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Original intentions. (Kickoff).

DO AS I SAY," ONE OF MY TEACHERS IN A SMALL SOUTHERN HIGH SCHOOL USED TO ADMONISH US, "NOT AS I DO." THE PARADOXICAL COMMAND NOT ONLY AMUSED US BUT PROBABLY HELPED PREPARE US FOR a world of contradictions that would require both wisdom and accommodation. How often would we encounter that sharp-horned dilemma in which we might say one thing and find ourselves doing another! Perhaps all of us have benefited from this kind of contradiction--choreographers, for example, ordering movement one way to find that it works better another. But for most of us there are also limits beyond which we won't gracefully go: It sometimes takes a great deal of courage to stick by our original intentions.

I was reminded recently of that need to draw a line by a program note. This had been written by the choreographer David Rousseve for his dance work Somethin' From Nothin' (1999), which was being performed by Tina Ramirez's Ballet Hispanico at New York's Joyce Theater just before Christmas. The note was unusual for several reasons.

The first scene introduces the hostess of a Latin social club listening to an answering machine. The babbling taped voices of men and women are neither clear nor compelling, but relationships are hinted at that make up the loose narrative core of a salsa-driven, jazz-infused ballet set in the present time. Ramirez had added this first scene with the answering machine in order to, as she told me, "bring it up to date." Rousseve's work originally incorporated a historical recorded narrative of a former American slave. And Rousseve, a respected choreographer whose works have an avid following, would have none of the change. Thus, the following program note: "The opening scene of Somethin' From Nothin' is not the work's original beginning and was not staged or written by the choreographer. As such, the piece no longer reflects the choreographer's original intention."

It all seems to have been done very amiably; Rousseve has worked successfully for Ramirez in the past and will no doubt continue to do so. But I had never seen such a disclaimer in a program and was curious to probe a little deeper. The only addition that she made to Rousseve's work, Ramirez told me, was that first scene. "I wouldn't dare touch David's choreography," she explained. "Not one step!"

I was still unsatisfied. Had the sequence been so altered by Ramirez's new beginning that the work became unrecognizable to the choreographer?

AT WHAT POINT DOES A WORK THAT is performed out of the original context no longer reflect the choreographer's intentions? Can any performance be close enough to the original--whether that was done ninety years ago or just last evening--that it fits neatly into the original intentions?

The same dance works are performed by different companies, with varying results. By sending his ballets out to the world to be performed by any company deemed qualified, George Balanchine secured (at least for now) his place in ballet's ongoing active repertoire. A few seasons ago, I was told, more than sixty productions of Balanchine ballets were on the boards somewhere around the world, making the name Balanchine almost a household word. Were his conceptions being served with every different production? We know that today's dancers of Balanchine are very different from those in the 1920s or 1950s or even 1980s. There is sometimes a vast difference in Balanchine works as presented in any one season by New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Houston Ballet, and San Francisco Ballet. How close are each of these productions to the originals? And is doing the ballets as close as possible to the originals always a good thing?

There has been, unfortunately, an expensive and sometimes rabid haggling in court over the Martha Graham legacy during the past few years. (I stand by what I have written in this column--to preserve and perform as much of Graham's legacy as possible.) Who is going to dance her works? Who is going to teach them? And who is going to make sure her intentions are respected? Like many great innovators, Graham has launched a thousand imitators; a few have found their own ways into something that is new and good, sometimes great. But are these the best people to be preserving Graham? With exceptions, there are very few modern dance companies capable of or even willing to take on the Graham repertoire. When the best opportunities are presented by, in fact, not modern companies but ballet companies (and they are at this time), then quite naturally the issue rears up like an enraged mother tiger. Have Graham's works been compromised? There are those who believe that they have.

A SWAN LAKE SET IN A SPACESHIP or Giselle in an insane asylum, a Nutcracker that becomes a psychosexual history of a young woman's physical maturation or a Don Quixote set in Spanish Harlem slums--when do we go outside the choreographer's original conception? When do we take the name of that original creative genius off the program credits and add, instead, our own?

There is no clear answer to this emotional question. I am reminded of a story about Agnes de Mille, who made her way in the male-dominated world of choreographers during the first half of the twentieth century. She was known to borrow steps from her dancers and other choreographers. My sources for this information are two of the dancers in the original Oklahoma! (1943). During the early rehearsal stages, they said, de Mille would ask her team of dancers for ideas. Before the show's opening, she would fire the original group, hire new dancers, prepare them, and go on. The end result was: Choreography by Agnes de Mille.

You may wonder, after that show has been reworked so many times, just what the original intentions may have been. But whose intentions? And how original?

Richard Philp has written a column called Kickoff for thirteen years. He has been an editor with Dance Magazine since 1970, was editor in chief for many years, and is known for his strong support of the arts.
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Title Annotation:choreographic intention and interpretive performances
Author:Philp, Richard
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2002
Previous Article:Flying in the face of fear. (Starting Here).
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