“I come from show people,” the sculptor and installation artist Karon Davis said in an interview on Wednesday. “The minute I was born, I was handed tap shoes, ballet shoes.” She’s only half joking: her mother, Nancy Bruner, was a ballerina; her sister, Naja, who died at the age of 16, was an aspiring ballerina; and her father is the Tony- and Emmy-award-winning actor, dancer and singer Ben Vereen.
That immersion inspired her recent exhibition, “Beauty Must Suffer,” which opened on Oct. 12 at Salon 94 in Manhattan. The show consists of life-size figures, cast from live models in gauze and plaster of Paris, arranged in installations on two floors of the gallery’s townhouse. On the second floor, plaster children practice at the barre, dancers rest, bow and stretch alongside floor-to-ceiling columns composed of pink tutus and piles of “dead” toe shoes. One of the sculpted dancers smokes; another ices her knee. The figures are clearly Black, though they’re made from the starkest white materials; some of them even “pancake” their shoes, covering the pink satin with makeup to match skin tones. (Until fairly recently, the major makers of ballet slippers didn’t produce a diverse range of colors.)
Davis’s focus here is on the realities that dancers, and especially Black dancers, face in the world of ballet. “I feel like the art I’ve seen before on dancers has always just been about what happens onstage, which is perfection,” Davis, 46, said. “But I want to show what happens before you get to that point — all the labor, all the sacrifice, all the bloody toes and the sore muscles.”
On the third floor, visitors will find what Davis calls a “sculpted ballet,” in which a pair of cast figures replicate famous moments in the history of dance: Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn performing “Paradise Lost,” choreography from Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations” and Julius Wenzel Reisinger’s “Swan Lake.”
On Saturday, as part of the Performa Biennial, Davis will add another element to the mix: Two of the dancers who posed for the figures, Fabricio Seraphin and Vicky Lambert, will interpret Davis’s sculpted ballet — which she has titled “Echo and Narcissus” — in the Salon 94 gallery on the third floor.
At the dress rehearsal on Wednesday, Davis worked with Seraphin and Lambert. The choreography that emerged over the two-hour session described a tale of unrequited love: Echo falls passionately in love with Narcissus, who loves her back until he sees his own reflection. At that point, all is lost.
During the rehearsal, Ben Vereen, 77, dropped in from Los Angeles. He stayed close by his daughter’s side, coaching the two dancers on how to evoke the passage from passion and seduction to heartbreak and pain that the story calls for. At one point, he looked with satisfaction on a tiny, mournful shake of the head that Lambert, 52, had added to her graceful arabesque. “I think you just might have something here,” he said slyly to his daughter, causing the room to fall out in 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 stagecraft has helped her with things like how to light her objects. But this is dance: “I told him what I was doing, and he got on a plane right away. 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. “Those statues already feel so alive. We’re just finding ways to represent the movement that’s already there.”
Davis had been working with Seraphin and Lambert for the better part of a year to create her sculptures, posing them individually, using props so they could hold their lines while she cast sections of their bodies. She then pieced the fragments together, over steel armatures. “I would come into Karon’s studio and see my body parts strewn around, and that was a head trip,” Lambert said.
This week’s rehearsals are the first time Lambert and Seraphin have actually danced together.
Being in the same space as their effigies is “surreal,” Seraphin, 28, said. Neither was expecting Vereen to be in the room — for Seraphin, who studied musical theater in his high school and played roles in a number of Bob Fosse set pieces, it was a special thrill. (Vereen won a Tony Award for his role in Bob Fosse’s “Pippin” in 1973, and worked closely with the choreographer over his career.)
Davis studied dance in her early years but ended up majoring in filmmaking 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; part art gallery and part community center, it formed an important cultural hub for the area’s mostly Black, working-class residents. After her husband’s death in 2015, Davis continued as director of the museum while developing her own career as an artist. (The museum closed in 2022.) Her last show in New York, at Jeffrey Deitch’s gallery, centered on the Black Panthers founder Bobby Seale and the 1969 Chicago 8 trial.
“Echo and Narcissus” is still developing. The second half of the piece will be performed to Dinah Washington and Max Richter’s “Bitter Earth,” but she’s still deciding on the music for the first half. At the end of the rehearsal, she decided that she needed to fashion a mirror that will be used as a prop on Saturday.
Before she ran off to get her hands in plaster, she reflected on what will be the first time she’s incorporated choreography into an art installation. “It feels so good to see it all come together,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to honor that part of me and honor my family and dancers in general.”
“Beauty Must Suffer” is on view through Dec. 23. “Echo and Narcissus” will take place on Saturday, Nov. 18, only, at 4 p.m. in the Salon 94 galleries; attendance is free with a reservation. Salon 94, 3 East 89th Street, Manhattan, 212-979-0001; salon94.com.