The re-staging of work establishes a genealogy in dance. Many companies reproduce historical compositions, and as new pieces are created these works enter into the collective ouevre of the field. Technology, notation and personal recollection can all help in re-staging dances, but no one means of archiving can capture the totality of a choreography. Past analysis has tended to evaluate the use of archival methods separately. Only a collaborative archival network combining technology, notation and personal knowledge can ensure the future of repertory.
Technology has provided indispensable archival opportunities in the field of dance. In particular, video has transformed the creative, marketing, and archival process. Live performance is fleeting and impermanent by nature, and the power to film these transient moments creates an un-paralleled resource. With good reason, video is usually the first step in re-creating an earlier work, but it is imperative to acknowledge its limitations. First, traditional video obtains only a two-dimensional image. This provides a good first glimpse of the movement, but not enough detail to re-stage with any precision or rigor. It is impossible to remain true to the nuances and intricacies of complex movement styles – such as the choreography of Twyla Tharp, Bill T. Jones or Trisha Brown – with a two-dimensional view. Second, when looking at video, there is a limited perspective. You are at the mercy of who took the video and who was dancing the work when it was taped. Even professional videographers can miss things, and what if they miss something that is a crucial part of the piece? Dance is changeable. No one piece is ever performed the same way twice. There are always slight, or sometimes not so slight, adjustments for different spaces and different dancers. The expectation is that video captures the most accurate depiction of the work, but this is more a hope than a certainty.
Three dimensional image capture is an exciting technological alternative to conventional video because it can convey a more complete representation of movement. This relatively new technology requires multiple cameras positioned at different angles and heights so as to record a three dimensional figure. The archival applications for this technology are incredibly exciting, but sadly, untapped. This type of filming can be very expensive and thus, not an option for many dance companies. In point of fact, a minority of companies dedicate resources toward preparation of archival material. In addition, 3-D technology has become stalled and somewhat stuck in the performance arena. Choreographers today seem to have an obsession with how ‘mixed media’ and ‘corporeal presence’ (the new go-to buzz phrases in dance) can transform a work within active performance. For all of these reasons, 3-D imagery has not penetrated into the field of archiving.
The most under utilized archival method is dance notation. Labanotation and Benesh Movement Notation are the two primary systems that can provide a written record of choreography. Both employ a specific system of markings that indicate which body part is moving, the impetus for the motion, the direction, speed and duration of the choreography. Both Laban and Benesh are like hieroglyphics: they are an entire language, very detailed, extensive, and providing a directional map to unlock the minutiae of movement. In theory, dance notation is a great idea, but because the number of people fluent in dance notation is small, and the time/expense of notating a dance significant, written notation exists for a fraction of the important ouvre of modern dance work, and is accessible to an even smaller number of practitioners.
The importance of personal coaching and personal experience cannot be overlooked when staging previous works. Having individuals with experience of the staged work (whether the choreographer, one of the original dancers, or a dance historian) present during re-creation significantly informs the reconstruction process. These individuals may not be able to ensure an exact replication of the steps, but many essences and ‘isms’ are beyond the capabilities of technology and notation. Admittedly, as with technology and notation, individual memory/personal coaching does have its limitations. One challenge is that this type of knowledge cannot be institutionalized, and so is uncertain from generation to generation.
Every archival process can make a positive contribution, yet on their own, each system is insufficient. To preserve our important cultural heritage, what is needed is the application of a thoughtful, reliable, and collaborative archival practice integrating technology, notation and personal resources to the fullest extent possible. Dance companies generally lack the funds to utilize all available archival systems when re-staging choreography. And, the limited funds that exist to create or stage work tend not to include the funds necessary for integration of archival concerns (money to access the newest technology, arrange for a notation, etc.) Archival policies for the field need to be developed, both to ensure preservation and performance of important works, and to encourage the funding mechanisms necessary to institutionalize appropriate archival/reconstruction policies.
Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer and critic, based in Washington, D.C. She contributes regularly to criticaldance.com, and is currently pursuing historical research on choreographers Sophie Maslow and Pola Nirenska. She is also an associate editor of Bourgeon.