If your everyday activities like sweeping the floor, rocking your baby, or making dinner were transformed into dance movements, what might they look like? Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, post-modern choreographer and video artist Blondell Cummings explored this very question, finding poetry and beauty in the universal rhythms of life and translating them into mesmerizing works of art.
For Cummings, gestures as seemingly mundane as tasting a meal or packing a suitcase could represent themes of kinship or longing. In her capable hands (and legs, feet, and arms), common rituals inspired movements that alternated between graceful, lurching, fluid, and staccato.
“You don’t have to have dance training to appreciate her work,” says Glenn Phillips, senior curator and head of exhibitions at the Getty Research Institute (GRI). “You can see what the movements are rooted in. You can understand what she’s communicating because she communicates it so well. And so many of her themes are around things like food, family, aging, major life moments. Her work really speaks to people of all ages.”
This September the GRI unveiled Blondell Cummings: Dance as Moving Pictures, the first-ever retrospective exhibition focused on Cummings and her unique approach to dance and Black life. The exhibition is being held at Art+Practice, an exhibition space located in the historic Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. On display: Cummings’s video archive of both celebrated and rarely seen works, along with interviews and photographs from her life and career. The exhibition was initiated and developed as part of the GRI’s African American Art History Initiative.
New York, the Great Women of Jazz, and Other Inspirations
Cummings was born in South Carolina and moved with her parents to New York City as an infant. She earned a bachelor’s degree in dance and education from New York University and a master’s degree in fine arts from Lehman College–she was also an accomplished photographer—and also studied with modern dance pioneer Martha Graham. She joined several dance companies, including the New York Chamber Dance Group, Rod Rodgers Dance Company, and the House, an interdisciplinary artistic company founded by vocalist and composer Meredith Monk. She also founded an arts collaborative called Cycle Arts Foundation. Later in her career, she taught at the Lincoln Center Institute, New York University, Cornell University, and elsewhere.
Her performances were always rooted in the movements and emotions of everyday people. The Ladies and Me (1979) was what she called a “visual diary” arranged to the music of legendary singers such as Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. In The Art of War/Nine Situations (1984), set to the words of the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu, she played a nun and a soldier. In what became her best-known work, Chicken Soup (1981), she transformed her memories of her grandmother’s kitchen into a performance that conjured both the emotion and physicality of time spent cooking with her family. Food for Thought (1983), a meditation on social rituals of eating, included Chicken Soup as well additional dances such as Meat and Potatoes, in which she evokes a construction worker taking a lunch break.
Cummings’s movements were precise; her hands, arms, and feet flowed gracefully, powerfully, and with intention. A subtle turn of the head and sweep of the arm could represent everyday gestures like eating or drinking, but with a rhythm and energy that transformed them into dance. She could also seamlessly launch into more frenetic movements, suggesting more heightened emotions. She also conducted workshops in which she interviewed participants about various aspects of life, and their gestures and stories served as inspiration for her own works.
Since the early 20th century the modern dance movement had explored abstract dance or choreography that focused on the abstract human experience instead of conveying a literal plot, and freestyle movements over structured, technical steps. Cummings moved into post-modernism by adding a sense of place to her choreography, as well as by integrating other forms of art such as video, poetry, spoken word, and music.
“She had incredible facial expression skills; I call it facial choreography,” says Phillips. “She might be doing the exact same abstract movement, but suddenly you know if she’s happy or sad. There might be a soundtrack that’s adding another element. There might be a video projection. There might be an overlay of someone talking. And so suddenly the dances can have all these elements on top of each other.”
Her work examined gender, race, histories of Black dance and modern dance. She examined the role of home life in art, used improvisation, and drew from her audience for material. All of these experiments questioned categories of dance and presumptions about art and audience. “I think she was ultimately invested in showing how this kind of intimate life in Black homes is unique,” says Kristin Juarez, research specialist at the GRI. “And still there are universal aspects of home life that we all participate in.”
A Treasure Trove of ’70s and ’80s Videos
In 2014, one year before Cummings passed, the GRI acquired the archive of the Kitchen—a nonprofit arts space in New York dedicated to presenting innovative work by emerging and established artists across dance, music, video, art, and more. The archive included materials from 1971 to 2000 and contained not only videotapes of Cummings’s work at the Kitchen, but also work she performed at other venues, since the Kitchen managed her tour schedule in the 1980s.
After acquiring the materials, staff at the GRI worked with a video conservator on the east coast to digitize the tapes, since many were from the 1970s and ’80s and difficult to watch in their original formats. Once staff started viewing the tapes, they learned that Cummings used video both to document dance and to experiment with the moving image itself, so as to create works meant to be seen as video art.
Staff initially planned to curate an exhibition that would feature multiple artists from the Kitchen archive. But Cummings’s work, in particular, captivated them over and over again, remembers Rebecca Peabody, head of research projects and academic outreach at the GRI.
“That led us to look outside the GRI, which led us to her family and to the personal materials they had collected,” says Juarez. “We then reached out to her collaborators and people she trained with and started seeing the full story of her life in the dance world.”
The team also published essays, photos, interviews, and other archival materials in Blondell Cummings: Dance as Moving Pictures, the first book completely devoted to Cummings’s work, and created a study guide, primary and secondary reading materials, and curriculum modules for professors interested in incorporating Cummings into their classes.
Art+Practice focuses on contemporary art by artists of color and explores how art and communities can shape each other. The space aligned with Cummings’s ethos perfectly. Blondell Cummings may not be a household name, but the team hopes the exhibition is helping to introduce her work to a new generation. Perhaps, Peabody says, visitors will be inspired to see the beauty and power of their own daily routines.
“Seeing these actions performed as a dance—in a setting and context that’s explicitly about aesthetic appreciation—opens viewers to going back into their own lives and observing how the gestures of such things as cooking, cleaning, and rocking babies are both everyday and poetic.”
Blondell Cummings: Dance as Moving Pictures opens September 18, 2021 at Art+Practice.