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Capturing the Dance.

Inthe ongoing struggle to preserve the choreography and interpretive nuances of ballets past and present, significant inroads have been made.

Dance exists at a perpetual vanishing point." So observed critic Marcia Siegel in her 1973 collection of reviews, At the Vanishing Point. She described a dance performance as "an event that disappears in the very act of materializing." In the three decades since that publication, technology, scholarship, the initiative of concerned individuals, and the advent of heritage organizations have made great strides in the rescue of an artistic activity that self-destructs on completion.

Motion pictures and the more recently developed video technologies have become the most viable means for preserving performances. Early in the twentieth century, the art of Anna Pavlova was captured in primitive film clips and a full-length silent film she made in Hollywood. A fragment of a performance, allegedly by Isadora Duncan, exists for archival study. American pioneers Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Jose Lim-n may be seen today in early films. Amateur filmmakers were the primary source of these early records; during the years of the touring Ballets Russes companies, a remarkable treasure trove of performances was shot by two Australian physicians in Melbourne and Sydney, and in Los Angeles by a persistent balletomane named Victor Jessen. In Chicago, critic Ann Barzel stood in the wings at the Lyric Theatre and over the years amassed a library of unique shots of dance artists from the major companies that visited her city.

In more recent times, commercial film and television have captured the artistry of contemporary dancers. The Red Shoes, a 1948 British motion picture, documents the dancing of two of the most revered performers of the era: Leonide Massine and Robert Helpmann. The Turning Point (1977), an American film directed by former dancer/choreographer Herbert Ross, offers in vignettes the artistry of many of the ballet performers active in the theater at that time. It also provides viewers with an ample display of Mikhail Baryshnikov's dancing at the start of his career in the United States. His earlier years in Russia are well documented in programs made for Soviet television.

Baryshnikov and fellow Russian defector Rudolf Nureyev are generously represented in commercial films and television performances. So are such artists as Margot Fonteyn, Galina Ulanova, and Alicia Alonso. In the field of popular American dance, we have access to a number of films, now available on video, that represent the full screen careers of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Eleanor Powell. Libraries devoted to the dance arts maintain thousands of visual records covering all types of dance, from ethnic and folk performances through contemporary, popular, and classical forms.

Saving the Steps

From the earliest times, dances practiced in a community have been personally transmitted to each new generation by demonstration and participation. During the Renaissance, when dancing became an integral part of court entertainment, dancing masters, hired to teach the steps of a dance to the court, began devising systematic methods for preserving choreography. The earliest forms, initiated in Spain in the late fifteenth century, involved a letter code in which the first letter of each position of the body was aligned with the corresponding note on the musical staff. In the next three centuries more sophisticated diagrammatic records of dances were made, using various shorthand methods to convey movement and direction. Floor plans and stick figures were employed by some to represent groupings and ensembles. Surviving examples of these early methods of notation are used today by the many groups in America dedicated to the performance of Baroque and Renaissance dances.

As dancing moved from the royal courts to the public theaters, choreographers such as Arthur Saint-Leon (1821--1870) developed intricate diagrammatic schemes of dance notation, and in recent years some of his dances have been restored on the basis of his invention. Twentieth-century choreographers such as Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Leonide Massine developed personal means for recording the dances they created, but in most instances the symbolism used was a personal one, a memory jog that remained unintelligible to anyone but the creator.

The glorious Russian ballets of the late nineteenth century that became essential works in the repertories of ballet companies all over the world have survived largely through the effort of Vladimir Ivanovich Stepanov (1866--1896). An anatomy student who devised a system of dance-movement notation based on principles of musical notation, he served the Imperial Academy of Ballet in St. Petersburg. His tragic death at age thirty deprived the Russian ballet of an ongoing record of its dance creations, but in his short lifetime Stepanov made detailed notations of the classics that had their debut in St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theatre. His scripts for twenty-one works were taken to the West by Maryinsky director Nicholas Sergeyev after the October Revolution. Some of these offered only sketchy details, but the majority were complete. They provided the source for restorations of such ballets as The Sleeping Beauty for the Diaghilev Ballets Russes in 1921 and for productions of Swan Lake, Giselle, Nutcracker, and Coppelia. The original notation documents became the matrix for all later productions. The original scripts are currently housed in the Harvard Library, where they have been consulted widely by choreographers, including those of the Maryinsky Theatre, for recent projects restoring the ballets of the 1900s in authentic productions.

Two trailblazers who developed systematic methods for notating dance in the twentieth century were Rudolf von Laban and Rudolf Benesh. Laban (1879--1958), a Hungarian-born dancer and theorist, staged large productions of "movement choirs" in Germany between the wars and was responsible for a system of codifying the dynamics and expressiveness of the human body. In his elaborate scheme of notation, the basic spatial elements of movement are pictorially represented by symbols placed on a vertical staff representing the body. Position and movement of head, torso, arms, hands, legs, and feet can be recorded with precise detail, and the duration of movement is depicted through the length of the symbols. Benesh (1916--1975), an Englishman, developed a highly abstract stick figure system, and in collaboration with his wife, Joan, published An Introduction to Benesh Dance Notation in 1956. Working with Great Britain's Royal Ballet, Benesh offered the company an ongoing means for recording and documenting its ballet productions. A choreologist is now a permanent employee of the Royal, where newly acquired ballets are notated as created and older ones are preserved in the archives for study and potential revivals. Both methods are used all over the world, but American performance factions tend to prefer the Laban approach.

