When Peter DiMuro, executive artistic director at The Dance Complex in Cambridge, was tapped as the first choreographer-in-residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, he sought to illuminate the complicated life of its founder and namesake and animate the collection she spent her life amassing. He wanted to tell the story of the Gardner with love and respect and to highlight everything, “warts and all through dance,” DiMuro said.
The resulting work is a series of tours, called “The House of Accumulated Beauties,” that runs through Oct. 25 and aims to balance the sadness of loss — Isabella’s son, John, died before his second birthday — with her kaleidoscopic, art-filled existence. Each tour is guided by lantern-carrying “Isabellas,” clad in black and adorned with copious strings of pearls. Early in the tour, the “Isabellas” divide the audience into two groups and journey through the museum.
On separate paths, the two groups go in and out of various rooms where dancers of various ages perform to mezzo-soprano, Christina English and alto, Emily Marvosh’s operatic voices as the two singers harmonize and echo one another. The score, by award-winning composer Beau Kenyon, also features what sounds like the clacking of a keyboard, piano trills and chimes. The dancers gesture, embrace and spin through the celebrated collection and hush viewers into an awed silence.
“This is sort of a haunting place to start with,” said Circe Rowan, who attended a recent tour. “This whole place is sort of a monument to Isabella Stewart Gardner and just that sense of the past being heavy and time flowing so very slowly in here. It was enhanced by the sound on sound collage approach to the music and the very slow graceful movement of the dancers,” she said.
At the outset of his residency in January, DiMuro burrowed into the history of the Gardner. He delved into Isabella’s life, observed the Gardener after hours, and reveled in the quiet. He also interviewed scores of people from dusters to security guards to patrons. DiMuro asked key questions about the people connected to the artwork, focused on creating a dialogue, and then translating “everybody and everything around that into movement,” he said.
He approached museum-goers who lingered or appeared drawn to a piece and would ask them about their reactions to the art.
“All of a sudden, there is idiosyncratic gesture, and then there's kind of a wash of a hand in space,” DiMuro said of visitors who become enthralled with the art. “But then there's also detail as they start to describe the thing. And they're making a little dance.” He and his collaborators captured video and took pictures of visitors and derived some of the movement for the chorus of “Isabellas.”
Movement in museums thrives locally and nationally. Over the summer, the New York Theatre Ballet presented three dance works at the Gardner, the Institute of Contemporary Art showcased six New England dancemakers in last year’s Dance UP, and next month, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, to celebrate its 60th anniversary.
“But this is a turning point I think, for not only the Gardner but a lot of museums,” explained DiMuro. “I think that there's an authentic question happening across the board ... about going back to their mission ... to really engage people, educate through art, as well as lift people's spirits,” he said.
The Alliance of Artists Communities report, "Mind the Gap: Artist Residencies and Dance," showed that “programs in the U.S. provide residencies to more than 10,000 artists annually, though fewer than 10% of these participants are dancemakers.”
The new Abrams Curator of Music at the Gardner, George Steel explained that “for dance … we're just beginning to flex our muscles a little bit more, to see what we can bring to Boston that's not already here.”
The Gardner has nudged the envelope forward with its programming in the spirit of the vibrant personality of Isabella, who reportedly wore Red Sox paraphernalia to a Boston Symphony Orchestra show and added personal touches to the art that decorates the walls. “She was stapling things to the back of frames to let the fabric pop so that you could see the lace; those kinds of things that you would never do in a museum,” said DiMuro.
That mix of old and new, the homey and avant-garde hearken back to DiMuro’s layered sound, movement and art for “The House of Accumulated Beauties.”
DiMuro is a longtime dancer, teacher, choreographer and the founder of DiMuro/Public Displays of Motion which develops and performs original work and cultivates dance/arts literacy, advocacy and engagement. He was a rising young dancer in Boston before joining the acclaimed Liz Lerman Dance Exchange where he spent many years as a performer, lead artist, and later, artistic director. Throughout his storied career, DiMuro’s work has been supported by a number of organizations including the National Performance Network, Mass Cultural Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.
He came of age during the AIDS crisis, leaving him, he said, with a constant cup-half-full mentality. He’s focused on what is, instead of what isn’t.
When he couldn’t use big speakers on stands because of their potential to damage the art, DiMuro tucked small ones into the lanterns carried by the “Isabellas,” and when he wanted light to create a mood, he popped some inside of a big book and opened it during the tour to augment the movement of the dancers. Even when faced with the empty picture frames from the 1990 heist, DiMuro said, “but look what’s around it.”
In “The House of Accumulated Beauties,” alacrity slices through whatever is left of Isabella’s mourning and transforms that into movement in the courtyard where dancers carry orange, orb-shaped lanterns. On a recent performance, the lanterns seemed to offer up a warm glow of remembrance and of peace.
“The House of Accumulated Beauties,” runs now through Oct. 25.