To most people, art is something to look it. To choreographer Kimberly Mackin, it's something to do.
In "Pictures at an Exhibition," which she has choreographed for the opening of Villa Julie College's art gallery off the lobby of its new theater, she was not at all interested in making a picture of a castle or a gnome or the great gates of Kiev, or any of the other images set to music by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky.
She is interested in how art "moves": the way oil paint squeezes out of a tube; the way sculpture freezes movement in time; the way objects collide in an assemblage; the way clay feels in the hands of the potter.
"We're not dancing the paintings," she says of the show, to be performed Thursday. "We're dancing the mediums of art."
The original exhibition that Mussorgsky saw was a retrospective of works by his friend Viktor Alexandrovitch Hartmann, who died in 1873 at the age of 39.
As a memorial to Hartmann, Mussorgsky created musical pictures of 10 works from the show, which he grouped into a piano suite called "Pictures at an Exhibition." It is a great example of program music: music that tells a story.
Though a passionate advocate of Russian folk culture, Hartmann was not a very interesting artist. It's safe to say that if Mussorgsky had not made his pictures immortal, he'd be long since forgotten.
Indeed, after Mackin saw Hartmann's pieces this summer -- they are included in several editions of the piano score -- she said: "Then I really knew I didn't want to dance them."
Hartmann's technique was stiff, labored, static -- and many of the works in the exhibit were stage, jewelry or furniture designs, which further restricted his imagination.
For example, there's Baba Yaga, a fierce old witch who lives in a hut on chicken legs and eats children, like the witch in "Hansel and Gretel." Hartmann sketched a clock in the shape of her cottage: a stolid tabletop tchotchke. It was Mussorgsky who thought to make a real musical picture of the old crone in her flying mortar and pestle, the music jolting and lurching as it follows her through the forest.
In Mussorgsky's "Pictures," we can hear the bydlo (ox cart) trundling its slow, heavy way to market. At the Tuileries in Paris -- Hartmann made the obligatory trip to study art in France -- we hear excited children and gossiping nannies. And the marketplace at Limoges is filled with squabbling vendors and harried housewives; you can almost see the cabbages and tomatoes and eggplants piled in its outdoor stalls.
Half a century later, in 1923, French composer Maurice Ravel improved on "Pictures," turning it into a brilliant orchestral suite. He used a saxophone for the song of the troubadour in "The Old Castle"; thin, keening strings for the ghosts in the Roman catacombs; the full orchestra with sumptuous ranks of chimes for "The Great Gate of Kiev."
His finest achievement, perhaps, is "Two Polish Jews, One Rich, One Poor," often given the alternative title "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle." The rich man, represented by the string basses, is sonorous and stuffy as he refuses to lend money to the poor one, who whines and begs in the nasal voice of the muted trumpet.
Dance reflects gallery
Just as art since Hartmann has become less pictorial, Mackin's dance is less literal, reflecting the gallery itself and the show it houses.
The gallery, part of the new $15.5 million Academic Center at Villa Julie, opens Thursday with an exhibit of works from the collection of George Ciscle, an eclectic and free-thinking art lover from Baltimore.
Ciscle is the founder of two city galleries, including the Contemporary on North Charles Street, and a traveling exhibit service that has produced, among other shows, "Going for Baroque," which was at the Walters Art Gallery from September 1995 through February 1996.
Mackin has not keyed her dance to specific pieces in the show, but she loves the variety -- paintings, drawings, ceramics, sculpture, assemblage -- that Peter Bruun, exhibitions director for the gallery, has selected.
Bruun said he chose works that express Ciscle's taste and influence. Of the 29 pieces in the show, some are gifts from artists, acknowledging Ciscle as both exhibitor and collector. And many convey a fantasy world or a dreamlike quality, for Ciscle was an early advocate of the style now called visionary art.
Mackin's work pays homage to eclectic taste, varied media and a new display space.
"She has told me along the way some of the ideas she's had, and I've said: 'Sounds great, sounds great.' " says Bruun. "But I don't know what it will look like."
The 32-minute piece is loaded with props: 20-foot lengths of colored silk; picture frames; a doll carriage; a suitcase; a toilet painted Campbell's-tomato-soup red; a big beach umbrella. In rehearsal in the studio at St. Timothy's School, where there is no wing space, the dancers always seem in the midst of quick changes: knit pants and tops in one piece, gauzy watercolor dresses in the next, flesh-colored leotards in another.
In one section, known in the original as "The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks," Mackin and her dancers make everything from hats to anklets out of Toobers & Zots, a toy for children. Toobers & Zots are bendable lengths of tubing and zany geometrical shapes in bright colors, made of well, maybe the best way to describe them is that they are the consistency (and probably have the nutritional value) of whatever Cheez Doodles are made of.
Mackin is using a compact disc recording of Leopold Stokowski conducting the Mussorgsky-Ravel "Pictures." She likes the tempos, but the real reason she chose this version is that the cover art is a silhouette of Mussorgsky, filled in with a rainbow of oil paint. It seemed the perfect shorthand for what she was trying to express with her "Pictures."
"I'm not saying they have to figure it out," she says of the audience. "But I'm not saying there's nothing to figure out."
'Pictures at an Exhibition'
When: Thursday: 6 p.m., jazz with Dean Dalfonzo; 6: 30 p.m., gallery talk with curator Peter Bruun, collector George Ciscle and installation designer/gallery architect Steve Ziger; 8 p.m. Kimberly Mackin Dance Company
Where: Gallery and Theater, Villa Julie College, Greenspring Valley Road, Stevenson
Other events: George Ciscle lecture, 1 p.m. Oct. 30, in the theater
Exhibit closes: Nov. 14
Also: "Pictures" will be repeated at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Nov. 8.
Pub Date: 10/12/97