Lord of the Dancers

How can we know the dancer from the dance?" Irish writer William Butler Yeats wondered in a 1927 poem. And indeed, there's a sense in which dance is the most intimate of artistic media, one that comes to life only when embodied by human beings. Writers, painters, sculptors, filmmakers -- all can be considered apart from their work. Even musicians can be distanced from their music, which may survive only in the form of recordings chronicling the performances. Not so with dancers. A dance without a dancer isn't much more than an abstract idea.

For painter David Remfrey -- born in England in 1942, now residing at the legendary Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan -- we know the dancer through the dance, in a reaffirmation of their inseparability. As he demonstrates again and again in "David Remfrey: Dancers," now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, people reveal themselves when they dance. They open up: to their partners, to their audiences, and in many cases documented here, to the painter.

Remfrey has been working on his "Dancers" series for the past 17 years, visiting such dancehalls as New York City's famous Roseland, attending parties, going to nightclubs and street fairs. He also frequently invites people into his studio to dance for him, in much the same way other artists have models pose for them. (The vast majority of the pieces here are generically titled Dancers or Dancer.) Early on in the show, which includes close to a hundred works in various media, mostly watercolor, one encounters a wall of four large pieces, three watercolors and a graphite drawing. They're all of Victor and Gretha Arnas, a German couple who were the first people Remfrey invited to dance for him in the studio.

The heavyset Victor and the ordinary-looking Gretha are far from glamorous, and Remfrey doesn't go out of his way to make them more attractive than they are. He lets the dance transform them -- elevate and ennoble them. Through dance, they attain a surprising grace that has less to do with their technique than with their abandonment to the moment; Remfrey uses the delicacy of the watercolor medium to capture, with extraordinary intimacy, the loving gazes between the two partners. Dance does for Victor what water did for the hefty Shelley Winters character in The Poseidon Adventure: It renders the subject's body weight irrelevant.

In one of the essays in the lovely paperback catalog that accompanies the exhibition, Dore Ashton recalls dancing and watching other dancers at Roseland as a sort of epiphany: "I came to understand that Roseland was the only classless society I would ever know. There, no matter how lowly your daily life, if you were an elegant dancer you were an aristocrat. Dishwashers and janitors became princes, and elderly retired chorus girls, princesses. Not only that, but the youthful princes often selected the elderly princesses solely on the basis of their superior aptitudes on the dance floor."

Remfrey's paintings partake of this class-free society and go even further. The artist embraces his subjects with equal affection, regardless of their looks or the clothes they wear. Age, race, gender, and other such defining characteristics don't make much of a difference in Remfrey's world. Even a lack of physical grace in movement is no hindrance to his characters, who are often captured in awkward moments on the dance floor yet still maintain their dignity.

Some of Remfrey's dancers, in fact, are almost defiantly unattractive, at least in conventional terms. I wasn't very far into the show before I had the distinct impression that the artist has a thing for big noses, or maybe a lot of his subjects simply have prominent ones. And when his dancers smile, more often than not, the smiles come across as stylized grimaces.

A number of pieces pair men with women who are larger and more imposing than they. (This may be because Remfrey, who includes himself in several works, is of slight stature.) In a 1987 graphite-and-wash image, inspired by a newspaper photograph, the artist pairs the diminutive Truman Capote with the late Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham at the infamous Black and White Ball. There's also a series of works, including a rare oil wittily titled The Inequitable Division of Hair Resources, with a poker-faced Remfrey dancing with a woman named Anna Goodman, whose towering hair suggests an unholy union between the Bride of Frankenstein and Don King.

Remfrey picks up on our culture's ready acceptance of women dancing together without any sexual implications. Dozens of his dancers are same-sex female pairs. He also makes a sly dig, in a piece such as The Way the Men Dance, at many men's discomfort with dancing; the piece features three men awkwardly on the sidelines, one hesitantly trying out a step, another with his hands in his pockets, the other opting to clap his hands in lieu of letting go.

That's not to say Remfrey is oblivious to the sexual ramifications of dance. It's easy to imagine where some of his couples might end up after they leave the dance floor. And in one graphite drawing, he makes a not-so-subtle joke about gender differences. Quick Quick -- Slow Slow features a man hunched over a bent-over-backward woman, with the title words emanating from their respective mouths.

Oddly, Remfrey doesn't seem much interested in single dancers, which might seem natural subject matter, since so many people, when pressed, will admit to dancing solo when the mood strikes them. But with one or two exceptions, including a portrait of the aforementioned wild-haired Goodman brandishing a tambourine, it's just as well that Remfrey sticks with multiple dancers. I think he's at his best when he takes on large groupings of dancers, especially in some of the huge horizontal pieces that draw us right into the thick of things.

One of the catalog essays reminds us that watercolor is usually associated with smaller pieces and with landscapes or still lifes; in light of this observation, Remfrey's large-scale watercolors seem even more dramatic. Nightlife is a thicket of bodies dancing shoulder to shoulder, while the exuberant Swing is a sort of triptych that gives the dancers more space to themselves even as it links them in their abandon.

By contrast, some of Remfrey's other groupings emphasize dancers lost in their own private reveries. The elegant title characters in Five Women occupy the same space physically, but they're also clearly in their own worlds, caught up in the moment of the dance as individual release. Three women in a piece a few feet away on an adjacent wall are similarly distracted.

Dance has always posed a special problem for painters, including such well-known chroniclers of it as Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. It challenges them to capture the sense of movement in a static medium. Remfrey is more than up to the task. I'm not sure how he does it, but he manages to combine the formality of Degas with the looseness of Toulouse-Lautrec and make them work together.

After circling through the exhibition a few times, I tried sitting on various benches situated here and there and letting my gaze wander, taking in as many of Remfrey's dancers as I could. All that was missing was the music.

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Michael Mills