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My favorite quotation on choreography comes from the late David Lichine, the choreographer of, among many other ballets, Graduation Ball. Years ago Lichine suggested that "choreography was moisture in the mouth of an orator." I forget the actual context of the remark, but the image itself, with its strange sense of art and evanescence, has never left me. Choreography is an art that exists in space and time, but the time itself is fleeting; it unreels with the dance, spooling forward but never back. To some extent this is true of any performing art--that very unreeling is the actual performance. But with music, say, or even drama, the residual record can be pretty much permanent. We have scores, we have printed plays, and with movies we can actually rewind and precisely replay again and again that living moment.

Dance, however, is altogether a trickier proposition. Of course, for many years no one seemed to think that choreography was really worth preserving. The music of the ballet was there, safe and, I suppose one might say, sound, but dances to that music were often regarded as a useful adjunct, rather as the mise-en-scene of an opera, and the choreographer and opera director had roles that many--including most composers--thought entirely comparable.

Some ballets, notably Giselle, did have a long performing tradition with certain choreographic sequences passed from foot to foot by dance generations. Yet it was not until the advent of Michel Fokine that choreographers actually expected to be dealt with on the level of prime creative artists rather than as merely supervisory interpretative artists. Fokine's memoirs are full of complaints about productions of his work that betray the original choreography.

The twentieth century became a world of records, a world where historical authenticity was not only admired but found interesting, even rewarding. In dance this entailed renewed efforts to find some kind of universal dance notation. The Stepanov system, primitive but obviously to some degree effective, had already entered into sporadic use in Russia toward the end of the nineteenth century, and one of the great moves in twentieth-century dance was the development of dance notation. Today the two systems in general use--Labanotation and Benesh Dance Notation--are often supplemented by videos.

New kinds of dance professionals such as notators, regisseurs, and videographers soon arose to meet the demand for brand-name ballets staged in a satisfactory manner. But what about choreography that has apparently been irretrievably lost? Can it be revived, can it be--for the process is hardly anything less--resurrected from the dead? And if so, how?

Well, it is evident that nothing we actually know about has completely disappeared from the face of the earth. There is always some kind of paper trail, some agglomeration of artifacts, that will lead to relics of the past. There will probably be the music score; there may be original designs; there could be accounts of the creators and original dancers; there might be living memories; and there will almost certainly be newspaper reviews, drawings, photographs and the like. In a word, there will be documentation, even if, as in the case of Vaslav Nijinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, there were few performances, few eyewitnesses, and no notation.

From such documentation a number of dance scholars, notably an enterprising couple, Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, have actually initiated a new kind of dance revival--call it dance resurrection, if you like. By carefully gathering together every single known fact and artifact regarding a lost ballet, they try to reconstruct the original. No one suggests that it is an exact facsimile--but many hold that it is a lively enough representation to serve.

Works that Hodson and Archer have attempted to bring to life include Nijinsky's Sacre and Jeux, George Balanchine's Cotillon (their most successful effort so far), and a number of works from the repertory of the legendary Ballets Suedois (1920-25), directed by the wealthy Rolf de Mare, with choreography by Jean Borlin. Ballets Suedois's repertory was displayed recently at Washington's Kennedy Center by the Royal Swedish Ballet in its first visit to the United States since 1975. We were invited to time travel to Paris, where, with its pristine passion for twentieth-century modernism, Les Ballets Suedois had created a stir to rival that of Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, on which the new company was partially modeled.

Over the course of five years, de Mare and Borlin built a company of mythic fame, using Swedish and Danish dancers and some of the most promising of Paris's young artists--poets such as Jean Cocteau, painters including Fernand Leger and Giorgio di Chirico, and composers from Les Six, such as Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honegger. Unhappily, nothing survives but the music, designs, and documentation. The choreography--the basic dance material --remains a matter for scholarly conjecture. Les Ballets Suedois had nothing officially to do with the Royal Swedish Ballet--apart from stealing many of its best dancers--but it has Become the iconic legend of Swedish dance's finest hour. So, bending to history, the Royal Swedish Ballet invited Hodson and Archer, as well as the venerable Swedish choreographer Ivo Cramer, to recreate a typical Ballets Suedois program.

The experiment was interesting--and visually, even musically, thrilling. The Leger sets and costumes for Borlin's Skating Rink were fantastic, extraordinary. And there was Within the Quota, which had the added fascination of Cole Porter's only ballet score (1923), previously staged in America as Times Past by Keith Lee, with its original Gerald Murphy decor, for American Ballet Theatre in 1970. The program, beautifully danced throughout, was completed by Dervishes (1920) and Cramer's personal realization of El Greco (1920). Although these resuscitations were pious, painstaking, and scenically gorgeous--like that Sacre and even Cotillon--they always added up to a mere museum visit, never to a dance experience.

The missing element here was Borlin's original expressionist choreography which--without proper notation or video aids--can only be guessed at. The guess is doubtless intelligent, but it lacks the thrust and kinetic sweep of creative dance and emerges, like connected dots or a painting by the numbers, as only moving, freeze-framed concepts of what could have been. Dead ducks do not fly although their dissection may be of interest to biologists.

Senior editor Clive Barnes has contributed to Dance Magazine since 1956.
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Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Aug 1, 1999
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