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A Movable Feast: Personal Indulgences No. 1

Press luncheon given by the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the Culture Department of the French Embassy, NYC / March 21, 2007


The seven dining tables are circular. Each is set with severe elegance for nine or ten people clad in the suave yet subtly imaginative costumes of urban art-inclined intellectuals. Five formally dressed waiters–raven-haired, immaculately groomed, their faces impassive–approach one table at a time, four of the men holding two filled plates, one in each hand, and, where there are only nine guests, one waiter holding just one, in his right hand.

Surrounding a given table, the waiters position themselves so that each stands at a polite distance behind a pair of guests. At a firm nod from the captain of the wait-crew, he and each of his underlings moves to the right side of one of the pair of diners he’s attending and, without the slightest wobble or tremor in his hand (try this at home; you probably won’t be able to do it), leans forward and places one of the plates he bears on the table before the guest. The waiters then straighten up in Rockettes-worthy unison, and each moves to the guest at the left of the person he first served and, again at the captain’s nod, places the second plate he holds before that diner. This accomplished, the quintet marches off with a firmly articulated step. (Think of the treading chorus in Martha Graham’s Primitive Mysteries.)

Just seconds later, the five waiters reappear, armed with another set of plates, to serve another table. Throughout this immaculately rehearsed ritual, the guests behave as if the waiters were invisible. (One recalls the protocol governing stagehands in traditional Japanese theater.)

While a given course is being consumed, the waiters stand at assigned posts on the periphery of the room, scanning the tables, far sharper-eyed than security guards, for a diner’s need for a renewed supply of water (sparkling or flat–in Paris we used to call it non-gazeuse), wine (Chardonnay or Rioja), or miniature rolls infused with butter and cheese.

Whenever a waiter’s left hand is free, he crooks his elbow and tucks the hand behind him at waist level. These moments occur on the emphatically paced entrances and exits; when a waiter has divested himself of the first of his two plates; and is, of course, the default stance for the waiter (the group’s apprentice, perhaps?) who sometimes has just a single person to serve and thus just a single plate. (This odd yet elegant posture occurs in images and reconstructions of yesteryear’s social dances–and in George Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer.) In this more practical case, it forestalls the social faux-pas–or unlikely physical damage–of a server touching a consumer.

I’m tempted to report the menu here. But you’ve been to this sort of event, so you can easily imagine it. The background “music,” apart from the animated chat of the arts-journalist guests, consisted of concise slide-enhanced comments from the museum’s curatorial staff on the exhibitions for its coming season (2007-2008) and a description of the formidable expansion the museum has undertaken–all this m.c.’d with easy grace by the museum’s director and CEO, Anne d’Harnoncourt.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has always been a terrific place to visit and now, apparently, will be even more so. It has dallied happily with dance in the past. Might these choreographed press-luncheon waiters be a promise–entirely fortuitous, of course–of further engagement with Terpsichore?

Photos: Left: Jacques-Emil Ruhlmann, Chair, designed 1924, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Right: Ettore Sottsass, Jr., “Casablanca” Sideboard, designed 1981, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Both objects will appear in the museum’s “Designing Modern: 1920 to the Present” exhibition, September 15, 2007 – February 2008

© 2007 Tobi Tobias


  1. Richard Lacayo says

    I’m still laughing over your descriptions of the terpsichorean waiters. Thanks for the link. I look forward to reading more. [Sent May 31, 2007. –Ed.]

  2. Andrea Siegel says

    Wonderful! [Sent May 25, 2007. –Ed.]

  3. Eva Yaa Asantewaa says

    Quite wonderful! [Sent May 25, 2007. –Ed.]

  4. Allen Robertson says

    A new spin on singing for your supper. [Sent May 25, 2007. –Ed.]

  5. John Hilton says

    A wonderful addition to dance commentary and criticism. Thanks. Congratulations! [Sent May 24, 2007. –Ed.]

  6. Sandi Kurtz says

    For full service a la russe, you would need one waiter per person, each standing directly behind the chair of his particular charge, but otherwise it’s very like this. An evocative (and slightly sinister) description. And very indulgent! [Sent May 24, 2007. –Ed.]

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