. program.