The Guggenheim: Happy Birthday in Plain Site

Forget the boring speeches and stiff-necked platitudes that mark most public occasions; the Guggenheim is celebrating its 50th anniversary with some very original re-thinking of its mission and—from roof to rotunda—its fabled space. First, its spiral ramp has been denuded of art and filled instead with visitors on the hoof; all part of the interactive An Accidental Encounter, by Berlin-based Tino Sehgal.

You walk up the ramp, welcomed by guides who engage you in conversation. They’re very young when you start, and rise in age as you spiral up, until the last few reveal the wisdom of a lifetime. You keep walking, they keep talking. All of them are sociable, and hand you off (just as the dialogue gets interesting) to the next friendly sherpa.

Looking down as you rise, you can glimpse a couple rolling on the floor of the rotunda locked in an extended embrace. They have amazing stamina, and seem to enjoy the rigors of Sehgal’s second conceptual piece, The Kiss. Both works are concerned with connection (more on that below). You can join the dialogue (and appreciate the erotica) until March 10. After the last kiss, a series of special events in the rotunda will take place throughout the season. Plan ahead at www.guggenheim.org.

To ramp up the possibilities of Wright’s spiral even further, visit the fourth-floor galleries to see what 200 artists, architects, and designers (if given the chance) would do with it: Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum. The entries are competitive and—fortunately for the viewer—often subversive and hilarious. To be savored through April 28.

Finally, to remember the Guggenheim’s glorious  past, even as you contemplate what’s coming next,  visit Paris and the Avant-Garde: Modern Masters from the Guggenheim Collection (until May 12).

And there’s more! The long-running high-end series, Works & Process is also celebrating— its 25th season. Here, the powers-that-be have come up with some very high-end names to share their creative insights with the high-end crowds that relish them. Though in jet-lag coma, I could not miss The Art of Teaching: Participation and Perception, with dancer Damian Woetzel and Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel. The idea here was to transform spectators into participants. But let’s start by giving their program the name it deserves:

The Sun King and the Messenger of the Gods.

First, Woetzel strode out from backstage in sweatshirt, chinos, and a dazzling smile (you could feel the energy, and it was contagious!) to introduce his pianist, and ballerina Tiler Peck for the opening of Balanchine’s Serenade. Seamlessly, he enticed the entire audience (it was a packed house) to stand and perform with him the ballet’s simple, lyrical movements. And, by God, this divine Pied Piper had them up and swaying blissfully in moments, pointing out that “there is a bonding when you dance as one.”

As soon as the audience was reseated, Woetzel presented a clip of Sandel’s legendary Harvard Law School course, Justice — a must-see PBS series that can be streamed (free) online: www.justiceharvard.org. Seductive in its appeal and seriously over-subscribed, Justice gets students to actually think about great moral questions, and to stand and deliver their opinions in class.

Sandel emerged from behind the screen at clip’s end to thunderous applause. He and Woetzel sat on stools and worked the crowd, spinning their stratospheric web into the evening’s purpose: cerebral and physical participation, engagement, connection! It was effortless, a flow of laughter and serious conversation. The two played off each other with delight. Talk led back to three dancers (Joaquin de Luz, Robert Fairchild and, again, Tiler Peck); Woetzel cut in on Peck, then returned her without breaking a sweat. There was more dialogue  and dance with an outline in place, but one with space, and time, for the inspired riffs that kept the hours alive.

A mischievous, demi-extemporare excerpt from Fancy Free included Woetzel; then Sandel riposted with a discussion of equality and justice…democratic deliberation. A sea of waving hands signalled questions from the audience, and a final treat (from Dances at a Gathering) wrapped it all up. After a standing ovation, the audience virtually floated up to the rotunda reception that follows every Works & Process, and out into the night.

In lesser hands, it might have turned into Art and Ideas Lite. But Woetzel and Sandel are working on another plane entirely. In spite of the evening’s levity, their goal is to “have the audience leave with a new level of awareness of art and of reasoning, to relish great questions and great creativity….” I’d have to say they succeeded brilliantly. Experiences like this are an endangered species; you are lucky to be in the house when they occur.

Upcoming Works & Process programs include events designed to further extend the use of rotunda and ramp – many of them interdisciplinary explorations of art, music, movement, and space; Hypermusic: Ascension; Vertical Opera; Icarus at the Edge of Time; another celebration (American Ballet Theatre at 70), and a heady mix of cutting-edge darlings and household names (www.worksandprocess.org. for a complete schedule).  Because many of its ventures are at capacity, advance ticketing is recommended. So is arriving early, to marvel at who’s in the audience with you.

There’s no other series in the city like Works & Process; it’s exhilarating, exquisite nourishment that has, like the Guggenheim, reinvented itself with a fresh and fearless look at the future. Do yourself a favor and connect to it.

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