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Dancing Off The Walls: How The Gardner Museum Mixes Media In A Henry James Show

Richard Move will perform his reimagining of "Immigrant," a lost solo piece by Martha Graham, at the Gardner Museum. (Courtesy Josef Astor)MoreCloseclosemore
Richard Move will perform his reimagining of "Immigrant," a lost solo piece by Martha Graham, at the Gardner Museum. (Courtesy Josef Astor)

The current show at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum will feature two events that connect its paintings and other objects with the performing arts — something that Gardner herself loved to do.

“Mrs. Gardner’s prime tool as a curator was her selection of wonderful things and a surprising juxtaposition of those wonderful things,” says George Steel, the museum’s visiting curator for performing arts. “I tried to model the show on that ideal.”

The show, “Henry James and American Painting,” which runs through Jan. 21, features paintings, photographs and letters between Gardner and James, as well as images of other members of their artistic and literary circles.

“Connecting [James] to art takes you into a broad world,” says Steel, a composer, musician and multidisciplinary artist who has performed in the museum’s Tapestry Room twice a year for more than a decade. When Peggy Fogelman, the Gardner’s director, wanted to expand the museum’s performing arts curatorial program, Steel was a natural fit.

The role involves placing different media in conversation with one another: painting with theater, say, or dance with sculpture. Deciding just how to do that “really depends on the project and what the motivation is,” Steel says. “There’s so many links among artworks and artists and musicians and dancers and playwrights. Isabella Stewart Gardner highlighted those connections in her collecting.”

For the James exhibit, Steel chose two performing-arts forms: music and dance. “Migrations,” an evening of dance performances, takes place Thursday, Nov. 2, to be followed by “Picturing Women: A Cabaret” on Nov. 30. Dance, in particular, was a natural choice, Steel says, because it was a medium of prime importance to Gardner herself.

“She has a connection to the very foundations of modern dance,” says Steel. “Dance has been and ought to be a part of the performance life of the museum.”

Four Perspectives On ‘Migrations’

The inspiration for “Migrations” comes directly from the writing of Henry James, whose own history as an American expatriate colored his very specific views on immigration.

“For a patrician white guy, he has very progressive views about the value of immigration to America and how essential it is to the country’s identity,” says Steel, who finds James’ views “refreshing,” especially when compared to the current rhetoric on immigration in the United States. In curating the dance performance, Steel knew it was essential to incorporate both the voices of present-day immigrants and voices from the past.

“Migrations” will feature four artists’ dances, all premieres commissioned by the Gardner. From exploring political and cultural refugees, to considering types of exile and gender fluidity, these four dances create a tapestry that informs and enlightens the work of Henry James.

Richard Move will present the premiere of his reimagining of a lost work by Martha Graham, the 1928 solo piece “Immigrant.” The staging, based on archival photographs, reviews and choreographic notations by Graham’s music director, will include pianist Adam Marks playing Josip Slavenski’s score live.

Jean Appolon, an artist based in Boston and Haiti, will perform his “Vwayaj,” which features both Appolon’s own immigration story and those of Haitian immigrants living in Boston. Its narrative was developed in collaboration with the author Edwidge Danticat and is set to the electronic music of Val Jeanty.

Ida Saki will make her Boston debut as a choreographer and dancer in a new modern dance piece, set to two pieces by Nico Muhly, that addresses the topic of migration from her perspective as an Iranian-American artist. And Yury Yanowsky will present his new dance set to a little-known score by Cole Porter, “Within the Quota.”

‘Picturing Women’ In James’ Words

For “Picturing Women: A Cabaret,” Steel worked to incorporate Henry James’ writing — quotations from novels, short stories and letters — into a portrait of a man with a complicated relationship with women.

“It’s fascinating — he seems to be obsessed with women,” says Steel. “In some of his writing he describes that ‘American women is where the culture is’ — not with the men, but the women are the interesting ones. He has this ongoing interest in describing women.”

While the cabaret highlights specific passages from James’ writing, the music includes everything from Rufus Wainwright and Dolly Parton to songs from the 1870s, well before the heyday of Gardner and James.

“I thought it would be interesting to read those passages — some would be wonderful and some would maybe be problematic — and to have songs that come from a wide historic range, from before Henry James’ and Mrs. Gardner’s day to the present day.”

The cabaret, composed by Joseph Thalkin with contributions from Phyllis Thompson, brings lightness and energy to the multifaceted Henry James and connects the work of James and Gardner in a delightful and inviting way. Casey Erin Clark, an actor based in New York City, will perform with Nicholas Phan, one of NPR’s “Favorite New Artists of 2011.”

Steel sees all these performances as the beginning of a more thoroughly multidisciplinary curatorial approach to shows at the Gardner.

“This is the first project that really shows its potential,” he says. “It’s an exciting time for Boston and an exciting time for the museum. It’s the first of many projects that will show what an integrated curatorial team can do.”

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