Arts - Winter 2018

Step by Step

Keeping the work of legendary choreographers alive depends on a cadre of experts

By Julia Lichtblau | December 4, 2017
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Sounddance in 2011, the year the company closed and two years after the choreographer’s death. (Stephanie Berger)
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Sounddance in 2011, the year the company closed and two years after the choreographer’s death. (Stephanie Berger)

On a late June afternoon, a small, eager crowd gathered at the New York City Center for a workshop reconstruction of choreographer Merce Cunningham’s 1975 work Sounddance. A short, dark-haired man entered the room, spinning toward the audience, with David Tudor’s recorded electronic score sounding variously like midtown traffic, dental drilling, and an MRI machine. In a theater, dancers make their entrances and exits from the wings. In the studio, they pretend. The rest of the dancers entered, grouping and regrouping in couples, trios, larger clusters. The performance was full of funny footwork, hip bumps, cocked heads. One dancer left, and eventually they all did, the first man out the last to leave. Like all of Cunningham’s works, Sounddance is abstract, but fresh, full of feeling, revealing new ideas with each viewing. Both the audience and the dancers seemed to relish the occasion. After all, performances of Cunningham’s works, though not exactly rare, have become less frequent since his death in 2009 and the closure of his company two years later.

Cunningham was one of an extraordinary generation of 20th-century American choreographers including George Balanchine, Martha Graham, José Limón, Alvin Ailey, Jerome Robbins, and Paul Taylor. (Only Taylor, 87, survives of that cohort. Murray Louis, an important midcentury choreographer, died in February 2016, and postmodernist Trisha Brown died in March 2017.) Collectively, they’ve left massive bodies of work. Balanchine made 425 dance works, roughly 200 of them ballets. Cunningham created around 200, Graham 181. Yet of all the modes of art, dances are the most vulnerable to neglect. Few have mass-market value. Films notwithstanding, a dance exists primarily in performance. There is no universal notation system comparable to music. So living choreographers rely on notes, videos, and dancers’ memories. It’s hard to imagine a dance world without Cunningham or Balanchine dances, yet once the choreographers and those who studied with them are gone, who keeps their work alive? Even seminal 20th-century choreographers rarely have more than one or two of their dances performed. By comparison, consider how many painters, writers, and composers dating back centuries remain part of our cultural conversation.

If any choreographer’s work survives 100 years from now, it will be Balanchine’s. His dances remain part of the core repertoire of his New York City Ballet and are seen worldwide. Yet of his 200 ballets, only about 75 are actively performed. Cunningham’s company danced only his own compositions. After deliberations that began in 2007, Cunningham concurred that without new work, audiences and funding would dwindle. The Merce Cunningham Trust, created in 2000, became instrumental in the plan to manage his legacy. Experts curated notes, videos, music, photos, décor, and performance histories for 86 dances, archiving all of this in a series of online Dance Capsules. Scholar-in-residence Nancy Dalva shot 322 camera hours of Cunningham’s last year and a half in the studio, from which she produced an interview series called “Mondays with Merce.” The result is something of a natural experiment in dance preservation.

What does it take to keep an artist of Cunningham’s magnitude in the public eye without a company? The Sounddance workshop, and others like it, are dry runs for stagers to work out the kinks. Meg Harper, who performed in the original cast of Sounddance, collaborated with Jean Freebury, who danced in its 1994 revival and who will be staging the work with Juilliard School students in 2018. Relying on two films of Sounddance performances, Harper, Freebury, and the dancers worked for three weeks, three to four hours a day, five days a week, not including the class in Cunningham technique that preceded each rehearsal. Teaching parts from an iPad isn’t easy, however. For one thing, a recording preserves what the audience sees—a mirror image of the actual steps, which have to be transposed to the opposite side. Also, recordings immortalize mistakes, which only someone with knowledge of the dance can correct. At one point in the rehearsals, Harper, watching her younger self on video, said, “She’s only supposed to do that three times.”


When I talk to the small cadre of archivists, historians, documenters, and stagers (répétiteurs in the ballet world) who keep dances from disappearing, Atlas holding up the world keeps coming to mind. Maintaining the numbers of this group is essential. In March, I watched my friend and Balanchine répétiteur Deborah Wingert and two students rehearse a pas de deux from the 1968 ballet La Source. At 52, Wingert is among the youngest dancers to have worked with Balanchine at the New York City Ballet, where she became an apprentice at 15. I saw her instructing the younger dancers (both now members of the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company) while telling stories about Balanchine. Poised in an arabesque penchée—en pointe, working leg extended straight up, head down—the ballerina asked, “Should I look up?”

“Try what you feel is right, and I’ll let you know,” Wingert said, recounting Balanchine’s disdainful reaction when a dancer would imitate another’s quirks.

The anecdote helped bring the dancers’ movements into focus. Balanchine’s “purpose,” Wingert said, “was to make dancers better, not by highlighting a dancer’s inadequacy, but by teaching them to do it the best way they can.”

The key to preserving the work of the legendary choreographers is to capture the memories of their original muses. For the past 20 years, the Balanchine Foundation has curated its Interpreters Archive: instructional videos of dancers who worked directly with the master choreographer. Getting some of the great interpreters to make such videos can be a struggle (some are camera-shy, others are too busy, others live far away), and production is costly—as much as $50,000 per video. Meanwhile, dance conservators are racing to preserve vast, decaying libraries of older videos. Since the 1950s, dancers have recorded on magnetic tape, yet playback equipment is obsolete, and the binder holding the magnetic particles is degrading.

“If they’re not digitized soon, they’re going to be gone,” says Imogen Smith, acting executive director of the Dance Heritage Coalition, which has helped repertory companies, archives, and institutions digitize and store their video records. One problem, Smith says, is that “there’s such a wide range of ways dancers think about how or whether they want their work preserved. There are people who like video, people who hate it. People who like Labanotation [a graphic system for notating movement], people who hate it. Is 3-D going to be better? Motion capture?”

The issue gets to dance’s perennial problem—money. Who can afford to preserve this work reflects a societal divide. Ballet companies, whose audiences, dancers, and choreographers are largely white, are far wealthier than more diverse modern dance companies. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is the only modern dance company with a budget—$35 million—approaching those of the top ballet companies. Companies rely on the government and charitable organizations such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which in 2016 gave the Trisha Brown Company $850,000 to help preserve its archives, following a
$1.16 million grant in 2012. The National Endowment for the Arts kicked in $80,000 this year, following annual grants since Brown’s 2013 retirement. From 2007 to 2016, the NEA gave about $5.5 million to various entities for preservation efforts, compared with more than $16 million to fund performances. The NEA’s future under the Trump administration, however, is uncertain.

In 2015, Mellon gave the Mark Morris Dance Group $900,000 to digitize its archives (Morris has choreographed 180 dances). “We’re going through closets and basements,” says Nancy Umanoff, the group’s executive director. “Do dancers have tapes? Do their parents have tapes? Who has the master? Everywhere you look, there’s a new rabbit hole.”

No matter how much of this costly and time-consuming preservation work takes place, or how tirelessly répétiteurs such as Wingert, Harper, and Freebury labor at their craft, dances change over time—appropriate for an art form that celebrates motion and movement. “Any time we did a revival in the company, people said it didn’t look like it used to,” says Patricia Lent, director of licensing at the Cunningham Trust. “Of course not! It was 20 years later, different people. It’s not about imitating. It’s about making movement your own in an authentic way by understanding the task.”

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