A choreographer’s ‘chorus of Isabellas’ animates the Gardner Museum
Isabella Stewart Gardner’s art collection is famous. Her palace is treasured. But what of the woman herself, and the spirit that animated her? They’ve inspired a remarkable new dance project from Peter DiMuro, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s first choreographer-in-residence.
DiMuro, along with members of his company and a multigenerational community of performers, will be dancing through the galleries of the museum over the next two weeks. And they plan to take visitors along in a terpsichorean tour that animates the historic palace’s rooms and courtyard with movement.
Called “The House of Accumulated Beauties” and set to an original score by Beau Kenyon, the 45-minute dancer-led tours are designed to create a kind of dialogue with the art. They include short performances in four of the large palace galleries, plus a grand “chorus of Isabellas” finale in the courtyard. The work is an intimate yet powerful, impressionistic evocation of Gardner’s life, spirit, and extraordinary collection of art, drawing from reflections of performers, museum employees, and visitors.
Periodically, DiMuro steps into each tour to give audience members context and suggest themes of abundance and loss. “I spent time going into the archives and learning about Isabella and her circle of friends,” DiMuro says, “learning how she held salons and cultivated young artists and collected all this beautiful art.” Referencing the loss of Gardner’s only child, who died of pneumonia before the age of 2, he adds, “Sometimes the palace was a solitary place of personal refuge for her.”
During a recent rehearsal, one could imagine what it might have been like for the charismatic Gardner (1840-1924) to create a home filled with such a stunning array of art while welcoming all kinds of artistic creativity within its walls.
At the beginning of the tour, participants are split into two groups, which start on opposite sides of the courtyard. Guides costumed as Gardner in long black dresses and pearls lead visitors from room to room, sometimes happening upon interactions that seem to have been going on for a long time. Dancers gently connect and disconnect, limbs entwined, gazes calling our attention to details around the rooms. As movement phrases send dancers swirling toward open balconies, the natural light from the courtyard’s atrium plays off lunges, spins, and embraces. Sounds of bells, whispers, a watery piano, and women singing echo in each room and across the courtyard from tiny speakers inside the illuminated lanterns the guides carry. The soft clack of a typewriter in Kenyon’s score suggests America’s burgeoning industrial age.
“You can preserve a collection, but I wanted to explore how you can preserve a spirit — what moves through all these frames and the architecture,” explained DiMuro in a recent interview. “This feels like a good way to define that humanness again, as opposed to just thinking of all this as relics. It was a real desire of [Gardner’s] to bring a newness to the way we look at things, and to me, that means the world.”
Gardner Museum director Peggy Fogelman says the new choreographer-in-residence position is very much in the spirit of Isabella Stewart Gardner and part of the museum’s DNA. The award-winning DiMuro is an inspired choice to inaugurate the position. As the executive director of Cambridge’s Dance Complex and a former member of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, DiMuro is a committed community builder, bringing together people of all ages and abilities through a variety of projects, many through his inter-generational dance company Public Displays of Motion.
Even so, DiMuro calls the Gardner project one of his “more unique experiences of the past 40 years. . . . It’s interrupting my patterns and habits in a really good way.” Similarly, he hopes visitors will find “The House of Accumulated Beauties” offers them a different perspective on the museum experience.
Even those who don’t sign up for one of the tours may stumble across dancers unexpectedly bringing a gallery to life. “I think it will be a beautiful surprise, giving people a completely fresh lens to view the collection,” says George Steel, the museum’s curator of music, who oversees multidisciplinary programming. He calls the new work “an amazing, spirit-lifting intervention” that channels Gardner’s vision for performance and art to coexist and illuminate each other.
In addition to the tours, DiMuro has created “Small Visitations in a Near Empty Room,” a special performance for Calderwood Hall on Oct. 18, part of the museum’s Third Thursdays event. It recasts some of the tour’s material into a work that takes place on the hall’s floor but is designed to be viewed only from above via the balcony levels — again, asking us to look through a fresh frame of reference. Gardner would be pleased.
The House of Accumulated Beauties
At Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, through Oct. 25. Free with museum admission and advance registration. 617-278-5156, www.gardnermuseum.org