The internet loves a good cheeky-kid video: Toddlers imitating the pet dog, biting Charlie’s finger, or showing us how to really “Nae Nae.” I myself have spent an embarrassing amount of time watching babies lick lemons! But Laura Range’s video of her two-year-old daughter mimicking the movements of one of the dancers in PEM’s Rodin exhibition three weeks ago – that quickly went viral with over 70K views and counting, and remained on Boston Magazine’s most popular article list for over a week — has a story that goes deeper than you’d ever guess.
Though not mentioned in Range’s original Facebook post, her daughter Callia had been working with an occupational therapist since being diagnosed with gross motor delay last year. Her enthusiasm to engage with the Rodin dancer in this playful back-and-forth wasn’t just cute antics, it was Callia showing real progress from a year’s worth of practice, and a moment of triumph for a proud mother, captured in the midst of emotion on cameraphone.
PEM’s decision to include live dancers in this exhibition makes so much sense, given that Rodin’s work is obsessively about the human body. His sculptures are, in many ways, three-dimensional sketches of anatomy wherein his focus will sharpen or diffuse over different areas of the same form. As some material is slowly refined and smoothed to perfection, other blocks are literally ripped or broken away, leaving a surface rough and rent, evidence of violent action. In essence, Rodin’s faithfulness is not to a reproduction of these figures but in capturing the energy expressed by the form and movements of the body, and even of the sculptor.
“Our aim of having BoSoma dancers in the gallery was to encourage people to think about the human body’s expressive capacity,” says PEM Deputy Director Lynda Hartigan, “to consider how the body inspired Rodin’s work and to inspire our guests to think about how their own bodies occupy and move in space. The impact and reach of the Tiny Dancer video reminds us of creativity’s capacity to touch us in unexpected and life-changing ways.”
Several thought-provoking, relatable moments around the subject of movement have sprung up around this exhibition.
The BoSoma dance troupe of neighboring Peabody, Massachusetts, was commissioned to perform in the galleries for the 101-day duration of the Rodin exhibition, running through September 5th. Artistic Director Katherine Hooper was surprised to see so many children in the galleries, and delighted at their response to the dancers. She revealed that the Tiny Dancer video captured only part of the full half-hour dancer Jessica Flynn and little Callia spent dancing together!
“Two weeks ago, another dancer … said there was a little girl with Down Syndrome that came through, and immediately went and grabbed her hand,” Hooper recounts. She instructs her dancers to “break out of character just enough so that the child understands that they’re being responsive, and then it’s this mirroring of the dancer mirroring the child, and the child mirroring the dancer… so it’s this intermixed play of movement without speaking.”
Flynn herself, during her dance with Callia, felt “an overwhelming joy in [her] chest.” “To be completely honest, I am still inspired by her,” she says, “Even today as I was dancing in the exhibit, I kept thinking about Callia and trying to put the moves she was doing on my own body… I’m very happy Callia and I are able to share our special moment with so many people.”
At the beginning of her therapy last year, Callia “was 10 months old and barely moving,” recalls her mother, “she rolled sometimes, but could not put her hand to her mouth and mostly stayed locked in the same position.”
“When she turned one, I did a little photo shoot of her wearing a ballerina tutu that I had bought for her before she was born. She looked so cute, but I felt the irony of it, since she was not even crawling at the time and dancing seemed impossibly far away. I posted photos on Facebook, and one friend asked how I was able to get such perfect ballerina poses from her (legs out straight, toes pointed, arms straight and out to her side) and I felt a pang in my heart–it was simply because that was the “pose” she lived in nearly all of the time.”
Fast forward to a few weeks ago in the exhibition Rodin: Transforming Scuplture, and Callia needed no encouragement. She “plopped herself down on the floor, shucked her shoes, and went right over to dance with her without a second thought,” recalls Range, “I watched this dance conversation go back and forth with my heart in my throat.”
Children and adults learn movement quite differently — children more instinctively and adults more analytically. Callia is a blend of both: a child, but needing a more deliberate and structured process. In a way, dancers are a blend as well, so practiced and engaged with their bodies that it edges back towards the instinctive.
Hooper shared that while ordinarily the BoSoma company’s choreographic work is “very fast and big and all-encompassing,” because of the contained space of the Rodin galleries her dancers had to miniaturize their movements, and “dial down into a meditative place.” Smaller movements “allow the dancers to really get deep on the inside, internally, into their musculature. The stuff that you’re seeing up there, and that the dancers are experiencing, is more like movement studies we do in the studio, that we do for each other.”
This is very much like physical therapy. I thought of an old friend from art school, Neerja Kothari, who was paralyzed for a year because of an adverse reaction to medication. “It was motor sensory neuropathy,” she explains, “I lost motor control completely in my legs, some in my arms, and sensation in all four limbs.”
She spent the subsequent three years relearning basic movements by “working on each aspect [of a movement], breaking down movements to numbers…Every exercise had to be done for a few repetitions, and held for a few seconds. So I was taught to count time and count repetitions non-stop… and to train my brain to command my body, to relearn sensations of hot and cold and smooth and rough.”
It took over 6 years for this experience to bleed into her artwork, which is now intensely about the appreciation of a physical gesture, mainly through analytical study– a reflection on her time in therapy. Kothari listens to a piece of music and uses the rhythms to make a movement, flinging graphite powder onto paper. “Then I go in and mark every speck of powder on the paper with a number… so kind of investigating my movement and seeing what makes a gesture, how I can better understand my gesture; And the accumulation of numbers is a way of quantifying that gesture.”
“It’s the aspect of touch of the hand to the paper, the sensation of graphite on the hand and the paper, the walk that it takes to make the gesture, and the sensorial aspect of the music… I always think of the gesture as the evidence… and the labelling as the investigation.”
Having lost and then regained the power of movement as an adult, Kothari is “hyper-aware of every movement… I did not regain [every kind] of mobility, so in my brain I still have to break down things to do them, or really observe and learn from another person and mimic it. I also [think of] every movement as very precious still.”
The studies of movement from Rodin as a sculptor, the BoSoma troupe as dancers, Kothari as an artist, and little Callia as a child are varied experiences of physical mobility, something many of us take for granted. The charge of a museum, I’ve always felt, is to be a place of dialogue, and attention to that which is not often carefully considered. I’m happy to see this theme come full circle and fold itself into many layers: of immediate experience, of shared and social media, and multiple forms of art both of the past and present. In Laura Range’s words, “This past year, Callia had worked hard and gained skills and laid the foundation for movement, but in that moment, she gained inspiration. I had never seen her dance like that before, but I have seen her dance like that many, many times since! And I think that is exactly what is supposed to happen when you encounter art.”
Rodin: Transforming Sculpture is at the Peabody Essex Museum, along with the BoSoma dance troupe, through September 5. The dancers perform from 11 am to 4:30.