The moment Selene Colburn stepped into the Hall of North American Mammals at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History three years ago, she knew she had to make a dance out of it. Wading through a sea of school kids on field trips, she marveled at the mid-20th-century dioramas, which depict bison, jaguars, bighorn sheep, moose and, the crowning glory, the Alaskan brown bear standing on its hind legs. The creatures are propped up on faux logs and rocks before dramatic landscape paintings.
You’re probably thinking: Wait, what? How do you create a dance from a bunch of stuffed animals? To Colburn, the connection was clear.
“There’s so much movement conveyed in the dioramas, but they’re completely frozen,” she says, noting the parallel between the taxidermists’ process and her own creative process as a movement artist. “They were desperately trying to recreate and reanimate not just the animals but the site,” Colburn explains. “They were trying to almost pass on their experience.”
As the artist-in-residence at Burlington Dances, Colburn has spent the last few months developing, with a cast of nine local dancers, movement based on the taxidermists’ methodology — each diorama is the result of extensive field observation by a team of scientists and landscape painters. The dancers will perform a work in progress called “The Hall” at the Chace Mill studio later this month.
Natural-history museums have long been a part of the 41-year-old dancer’s life. Growing up outside Washington, D.C., Colburn says, the Smithsonian museums were her playground. Before taking her current position as a librarian at the University of Vermont’s Bailey/Howe Library, she spent several years as an archivist at the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium in St. Johnsbury.
But it was only recently that Colburn finally visited the museum in New York City. Portions of it have been modernized in the last decade or so, but discovering the still-vintage Hall of North American Mammals, she says, felt like entering “a museum of a museum.”
It wasn’t so much the spectacle of the dioramas that captivated her — though she loves that, too — as the dramatic subjectivity of the text describing each one. “It’s so poetic, and it really sets the scenes,” Colburn says. Most museum text aims for objectivity and an encyclopedic voice, but this stuff is all drama. She snapped a cellphone photo of the Alaskan brown bear’s label: “The low, hummocky mounds and flats are carpeted by a tangle of wiry, creeping shrubs and herbs.”
Colburn’s dancers are divided into three groups: One is exploring raw, animal-like movement; one is embodying the taxidermists through more classical dance forms; and a duo is playing with the relationship between taxidermist and animal.
Colburn is interested in “that tension of what animals really do and what we think they do,” she says. Some dancers will be dressed in stodgy wool suits and stick-on mustaches. For a portion of the performance, Colburn will channel Mick Jagger. Why? “Somehow this relates to museums and representations and dioramas for me,” she says. “Maybe a little bit sideways, but there it is.”
Sound a little crazy? Maybe so, but surely no more than the practice of arranging taxidermied animals in front of sweeping landscape paintings. Besides, Colburn doesn’t plan to leave the audience hanging. “One thing that I’ll do in the showing, and that I do a lot in my work, is talk really directly to the audience about what the work is about, and what interests me and what my questions are,” she says.
Colburn’s long-term vision includes a partnership with a natural-history museum, so she can perform the dance among the brown bears and musk oxen that inspired it — and even recreate what one assumes was the taxidermists’ goal. “They wanted people to see the natural world, to connect to it, to conserve it, even,” Colburn says. “But, of course, there was a sense of spectacle, too.”