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Dance in 2-D.

Three into two won,t go -- at least not neatly. That mathematical lesson seems to be a hard one for dance to master. A video of a dance cannot in two dimensions do anything like true justice to something that was -- with very few exceptions, I suppose, such as perhaps Nijinsky's L'Apres-midi d'un Faune -- envisaged as being seen in three. It is tantamount to taking a photograph of a sculpture and imagining that you have captured its essential form. You have not and cannot.

This is the basic fallacy of dance video. It is curious that the same people who would be horrified at the very idea of putting a camera in front of a play, turning the handle, as it were, and imagining that they had produced a fully realized movie, have far less compunction in doing virtually the same thing with dance.

Yet most of the dance we see on video is a slightly sophisticated version of that camera in ftont of the stage-picture concept. Now, of course, television programs such as Live from Lincoln Center, or, for that matter, similar shows originating from Covent Garden, do a great deal more than merely placing their camera stage center and hoping for the best. Whether some of the filmmakers realize it nowadays, they are using a technique ofiginally developed by Paul Czinner in 1956 for his live "recording", of Galina Ulanova and the Bolshoi Ballet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Czinner, for the first time, recognized the power of ranging a number of cameras, variously deployed around the auditorium, and largely by the use of interplayed long shots and close-ups from various angles, presenting a mosaic of a performance that had rhythm and even a validity of its own, apart from the stage show that it was recording and commemorating. In recent years, this basic technique has been vastly amplified by the methods and skills originally developed for capturing sports events on camera, giving those events their own excitement and -- whisper it softly -- even beauty.

For people who cannot get to see ballet at its great centers. these pseudorecordings can offer a credible taste of the real thing, and for those who wish to be reminded of how this ballerina danced that role, or the shape and something of the form of a well-loved ballet, they can function as potent memory aids. That old video, for example, of Fonteyn and Somes in Frederick Ashton's Ondine is horribly imperfect, and I would advise anyone unfamiliar with the original stage production against making any judgment based on it. Yet for people such as myself who can recall that original, having seen it many times, even this truncated folly recalls the flavor and even the steps of the ballet itself.

And how about those people, the countless millions, who never saw Ashton's Ondine, alive and fugitive, on the stage? It is difficult to say how much, but they too will get something from the video. Actually the videography -- is there such a word? if not I fear that there soon will be -- of Fonteyn is not particularly impressive. Yet I recall that the only idea I have of one of her twentieth-century predecessors, Anna Pavlova, is derived from those semiamateur silent movies of her, some taken, I think, by Douglas Fairbanks Sr., which later had a piano sound track added. Similarly, I never saw Olga Spessivtseva dance, yet I got some idea of her Giselle from an ancient, scratchy video of her, taken from the Camargo Society production in June 1932 of Giselle with Anton Dolin as Albrecht, Ninette de Valois as Berthe, and Ashton as an unlikely Hilarion.

Now I submit that we are not talking about ballet films here. Ballet films, when and if they emerge in any quantity, will involve the complete collaboration between the choreographer and the camera, the production of choreography specifically designed to be seen in cinematic conditions, and works that take advantage of the cinema as a medium. Oddly enough -- awful as it was -- one of the most effective pieces of cinedance remains Robert Helpmann's main ballet in the Powell-Pressburger 1948 classic, The Red Shoes.

So, let us at this point forget dance video as an art, and return to it as a substitute pleasure and, this is becoming increasingly important, a valuable resource for scholars and researchers on the one hand and for ballet masters and repetiteurs on the other. Note it is only a resource -- an aide-memoire to notation, or, better yet, notation backed by the personal experiences. the "musical body-memory," if you like, of dancers and producers who know the work onstage. We have two methods of notation -- Labanotation and Benesh notation -- and both have their virtues and advocates, and personally I am unable to assess their relative values. I have seen both in action, however, and I know that both can work and, helped by video, memory, and experience, work very accurately.

I am perhaps a little disturbed by the emphasis being placed nowadays on video as the major method of dance preservation -- remember, three into two still won't go -- and research money is being plowed into the glamorous, trendy, and easier processes of video; whereas less seems to be going into notation research, which seems far more necessary. For example, the Pew Charitable Trusts have just awarded $3.9 million over four years for a scheme called "Save as: Dance," which seems concentrated entirely on various video techniques. This is admirable, but video will never be the real answer to dance documentation any more than sound recordings could be the answer to music documentation. Notation -- difficult as it is -- is the only proper method to preserve dance, apart perhaps from musical body-memory, which itself is sadly subjective.

Video dance is a wonderful instrument -- as Nonesuch's recent Balanchine videos are showing -- for helping preserve the performing traditions of a work, the nuances of interpretation, and even the methodology of execution. And video dance can be fun for audiences, while also a marvelous reminder of the past. We have no idea -- except from, say, the writings of Gautier -- of how Grisi danced, or Taglioni, or, for that matter, Vestris. From about the middle of the present century we have video recordings (some better than others, some deteriorated and in need of preservation -- and, happily, some of the Pew money is set aside for that purpose) of all the great dancers in many of their best roles. This is as good as having recordings of Callas and Sutherland for opera buffs -- well, almost.

But don't let's get carried away in a basket over this. I have seen ballets accurately reproduced by notation by people totally unfamiliar with the original. I have yet to hear of a similar feat achieved by simply using video recordings. Do not let us use money for video that would be better used on improving and disseminating notation.
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Title Annotation:video tapes are inadequate for recording choreography
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:May 1, 1997
Previous Article:Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
Next Article:Seventy.

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