Labanotation has proved invaluable in the staging of dances and full ballets, but critics of the system point out that the emotional content of a dance cannot be recorded and that issues relative to interpretation are impossible to state in a diagram. The personal transmission of a dance experience from a veteran exponent to a novice is still the best way to convey the nuances of a dance. One significant project being funded in America is the preservation of many of the ballets of George Balanchine by the foundation bearing his name. Launched by the former New York City Ballet dancer Nancy Reynolds, the organization sponsors an ongoing presentation of coaching and videotaping sessions in which retired Balanchine dancers pass on to young artists their unique experiences as creators of ballet roles taught to them by the choreographer. The transaction is videotaped, and copies are stored in 43 archival venues in 11 countries. In the United States, libraries serving 23 communities have extensive holdings of dance materials and offer access to these tapes to local dancers and dance scholars.

The earliest performance to be thus preserved is one by the English ballerina Alicia Markova (b. 1910), who agreed to re-create her principal solo from Balanchine's 1925 ballet, Le Chant du rossignol, which she first performed at the age of fifteen in the Diaghilev Ballets Russes. For the tape, the intricate dance was taught to a Royal Ballet School student, and the performance, along with demonstrations of two other excerpts from the ballet and a commentary on the genesis of its creation, was filmed in 1995. The program runs 116 minutes and provides a vital insight into the work of the young Balanchine, this piece being the first he was commissioned to create for the Russian touring company.

By March 2000, the George Balanchine Foundation had sponsored the creation of twenty-one tapes. Most of the demonstrations have been conducted by dancers associated with Balanchine during his years in America--as a choreographer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and later during his tenure as artistic director of the Ballet Society and New York City Ballet. Frederic Franklin (b. 1914) called upon his remarkable memory to re-create solos and duets from ballets introduced during the 1940s when he served as principal dancer and later ballet master of the Ballet Russe. In the case of the 1946 production of Raymonda, Franklin re-created not only the five female solos from the original American production but introduced as well the versions that Balanchine created in three subsequent productions made of excerpts from the three-act ballet.

The legendary Alicia Alonso and Maria Tallchief have assisted in the project, offering definitive information on the major ballets in which they performed at the premieres. Later Balanchine muses--Allegra Kent, Melissa Hayden, Marie Jeanne, and Patricia Wilde--have helped preserve the nuances of their interpretations in a number of the master's works.

The foundation maintains two wings: an Archive of Lost Choreography and an Interpreter's Archive. In some cases there is a noticeable overlap, particularly in the Markova contribution, which restores from memory a dance that had not been performed for seventy years. Markova's offering was particularly significant for a project to reconstruct Le Chant du rossignol undertaken by the American ballet historian Millicent Hodson.


Hodson, who holds a doctorate in the history of dance, became fascinated with the ballets of Nijinsky during her years as an undergraduate at the University of California. Nijinsky (1889--1950), best known for his spectacular dancing in the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, created four controversial works of choreography between 1912 and 1916. Only one of them--L'apres-midi d'un faune (1912)--has survived intact through transmission from one generation to the next. Hodson was intrigued by his second ballet, Le Sacre du printemps, which had a scandalous premiere in Paris in 1913 and was performed only seven times before it vanished from the repertoire. While literally dozens of original ballets have been devised over the years to Stravinsky's orchestral score, the original work, with its celebration of primitivism, has long been lost.

Hodson spent ten years researching the ballet, examining all available sources, including firsthand accounts by original participants, press and critical responses, a significant sample of pictorial materials, and annotations on the original orchestra scores. Her husband, Kenneth Archer, a scholar of the Russian mystical painter Nicholas Roerich (who designed the original decor for the ballet), conducted the project of re-creating the visual experience. Together they offered a premiere of a remarkable reconstruction of Le Sacre in Los Angeles in 1988, performed by dancers of the Joffrey Ballet.

In subsequent years Hodson designed versions of Nijinsky's Till Eulenspiegel and Jeux, three lost ballets of George Balanchine, and a sampling of the productions of Jean Borlin, made in the 1920s for the short-lived Swedish Ballet. When resurrecting Balanchine's Cotillon (1932), she had the advantage of consulting with a number of dancers who had performed in the ballet during the twelve years it was regularly performed by the Original Ballet Russe. She also studied some substantial films of the action. The other reconstructions required a good deal of scholarly speculation and perhaps many guesses.

In the United States, two organizations currently function to encourage the perpetuation of dance resources. The Dance Heritage Coalition is an umbrella society that offers guidance and assistance in documentation of dance history in general. The National Initiative to Preserve American Dance provides access to a huge network of dance factions in the United States, offering assistance in such matters as maintaining local collections and funding of worthy projects undertaken by individuals in the field. In Canada, the newly formed Dance Heritage Committee of the Canada Council for the Arts is promoting awareness among the nation's creative and interpretive talents to start early in documenting their activities and works. Of all theater artists, dancers and choreographers are the least likely to contemplate the simple truth that their work is part of a larger history. These and other organizations throughout the world help ensure that dance's fleeting beauty is preserved for future generations.n

Leland Windreich, currently based in Vancouver, British Columbia , is a dance writer, critic, and historian.
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Title Annotation:preserving choreography
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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