dance.psd – corporeal archives

A couple of things from the world of dance that isn’t performed. One is an essay from The Chronicle Review, Dancers as Living Archives. It’s slightly New York focussed – Martha “satan” Graham (not even deserving of an upper-case ‘s’-satan), Balanchine, Yvonne Rainer and Trio A. I was hoping for something a little more intellectual or scientific in respect to dancers’ formidable ability to corporeally recall movement, especially when the conscious mind doesn’t. To watch a dancer’s body remember the movement, and to see that recollection permeate their conscious mind, or to experience it, your own body moving as if following an unseen map is perhaps the single most profound cognitive aspect of dancing.

Other kinds of memory, like my laptop harddrive, which is certainly a part of me as are my own internal memories (haha). From the newly discovered and instantly rss-ed splines in space is an scribbling on top of dance video. Kinda like a Photoshop plugin for video, and probably something you could do through Final Cut Pro/Motion/Shake if you were prepared to go through the pain of learning these applications well. Zach Lieberman‘s Rotosketch makes it easy.

Rotosketch is quite simply an intuitive tool for sketching, doodling and notating on top of video,such that the marks that are made are linked in time with the video. This allows theuser to draw strokes along the the axis of time, as well as the normal x and y axes,and for those strokes to augment, analyze, interpret, or even obliterate a video sequence.

— thesystemis

Dancers as Living Archives


Dancers are the living archives of dance history. Long after they leave the stage, in their minds and muscles they hold the memory of form, rhythm, mood, and intent, constituting an irreplaceable resource for performers, historians, and frequently the choreographers themselves.

There are other ways of preserving the most ephemeral of the arts: film, video, various forms of notation; the visual record provided by painting, sculpture, and photography; sometimes written accounts. But whether a work’s vocabulary is the flexed feet and filigreed hand gestures of South Asian dance, the straight spines and pointed toes of classical ballet, the contracted pelvis and floorbound movement of traditional modern dance, or the arm-swinging walking and running of postmodernism, there is no more viable way to transmit it than dancer to dancer.

In Asia traditional dance has been handed down from generation to generationin some cases, like India’s Bharata Natyam, for thousands of years. Southern India’s classical dance contains a complex and codified vocabulary for seemingly every muscle in the body, including those of the face. All are pressed into service to tell seductive stories from the Hindu Ramayana and other epic tales. These dancers’ bodies convey not only high art, but cultural identity and religion.

Classical Cambodian dance, much of it an offshoot of Bharata Natyam, has a vocabulary refined over the centuries into more than 4,500 gestures and positions (far more than exist in European classical ballet), their subtleties passed down by the practitioners who became master teachers after they stopped performing. Khmer dance in particular symbolizes Cambodian culture, in the same way that the Venus de Milo symbolizes ancient Greece, or the waltz Vienna. It was very nearly obliterated in the mid-1970s, when the Khmer Rouge, with all due deliberation, ravaged traditional art and its practitioners, killing off 90 percent of the dancers and destroying the lavish costumes and many visual records, including the bas-relief dancing figures on the walls of Angkor Wat.

By killing off the dancers, the Khmer Rouge came within an inch of killing off the dance. “When it comes to passing the knowledge on to [others], Cambodian dance and music does not have the history of keeping paper documents,” Proueng Chhieng, one of the dancers who survived to become vice rector and dean of choreographic arts at Phnom Penh’s re-established Royal University of Fine Arts, said in 2001 when he was in the United States directing a tour of three generations of Cambodian dancers and musicians. “When the [dance] masters were executed by the Khmer Rouge, it was also the same as losing those documents because the dancers were the documents.”

Without Proueng and other survivors, many of whom went to the United States and Europe from refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border, a highly sophisticated form of dance would have been lost to the world. Reviewing the troupe’s Berkeley performance of a program aptly titled The Spirit of Cambodia, the critic Allan Ulrich described the reconstruction of the traditional “Robam Apsara:” “Seven women, swathed in jeweled fabrics and crowned with elaborate headdresses, glided barefoot across the stage, pausing to lift a leg, bend it and hold it in air for a small eternity. Carvings of temple dancers inspired the choreography, which sustains its celestial quality in a seamless line of movement; complete turns seem executed in a single phrase.”

At June’s Bournonville Festival in Copenhagen, the Royal Danish Ballet commemorated the 200th anniversary of the birth of August Bournonville with nine days of performances, lecture demonstrations, exhibits, and field trips focused on the great 19th-century choreographer’s life and work. The festival was unabashedly created to prove to the dance world, represented by 150 or so visiting foreign critics and historians, that Bournonville’s work is alive and well.

Bournonville was born in 1805 in Copenhagen and was himself a child of the ballet, succeeding his French-trained father as director of the Royal Danish Ballet in 1830. In the 47 years in which he was associated with the company as dancer, choreographer, and artistic director, he created a body of work that reflects the orderly, self-contained, and Lutheran society in which he lived, his European travels, Danish folk culture, and, perhaps most important, a language of mime and movement totally driven by music.

