Against a backdrop of a giant reimagined façade of the Tate Britain galleries, three girls wearing black leggings, red sweaters and chunky oversized white bead jewellery position themselves along white lines marked out on the floor. They are at first still, not making eye contact with the audience, but posing in the way dancers do – good posture, composure – waiting for the performance to begin.

Photo by  sara~  [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Photo by sara~ [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Then they begin to dance, or at least it is a kind of dance. More made up of individual poses, hand movements and small actions – this choreography is based on Baroque – a kind of early balletic style from 16th Century France that emphasised grace and elegance. The girls move slowly through the three Duveen galleries from the mural based on Tate’s Millbank facade near the entrance to the gallery to the one facing it on the other side which is based on the 1980’s designed Clore entrance. There is no music to begin with but in the central gallery one of the performers breaks off to switch on speakers, filling the gallery with music.

I have been looking forward to seeing this new commission from Pablo Bronstein at Tate Britain for a while, sucked in by the rather nice poster campaign that seems to be all over my bus route to work and also by the prospect of live performance in the Duveen Galleries.

The end result is sort of interesting but also a little underwhelming. I had imagined something a little more decadent and showy from Bronstein, perhaps a little more theatrical and transformative for the Tate spaces. Instead I felt both the scope and the energy of the display seemed quite reserved and subdued. My companion, rather more kindly, commented that the performance made you think back to a time when these highly subtle and restricted movements, the idea of the courtly dance, an expression of social self-expression and emotion and also a way of defining a social era, one of elegance and highly stylised courtship rituals. She is right, the references are all there. But the sort of non-immersive nature of the activated installation that Bronstein has created was making my thoughts wander off into different territories – how the white criss-cross lines that define the dancers route through the gallery reminded me of those floor lines in Victoria Station that lead you by colour code to different tube lines and destinations; how the large scale murals lacked the uptight obsession of Bronstein’s smaller drawings and also looked like those facades they stick up on buildings like St Pauls when they do maintenance work. I always enjoy tourists having their photo taken against a giant drawing of a building they can’t see. I was also interested in how some modern elements of the contemporary gallery fuse with the historical references – the performers outfits seem just like normal gallery attendants (minus the jewellery) and indeed they themselves seem just like regular gallery attendants – the right age to be part-timers from whatever performing arts or sculpture course.

Photo: Victoria Tills

Photo: Victoria Tills

No doubt there are some beautiful moments with this commission - the right time of day, the right atmosphere in the galleries, a different set of performers with a different energy and dynamic - but I left the galleries feeling rather deflated and that the performers were, in some way, just going through the motions. But then that is also kind of the point of Baroque dance. I also went home and started googling Baroque dance classes - so some impact must have been made. This is a commission I would definitely make time for again when visiting other temporary displays at Tate Britain to figure out what I really feel about it. I’m not sure yet.

Pablo Bronstein: Historic Dances in an Antique Setting runs at Tate Britain until 9 October 2016. 

AuthorSacha Waldron