Hera help us…

10 Aug

So I read Ismene Brown’s article at The Arts Desk that discusses what is to be done with dances after a dancemaker dies, a topic that is relevant now more than ever with the passing of Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch last year.  It’s also a topic that for no logical reason has been the cause of me losing sleep for the past week and Brown’s article has clarified some things in my mind so the timing’s right to write.  Now or never, go big or go home.

I have to start by saying I have no idea what either company should do.  I liken it to ancient civilizations like Greece and Egypt…all great things must come to an end.  However, even though modern studies of such civilizations are a conglomeration of facts and theories, the important thing is how they continue to fascinate people.  Authenticity isn’t necessarily important; in fact, the mystery adds a certain allure that continually fuels the study of them.  I want to believe Cunningham understood this, which is why he was at peace with having his company come to an end.  He knew the art is grounded in the ephemeral and that his dances are lived.  It’s like treating each dance itself as a living being; a spirit that is born when an audience sees dancers moving on a stage.  In this sense, I find dance quite religious—it is entirely dependant on living people.  Just as people live and die, so does dance and while it saddens me to think that dances are always being lost I almost take comfort in the fact that it is.  I remember reading about some nutty choreographer that wants all documentation of his dances burned and destroyed after he dies (which I find silly and a little stupid) and while that is much too extreme there’s something to be said for being able to easily separate ourselves from dance and inevitably this world.

I should actually hit the ball out of the park and just say dance IS religious.  Choreographers, performers and the “living dance spirit thingies” become our gods and goddesses, with each of us having our own wonderfully unique pantheon (a prize for anyone who can name five of mine.  To the victor go the spoils!).  In addition to worship of our idols there is disciplined practice of the art in the studios.  These are reasons why filmed performances are so critical; while we can never truly capture the magic of a live performance, dances on DVD and yes, even on something as mundane as YouTube allow for audiences to form a relationship with a particular piece by repeatedly seeing them.  Most of the time, you can’t truly fall in love with someone just by meeting them once and it’s the same with dances.  Even if there is an initial lust, ideally a dance is revisited to understand it more each time.  It really is just like filming people—like watching a video of a birthday party when you were five or something embarrassingly horrifying from high school.  You watch not to recreate the moment but to remind yourself of it and feel that connection with the people in the video or in the case of dance, a particular deity.  Video makes dance ever so slightly more tangible but not concrete.

It’s easier for ballet, which to me is like an ancient civilization with artifacts, monuments, etc. and to be more precise, an ancient civilization with written word, which makes the interpretation of its relics and educated conjecture possible.  It has a structure and systematic order for teaching newer generations.  Meanwhile, I liken modern dance to smaller, native tribes with oral traditions.  Oral tradition makes the passing of stories through generations a bit more precarious but it allows for change and more importantly, imagination.  I think Bausch and Cunningham’s dances have made their mark in history and have good documentation with many performances readily available on film and while that may not be enough to easily restage a certain piece, I’m less troubled by either choreographer’s dances being “lost” because audiences of these dances have to rely on memories of what the dance was like, filling in the blanks with their imaginations and thus nurturing creativity.  I myself went to see the Cunningham Company’s Legacy tour (link for my review), and while I can’t remember exact movements to exact music like I can in ballet, I can vividly remember the style, the colors and effects and imagine for myself what the choreography looked like.  Thus, while it doesn’t have to be specific to a certain genre of dance, I often see classical ballets as immortalized and modern dances as reincarnated.

In terms of preserving modern works I hate to oversimplify and say that modern dance companies should just “try and see how it goes” but that’s often the foundation of the work that goes on in studios so I don’t necessarily see a problem with that approach.  I tend to believe that things that will have a profound influence on history will find its own way to achieve that so while I’m saddened by the idea of certain modern repertory “passing on,” I don’t believe Cunningham or Bausch’s influence will just vanish off the face of the Earth.  I just hate how the whole idea of dance conservation and guardianship is muddled by copyright laws and crap.  It’s counterproductive because the sense of freedom that should come with being an artist is so heavily monitored…but I digress.  It’s hard for me to complain rationally about something I really don’t understand.

At any rate, I have to disagree with Brown who concludes that nobody will want to support an art that “abstains from saving itself.”  For some of those dances, preservation would end up being like those people who obsessively get cosmetic surgery in order to “maintain” their “youth” (end result? Not pretty).  I often find modern choreographers to be quite grassroots in that they build in small communities and eventually those with voices big enough will be heard.  Maybe I’m sickeningly optimistic, but I think it’s just a matter of time.  After all, gods and goddesses aren’t so easily replaced.

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2 Responses to “Hera help us…”

  1. sionan August 24, 2010 at 11:48 am #

    Thanks to the Ballet Bag ladies for turning me on to your delightful blog..

    • youdancefunny September 15, 2010 at 10:05 pm #

      Thank you for your comment! I hope you’re enjoying reading. 🙂

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