OUR LADY: HEATHER RASMUSSEN

Text by Susan Winget

Photos and video by Heather Rasmussen

Part 1: An arrangement of things. 

How do ballet dancers transition into a post dance life? How they inevitably traverse the bridge from dancing years to whatever comes after is for all of them a monolithic act of immigration, of severing oneself from the most essential feeling of home and heading to a world where one is an alien.  

“Home” for a dancer is built of thousands of days, and tens of thousands of hours of barely speaking, eating little, constantly being alert to direction. It is kinetically reacting to perpetual instruction, being highly sensitized to sound and rhythm. It is catching communication in the subtlest form of a glance or gesture by a teacher. It is being dynamically conscious of one’s body and its care, and the non-negotiable daily physical practice of repeating the same movements hourly, daily for years.  The rote of it sounds like an awful bloody pointe shoe filled life, but there is actually Zen in that practice. The clarity of what is RIGHT and what is WRONG, the cycle of repetition and reward, and every piece of the elemental vocabulary of ballet is exploding with microscopic decisive activity and adjustment for the dancer and an opportunity to get it more right.  

I am a former dancer, as I have mentioned in the past, and there is a bit of a secret handshake between former dancers. We all know what we know, and for the most part we are all quick learners, and we do ok in the real world after ballet. I can usually spot a former dancer from a mile away. The posture, the body, the arrangement of them stays put even years after the retirement.  But it isn’t often that the beauty and wordless oddity of that daily chant of a life manifests. It is ephemeral and beautiful and quite painful to leave behind so most leave it and worry about pillars of salt in the backward glance.  

But I caught a glimpse of it for the first time in many years, at the artist Heather Rasmussen’s show last winter at The Pit. I did not expect it, but a deep sense memory of that life welled up and since then I have thought a lot about those pieces.  

Rasmussen lives and works in Los Angeles with her family. She crossed that bridge away from dancing life to civilian life some time ago, going on to university and then to Cal Arts for her MFA, to teaching at UCLA. But as she stood at that show last winter, wearing a Marshmallow moss green leotard and matching skirt, with her baby son Vincent on her hip, it was hard not to start drawing the connection to the former shared practice.  

She is the physical personification of a ballet dancer.  Her wide smile slides open, a blast of Sun, but can slide shut to the full stop of dancer’s still, attentive silence as she takes something or someone in.  She is tall, but dancer tall, which is all mathematics: high water waistline and elegant tiny torso, magically counter balancing an extravagance of long limbs, hands and neck. Marble carved, arching feet, neat, stabbing tendu. A prima ballerina’s large expressive eyes, curtained by a soft shag of fringe, and set in a Modigliani head. A bit Makarova, a bit Kirkland. These are make-or-break gifts and she uses them all to great effect in her work. The longest pink leg, cast frozen, totally active with that hard perfect dagger of a pointed toe, dangles over a mirror in a sculpture. 

In her photographs, video installations and sculpture there is the dancer’s considered calculation of placement of objects and the nonchalance of extraordinary physicality. But choices and juxtaposition, especially as she works through the performance of the videos, is something unrelated to selling. There are objects on display and Rasmussen appears in the work positioning and repositioning the objects and herself as a dancer might correct and re-correct herself. Careful and thoughtful choices, nuanced when and where. Small, serene, confidently emphatic. She moves the objects with as much care as she moves herself.  

In her elegant videos, she carefully situates herself into an evolving marriage with space, color, objects, with her reflection cropped by the geometric coincidences of her props. Never ending adjustment and correction. It bears witness every day to the thousands of details a dancer must check and recheck, the endless repetition too.