Detective Story: Find the Work

The New York Times 20 Aug 1972English

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Aestheticians know a lot of good guessing games. One of these concerns the performing arts, and it begins with the question, "What is The Work?" Properly, but confusingly, the answer might be that the work is the artist's creation as it is translated via musical score or play script into a performance which is received by an audience. To a scrupulous few, The Work may emerge dimly only through a concatenation of performances. To many, the printed text stands for the play, the musical score for the composition. This is convenient: nearly everyone can read, and many can read music. Therefore critics and interested spectators can examine a particular rendition of a work in terms of what they deduce from the printed page to be the author's intention.

If you ask, "What is The Work?, about a piece of choreography, things immediately become stickier. Sometimes you find that it no longer actually exists: it's no longer performed, was never filmed, can't be found among the Dance Notation Bureau's small but growing library of scores. All that remains of such a dance are photographs, reviews, choreographer's notes-if he or she took any-perhaps the musical score, costumes, sets. Small chunks of dancing or stage patterns may remain in the minds of those who once performed the dance or those who saw it-if they are still alive.

We who write about dance are so accustomed to grasping at straws that our precarious position scarcely bothers us any more. Clive Barnes, writing in this paper about the recent American Dance Festival revival of José Limón Emperor Jones (1956), had to define the production's virtues and shortcomings in terms of an original-cast performance he had seen in 1957. For him, The Work is a 15-year-old memory. Would any music or theater critic care to take on a job with this kind of built-in handicap?

And are all first performances definitive? American Ballet Theatre has just mounted a sleek and passionate new production of Eliot Feld's Intermezzo. Many of us who saw Intermezzo when Feld's own company first danced it have vivid memories of Olga Janke executing a particular movement in the ballet's only solo. While gradually sinking from arabesque on pointe to arabesque in paid, she traced several circles with one arm. You worried for her: she seemed to be using that windmilling arm to maintain a precarious balance, the way a tightrope walker does. Now Cynthia Gregory, a far more accomplished dancer, makes that same gesture a barely noticeable rhapsodic embellishment to a kind of danced exhalation. Obviously, these are simply two differing interpretations (Feld presumably coached both women), but because they happen in a ballet and not in a play or a musical composition, these interpretations-one or both-are all we can use to define that particle of a minute in Intermezzo.

It's just possible that nobody cares, either. Most people, consciously or unconsciously, accept each performance of a dance they're watching as The Work itself; if they see it again, they may adjust their mental picture. It's only in discussion or critical writing that you become aware of the ephemeral nature of even a frequently performed work. Alvin Ailey's classic Revelations is a bigger, splashier dance than it was 10 years ago, because of gradually accumulating changes, planned and unplanned. Members of the Royal Danish Ballet for years have boasted of their unbroken Bournonville tradition, yet there exists in Copenhagen a 1904 film which, compared with the Bournonville style of today, clearly demonstrates how much that style has altered as it has been passed down from dancer to dancer.

Some choreographers rejoice in dance's ephemerality. Natural Heracliteans, they understand that you can no more see the "same" dance twice than you can step into the "same" stream twice. Certain members of the dance vanguard don't even make it easy for you to try to see it twice. Twyla Tharp has said in a snappy Ballet Review interview that she's not interested in repertory; she’s interested in working on new pieces. Meredith Monk's Vessel (1971), Juice (1969), Needlebrain Lloyd and the Systems Kid (1970) have already become legends, partly because blocksized parking lots, entire museums and half a college campus aren't always readily available to perform in. However, Monk-like Yvonne Rainer, Rudy Perez, James Cunningham and others - often expands earlier work in later dances or embeds little pieces of the old in the new.

Still others - Merce Cunningham, for instance - keep dances fresh by changing for each performance the order in which the ingredients are added. Cunningham's Canfield is an example of this kind of indeterminate structure. Not only do Cunningham's dances involve perceptual processes different from those required of a 19th-century ballet audience, some of them ought also to impose differing modes of discussion and of written criticism. You can't chew the fat with someone about the third section of Canfield unless the two of you attended the same performance; your third section might have been his fifth one, or might not have been danced at all that night.