That language, marked by rapid, precise footwork, hovering jumps, generous port de bras (arm movement) that draws the viewer into its warm embrace, and mime that forwards the action without interrupting it, is difficult to put into words. Children, who have roles in nearly every extant Bournonville ballet, all of which were performed during the festival, start to learn it very young, not only in their classes but on stage, watching soloists and principal dancers.

Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter, the director of the ballet’s school, whose career began at age 4 when she danced in a production of Madame Butterfly, started teaching technique at 22. While the exercises and combinations of steps the children learn and practice in the studio are the platform for performance, what they learn on stage is what she feels is most important.

“That’s the best education they can have,” she said in an interview with the critic and historian Barbara Newman, published in Grace Under Pressure, Passing Dance Through Time (Proscenium Publishers, 2003), “to be on stage in a lot of performances. … They see all the Bournonville mime and they’re in the Bournonville Napoli, Conservatoire, La Sylphide. That’s the whole tradition, to learn it that way.”

The principal dancer Thomas Lund, who entered the school just under the wire at age 11, like all its pupils learned the Act III variations in Napoli as one of the children watching from the bridge across the back of the stage in the ballet’s exuberant finale. In class he acquired impeccable technique, which he performs with such ease that he was one of the dancers chosen to create a film record of the famous Bournonville Schools, issued on DVD during the festival. He was also recently named by British critics the greatest male dancer in the world.

The Schools, classes named for the days of the week and based on dancers’ memories of Bournonville’s teaching, were created by Hans Beck, who directed the company from 1894 to 1915. Watching a 45-minute sample of these classes each night before the performance, in which principal dancers and children from the school demonstrate the steps and combinations, was an eye-opening experience. Often in performance, one saw how a dancer like Lund combines a contemporary sensibility with 19th-century technique. In Napoli, as the young fisherman who thinks his lover has drowned in an ocean storm and is lost to him forever, his mime dialogue with the girl’s mother is hardly contemporary; but his abandoned run to follow the lover into the sea is worthy of a method actor taught to move by Martha Graham.

The Schools videos document Bournonville’s vocabulary, as well as the qualities of lightness, ease, and joy in the movement that are central to his approach. Another film project, the George Balanchine Foundation’s Interpreters Archive Project, records something rather different: the transmission of a role by its originator, the dancer for whom George Balanchine made it, to a dancer who is performing it today.

The project, along with one that reconstructs lost Balanchine choreography, is the dream child of the foundation’s director of research, the dance historian Nancy Reynolds, herself a former member of the New York City Ballet, who in 1994 financed the project with a legacy from her father. The first filming took place in 1995, and in the past 10 years, Todd Bolender, Frederic Franklin, Alicia Markova, Maria Tallchief, and Patricia Wilde, among others, have been filmed teaching in tremendous detail what they learned from Balanchine, a choreographer who spoke little and demonstrated a great deal. Each tape is longer than two hours, and includes the coaching process and an interview with the coach. To get the most out of it, “you have to look at the whole thing,” Reynolds says. “It’s a process, not a performance.”

The role of Phlegmatic in Balanchine’s 1946 nonnarrative ballet The Four Temperaments is a particularly mysterious one for dancers and viewers alike. The film of Bolender, artistic director emeritus of Kansas City Ballet, coaching New York City Ballet’s Albert Evans in the role makes the process, repetitive and slow as it is, downright gripping. It also provides something of an epiphany for the viewer. While Balanchine insisted that the four medieval temperaments, Melancholic, Sanguinic, Phlegmatic, and Choleric, are simply Paul Hindemith’s musical directions, a substitute for allegro or presto, Bolender’s verbal directions to Evans reveal something far deeper than that.

“It’s as if you are being pulled,” he says as Evans makes his first entrance. Bolender asks him to do it repeatedly. In another place, to more jagged, active, rhythms, Bolender directs Evans to make his torso and arms seem to fold in upon themselves, turning his feet inward and directing his eyes to the stage floor. “You are not dancing for the public,” Bolender tells him. “Focus on yourself and the people around you. This comes from the interior.” Over and over Evans, with immense concentration, relearns the role as it was originally created, finally satisfying Bolender, 83 in 1997 when the filming took place.

“Now make it your own,” Bolender tells him, no mean achievement for a dancer whose tall, long-limbed body is the antithesis of Bolender’s in 1946 — a compact, 5-foot-8-inch flexible powerhouse with modern training he believes influenced Balanchine’s selection of him for the role. Dancers achieve ownership of choreography with minute and subtle adjustments to the movement that might make it a better fit for their technique or their bodies, preserving the choreographer’s work not so much by rigorous attention to the letter of the steps but rather to their spirit.

