Body Issues: A Dance Class Helped Me See the Hidden Choreography of Painting

Alina Cohen
May 21, 2020 8:20PM

Hayv Kahraman, Bend 1, 2019. © Hayv Kahraman. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Hayv Kahraman, detail of Bend 1, 2019. © Hayv Kahraman. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Before lockdown, I regularly attended a yoga class taught by a very particular former dancer. “I’m sorry I’m so anal,” he’d say, and then reposition my feet for cat-cow. He told me that he’d danced for Merce Cunningham years ago. This, a friend told me, explained the instructor’s specificity—with Merce, you couldn’t just move your hand up and down; you had to do it exactly the way he wanted. As I thought more about movement, precision, and my own body’s capacities and limitations, I decided to enroll in my first ballet class.

Such lessons in movement seemed, at first, antithetical to my day job. My work, writing about art, often requires spending a lot of time in my own head. There’s no trace of my physicality on my final products: articles published on the internet. Yet ultimately, my dance and yoga classes allowed me to see art, and painting in particular, in a brand new way—as a different form of choreography.

Dancers have been fruitful subjects for Western painters across centuries. Peasants shimmy and twirl in Pieter Breugel the Elder’s The Wedding Dance (1566). Young ballerinas famously populate Edgar Degas’s Impressionist canvases, while Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is known for the femme fatales at the Moulin Rouge nightclub. But when I began thinking about the intersection of dance and painting, Hayv Kahraman’s recent works first came to mind.

Hayv Kahraman, The Tower, 2019. © Hayv Kahraman. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Hayv Kahraman, detail of The Tower , 2019. © Hayv Kahraman. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.


For her 2019 exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery, titled “Not Quite Human,” Kahraman painted a series of canvases featuring contorting female figures. In the buff or wearing leotards, they appear bent over backwards and flipping their muscular limbs into impossible positions. While the paintings function as metaphors for how women (non-white women, specifically) bend to meet others’ demands, they also allow the artist to become a choreographer of fictional bodies: Kahraman’s figures are invented extensions of herself. This past April, Pilar Corrias opened Kahraman’s second iteration of this series as an online exclusive.

Many painters are choreographers, to some degree. They direct bodies onto canvases, rendering limbs just so. All paintings—figurative, abstract, or somewhere in between—require their own dance, with the painter tangoing with and then receding from the canvas, just to begin the process all over again until the composition is finished. Yet unlike dancers’ movements, painters’ performances remain private: The viewer most often sees a finished artwork, which bears only hints of the intricate labors used to make it.

Hayv Kahraman, detail of HyperInvisible 2, 2019. © Hayv Kahraman. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

“I see the figures in my work in choreographic terms,” Kahraman said recently. “The body, the placement, and the composition are all part of a still snapshot taken from a choreographed movement in my mind.” She described her works as contemplative friezes “in which the body takes center stage.”

Kahraman has firsthand experience with performance: From age 6 to 10, she attended music and ballet school in Baghdad, where she was born. In the early 1990s, her family fled to Sweden to escape the First Gulf War. She recalled a dance instructor in her new country who favored white kids and cast her last in training and rehearsals. “This fundamental racism is what caused me to quit dancing,” Kahraman said. Instead, she began painting and found the practice empowering. While Kahraman’s shift to visual art proved rewarding, her recent canvases reclaim the space for non-white dancers that she sought as a child.

Hayv Kahraman, 6 Bends, 2020. © Hayv Kahraman. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

In 2018, Kahraman had an opportunity to work with real dancers. To coincide with an exhibition at Vielmetter Los Angeles, she organized a performance, US and THEM, with choreography by Ariel Osterweis, vocals by Jessika Kenney, and dance by 14 CalArts students. The performance focused on the idea of “otherness” and the treatment of refugees. It included elements of the Kurdish dance Halparke, which referenced the artist’s own experience as a Kurdish refugee fleeing a humanitarian disaster, which many watched unravel via television screens around the world. “The dancers moving en masse represented both the visibility of refugees and the invisibility of their voice,” Kahraman said. Making this collaborative work, she noted, was “like bringing my army of women to life.”

While Kahraman embraced a new medium, using it as a means of further self-expression, my brief foray into dance wasn’t quite as successful. I was only able to attend one class before gyms and studios around the country began shutting down. I found myself lost among the unfamiliar steps, straining to position my feet in the right direction. I also had to reckon with a lurking voyeuristic desire: More than wanting to learn to move in a certain way, I realized I wanted to watch the rest of the dancers and analyze how they were moving, in a way that I couldn’t when I was trying to remember and execute a series of a steps. I had to acknowledge that observation and consideration, from a remove, is a writer’s purview. And for now, I’m happy with that.

Alina Cohen