“I come from show people,” Karon Davis, sculptor and installation artist said in an interview Wednesday. “As soon as I was born, I was given tap shoes, ballerinas.” She’s only half-joking: her mother, Nancy Bruner, was a ballerina; her sister, Naja, who died at age 16, was an aspiring ballerina; and his father is Tony and Emmy Award-winning actor, dancer and singer Ben Vereen.
This immersion inspired his recent exhibition, “Beauty must suffer”, inaugurated on October 12 at Salon 94 in Manhattan. The exhibition consists of life-size figures, cast from live models in gauze and plaster of Paris, arranged as installations on two floors of the gallery’s mansion. On the second floor, plaster children practice at the barre, dancers rest, bow and stretch along floor-to-ceiling columns of pink tutus and piles of “dead” toe shoes . One of the sculpted dancers smokes; another freezes his knee. The figures are clearly black, although they are made from the purest white materials; some of them even “pancake” their shoes, covering the pink satin with makeup that matches skin tones. (Until recently, major dance shoe manufacturers did not produce a diverse range of colors..)
Davis focuses here on the realities that dancers experience, and especially black dancers, face in the ballet world. “I feel like the art I’ve seen before on dancers has always been focused on what’s happening on stage, which is perfection,” Davis, 46, said. “But I want to show what happens before we get there: all the work, all the sacrifices, all the bloody toes and sore muscles.”
On the third floor, visitors will experience what Davis calls a “sculpted ballet,” in which two actors recreate famous moments in dance history: Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn performing “Paradise Lost,” a choreography from “Revelations » by Alvin Ailey. » and “Swan Lake” by Julius Wenzel Reisinger.
Saturday, as part of the Performa BiennaleDavis will add another element to the mix: Two of the dancers who posed for the characters, Fabricio Seraphin and Vicky Lambert, will perform Davis’ sculpted ballet — which she titled “Echo and Narcissus” — in the Salon 94 gallery on the third ground.
During Wednesday’s dress rehearsal, Davis worked with Seraphin and Lambert. The choreography that emerged during the two-hour session depicts a story of unrequited love: Echo falls passionately in love with Narcisse, who loves her in return until he sees his own reflection. At that moment, everything is lost.
During the rehearsal, Ben Vereen, 77, arrived from Los Angeles. He stayed by his daughter’s side, coaching the two dancers on how to evoke the shift from passion and seduction to the heartbreak and pain that the story calls for. At one point, he looked with satisfaction at a sad little nod that Lambert, 52, had added to his graceful arabesque. “I think you might have something here,” he said slyly to his daughter, causing the room to burst into laughter.
“We’ve always been a creative duo,” said Davis, who said that even in her purely sculptural work, her father’s extensive knowledge of stage design helped her in areas such as how to light her objects. But that’s the dance: “I told him what I was doing and he immediately got on a plane. He said, ‘I’m going to come to New York, let’s play.’
“I was here for the opening and saw the pieces come to life, and now Karon is taking it to another level,” Vereen told me. “These statues already seem so alive. We’re just finding ways to represent the movement that already exists.
Davis had worked with Seraphin and Lambert for the better part of a year to create her sculptures, posing them individually, using props so they could maintain their lines while she cast sections of their bodies. She then reconstituted the fragments on steel frames. “I would walk into Karon’s studio and see parts of my body scattered everywhere, and it was a head trip,” Lambert said.
This week’s rehearsals are the first time Lambert and Séraphin have danced together.
Being in the same space as their effigies is “surreal,” said Seraphin, 28. Neither expected Vereen to be in the play — for Seraphin, who studied musical theater at his high school and played roles in a number of Bob Fosse sets, it was a special pleasure. (Vereen won a Tony Award for her role in Bob Fosse’s “Pippin” in 1973 and worked closely with the choreographer throughout his career.)
Davis studied dance in her early years but ended up majoring in film at Spelman College; after moving to Los Angeles, she married the painter Noah Davis in 2008. In 2012, the couple founded the Underground Museum in the Arlington Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles; both an art gallery and community center, it was an important cultural center for the area’s working-class, mostly black residents. After her husband died in 2015, Davis remained chair of the museum’s board of trustees while developing her own career as an artist. (The museum farm in 2022.) His last exhibition in New York, at the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery, focused on Black Panther founder Bobby Seale and the 1969 Chicago 8 trial.
“Echo and Narcissus” is still in development. The second half of the piece will be performed for “Bitter Earth” by Dinah Washington and Max Richter but she still decides the music for the first half. At the end of rehearsal, she decided she needed to make a mirror to serve as a prop on Saturday.
Before running off to put her hand in plaster, she reflected on what will be the first time she has incorporated choreography into an art installation. “It’s so good to see it all come together,” she said. “I always wanted to honor that part of me and honor my family and dancers in general.”
“Beauty Must Suffer” is on view until December 23. “Echo and Narcisse” will take place on Saturday, November 18 only, at 4 p.m. in the galleries of Salon 94; attendance is free on reservation. Salon 94, 3 East 89th Street, Manhattan, 212-979-0001; salon94.com.