It is that spirit that the older generation is so good at conveying to the next, and what makes the Balanchine Interpreters Archive so valuable. For, unlike the Royal Danish Ballet, where Bournonville’s work is preserved in performance by detailed coaching from generation to generation, at New York City Ballet such fine-tuning of the Balanchine repertoire no longer takes place. Balanchine, like Bournonville and Sir Frederick Ashton, was highly innovative in the way in which he used the ballet vocabulary, playing with tempos, combining steps in highly idiosyncratic fashion.

The New York City Ballet’s dancers are, let it be said, among the best in the world, but absent the choreographer, and the people who worked with him directly, much of the detail that makes Balanchine Balanchine is being lost. For example, the entrance for Phlegmatic, as Evans showed it to Bolender before starting the coaching process, is much faster than the way Balanchine created it. “You’re after a quality,” Bolender told the young dancer. “It starts very slow and starts to build.” In that particular case, Balanchine himself forgot the original choreography, and Bolender was abroad when Balanchine revived the ballet in the mid-60s. In other cases, such as Divertimento No. 15, a ballet as intricately patterned as Mozart’s score, Balanchine’s bending of some traditional steps in one of the pas de deux has been dropped. Recently Francia Russell, who danced in the ballet in the 50s, restored those changes when staging the work for Oregon Ballet Theatre.

That happens in modern and postmodern dance as well, particularly if choreographers aren’t careful about their legacies, as was the case with Martha Graham. When Graham, who founded her company in 1927, died in 1991 at the age of 96, she willed everything — her 181 works, costumes, sets designed by Isamu Noguchi — to Ronald Protas, a photographer who was associate director of the company at the time of her death. Graham was grateful, as she should have been, to Protas, who rescued her and the company in the 70s, when, no longer able to dance, she became ill and alcoholic, stopped making new work, and neglected the existing repertoire. She recovered, made the charming Maple Leaf Rag and a version of Rite of Spring, and the company was literally back on its feet.

After her death, however, the company faltered both financially and artistically. On a national tour in early spring of 2000, the dancing looked mechanical, routine, with little of the blood-and-guts passion that are the hallmarks of dramatic roles such as Ariadne’s in Errand Into the Maze. Acute financial difficulties aborted the tour, the town house on New York’s Upper East Side that had housed the school was sold, and company operations were suspended. In May the board of directors and Protas parted. By January 2001, the board had raised enough money to reopen the school; Protas sued for infringement of trademark, and lost on the grounds that Graham’s work actually belonged to the institution she had created and that her intention was for her work to be continued.

In the intervening years, the artistic directorship of the company has seesawed back and forth between Janet Eilber, and Christine Dakin and Terese Capucilli, all of whom had worked directly with Graham as dancers, performing many of her own roles. In 2004 the company, directed by Dakin and Capucilli, toured nationally, dancing such masterpieces as Appalachian Spring and Cave of the Heart, with most, if not all, the choreographer’s spirit restored. Without Graham’s dancers, works that are as much America’s national treasure as Khmer dances are Cambodia’s, were nearly relegated to some wobbly films — and very few of those.

It was a 1978 film of Yvonne Rainer performing her 1966 choreography for Trio A, also titled The Mind Is a Muscle, that made the avant-garde dance maker think about a different kind of preservation of the work. It “reveals someone who can’t straighten her legs, can’t plié ‘properly’ and can’t achieve the ‘original’ elongation and vigor in her jumps, arabesques (yes, Trio A contains three arabesques!) and shifts of weight,” she wrote. People who learn the work from that video, she said, are not learning it correctly. “Because of the camera’s fixed position and its tendency to foreshorten, the video and film of the dance lack the precision that live teaching can impart and reveal only the merest indications of patterns and directions.”

Rainer was pleased to have the work notated, but she also has taught it to the New York dancer Pat Catterson, who in turn taught it to San Francisco’s Shelley Senter and Portland’s Linda K. Johnson, who are now the only authorized transmitters of the dance. For Rainer, now in her early 70s and a distinguished professor of the arts at the University of California at Irvine, there is no substitute for a living, breathing, moving dancer. All have been taught in precise detail Rainer’s every nuance, every accent, every lift or lowering of an eyebrow, the process filmed in much the same way as the Interpreters Archive.

Balanchine used to say ballets are butterflies and changed his all the time, making them extremely difficult to preserve in their original state. Nevertheless, he created a network of ballet masters to stage them all over the world, telling each of them, “some day you will be the only one who remembers.” He meant, of course, very specific choreography as danced by the originator of a role, like Bolender’s Phlegmatic. Like a letter from a poet to her editor, or Leonardo’s sketches, the dancer is the document and an invaluable repository of the art.

Martha Ullman West is a dance writer in Portland, Ore., and a senior advisory editor at Dance magazine.