Part of dance's now-you-see-it-now-you-don't history is traceable to the lack of a dance script as convenient as music notation, even though scholars and the artists themselves have been experimenting with dancenotation for centuries. Some systems remain most useful as shorthand reminders of something already known. Some, like Labanotation, are very thorough, but extremely difficult to learn to read or write quickly. Film is expensive as a recording device, and videotape, which seems more promising, still isn't being widely used. But both film and videotape, as currently utilized, have a built-in flaw: they show a single performance of the work in question - a performance during which mistakes may have been made or the leading dancer forced by intestinal flu to dance with a certain queasiness. In the past, the dance field has not had the money (will it ever?) to develop the equivalent of the music recording industry's A& R man, who can cull high notes from one performance and insert them into another. (Choreographers would probably reject this anyway as being inimical to the humanness of dance.)

Naturally, more people are excited about dancing and making dances than about chronicling or preserving them. This is particularly true in the field of American modern dance, wherein the deplorable lack of history may be the result of its own rallying cry: "Down with the old, up with the new!" Martha Graham's 1931 masterpiece, Primitive Mysteries, was painfully reconstructed at Connecticut College in 1964 by a group of former cast members-their memories jogged by photographs, the musical score, and, presumably, a lot of amicable wrangling. The work now exists only in a plain-Jane record film of that reconstruction. Charles Weidman and former members of the Humphrey-Weidman company recently tried the same think-tank approach on the late Doris Humphrey's New Dance (135), although because of the length and complexity of the work, the reconstruction may be more of a sensitive renovation. It's interesting to realize that to young people who saw the new New Dance and its 1936 companion piece, With My Red Fires (expertly reconstructed from Labanotation for the American Dance Festival earlier this summer), the 1972 performances are New Dance and With My Red Fires. And in a few generations, perhaps only films made of these, if they are accessible, will remain to stand for the dances that a new audience may be curious to see.

In her later years, Doris Humphrey decided to strike a blow for history by allowing her new works and a few remounted old ones to be filmed and notated and the scores made available through the Dance Notation Bureau. Conceivably, a repertory company operating in 2072 could stage one of these dances. In doing this, Humphrey must have been aware that she was taking chances on feeble or time-warped interpretations.

Her contemporary and fellow rebel, Martha Graham, has apparently chosen the opposite course. She has hoarded her splendid dances until many of them have effectively ceased to exist. Only a few documentary films circulate; only a handful of her dances have been released to other companies; as far as I know, only one, Diversion of Angels, has been notated. Many of her works (and, it is rumored, her private collection of record films) will die when she dies. It may be possible to present others only as long as those who danced in them still remember and attempt to preserve them with as little distortion as possible. In a century, Humphrey's dances could be living history, while Graham's may be myth. Come to think of it, that's pretty much in keeping with what we know about the two women and their ideals of art.

Still, when I think of the several films, the notation score, the frequent performances of Doris Humphrey's The Shakers (1931), I think that our pride in dance's ephemeral nature may be a trifle defensive. Many young contemporary dancers have learned Shakers the way ballet students learn variations from Swan Lake; they can argue happily about the correct interpretation of the 9-count phrase. I can think of very few modern dances you can treat this way. When I speak of Shakers as The Work, I may even know what I mean.

This article aroused a storm of controversy, which delighted and puzzled the editors at the Times. Most of the letters came from people connected with the Institute of Choreology, the headquarters for the Benesch System of notation. They were concerned that my not mentioning the Benesch system had in some way denied its existence as one of the major, widely used methods for preserving dances. They were very angry. My only defense was that I wasn't really writing an article about dance notation, and the article I was writing had been generated by the Doris Humphrey revivals that summer at Connecticut, and Doris Humphrey utilized Labanotation.