tue 25/06/2024

After A Dancemaker Dies, BBC Radio 3 | reviews, news & interviews

After A Dancemaker Dies, BBC Radio 3

After A Dancemaker Dies, BBC Radio 3

A radio programme asks why choreographers don't try harder to save their art

Pina Bausch's 'Agua': its performance in the Edinburgh Festival and London this year might be the last sight we ever get of a Bausch'

Two giants of dance died last year: Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham. Right now audiences aren’t being deprived of seeing why their names are written permanently in lights in dance history (Bausch’s company performs in Edinburgh and London later this year, Cunningham’s is in London in October), but after 2011 they may be. Cunningham’s company will close, while Bausch’s will be in its last of an uncertain three-year grace period.

It was in this light that Frances Byrnes made a remarkable programme broadcast last night.

A world that carries on with rotten Swan Lakes and interminable Lloyd Webber reruns will never again see Biped, Summerspace or Nelken. And the problems that explain why that becomes so could mean that within 25 years we will never again see Mark Morris's L'Allegro or Ashton's Scènes de ballet or Forsythe's Eidos:Telos. Major contemporary works of art gone, their makers half-forgotten. "Perhaps we should go and see dances like we go to see a person we love, and whose time is short. Now, soon or never,” said Byrnes, her soft voice shaking with protest.

Byrnes visits Bausch’s grave and sits there listening silently to the birds. She finds beautiful words: she calls the German a choreographer of “earth”, and Cunningham a choreographer of “air”, his work like “lines that light makes in water”. In a heightened state of mourning, she pursues the afterlife of their dances. It’s a sobering chase.

Unlike ballet, which has various mechanisms as well as a unified academic tradition to preserve it, modern dance is built on individualism, oddities and inventions that have no universal method of noting them for transmission without their creator being there. Merce Cunningham’s packed notebooks are full of aide-mémoires, drawings, charts, numbers, stuff inscrutable to anyone but him. “LIF phrase no 30. AG  phrase no 21.” Only LIF, AG and a few others know what those mean.

Pina Bausch’s works were just as tricky in their own way, drawing mercilessly on the psychology of her dancers, so that her “revivals” were virtually recreations mined on new dancers. It makes it impossible for future generations to generate the same intensity of need and emotion - in a way, no one else has the right to demand it.

The main obstacle, it emerges, is the choreographers’ own, almost pathological worship of the ephemeral. Cunningham said approvingly, “Dance gives you nothing back. No MS to store away, no paintings to show on walls, no poems to be printed and sold - nothing other than that fleeting moment when you feel alive.” He had made 200 works on his death at 90 last summer, of which only a quarter have any chance at all of being staged in the future since only they have enough materials, notes and videos to pack into “capsules” to offer any company wanting to try. (Even then they'll need one of his dancers to interpret them.)

Bausch left no will, so all her dances are now owned by her 24-year-old son. The matriarch of modern dance Martha Graham left her dances to her controversial companion, a much younger society photographer, who caused the dancers no end of grief in legal suits. America's ballet genius George Balanchine parcelled out his works in bits and pieces to various people, as did Britain's Frederick Ashton. By superhuman effort of cooperation, the Balanchine heirs managed to form a preservation foundation. The Ashton heirs have not. From Byrnes’ research, the Balanchine method was the exception to a general rule, which is that choreographers are irritatingly unhelpful when it comes to posterity.

For Byrnes (and, I'll confess, me too), this is a personal tragedy. Her voice trembles as she considers the possibility of Mark Morris’s dances no longer existing (the US choreographer has made no plans to preserve his dances). She asks Cunningham’s posthumous guardian Robert Swinston how he can allow Cunningham’s pieces to “evaporate”. “Right now I just worry about holding onto the studio,” Swinston says tensely, explaining the limbo the company’s in now. They light candles in their leader’s office every day. They work on his dances to forget he’s gone. But the US never made it easy for Cunningham to survive, and now Swinston has a triple burden - not just to find the money for the studio and the 15 dancers, but to teach Cunningham’s technique, and to coach his repertoire to other companies who may want to do it.

Maybe somebody would fund a small group to organise a revival of a dance, he says hopefully. “You know how those rock bands get together and do revival things?”

Dominique Mercy is his equivalent in Bausch’s company. Even though Bausch’s methods were vastly more psychologically exhaustive for the dancers, their sense of loss is not more heartfelt than that at Cunningham’s troupe, just more emotionally expressed. Byrnes quietly keeps bringing them back to essentials: what happens now, who owns the dances, is there a mechanism for the dances to go on, how exactly do dancers carry on dancing dances when the choreographer isn’t there?

Bausch’s dancers insist they have a “duty” to continue (and they have the money too, from their city, for three years at least). Cunningham’s say that’s it; this two-year farewell tour is the end. Trevor Carlson, the MCDC executive director, says that the US system doesn’t allow for companies that don’t create new work: anyway it's unthinkable that Merce Cunningham Dance Company should become “a touring museum” of dance.

The chastening example is that of Martha Graham’s museum company. After her death in 1991 long court cases followed about the artistic ownership of her dances as opposed to their technical ownership. Byrnes remarks perceptively that from her viewing of a recent Graham company performance there is a difference in style between revival and preservation. A show of 1930s works was presented as a lecture-demonstration with voiceover, as if the Graham dancers had no confidence in the audience. “I guess we’re trying to survive without money and with an audience that has no idea what we’re putting out there. It’s really sad. People say, I had no idea - who is Martha Graham?” explains Jacqueline Bulnes, one of the Graham performers.

As Bulnes implies in the tone of her voice, it’s outrageous that even titans in dance are forgotten so speedily. But it is certainly the result (I’d say) of this current dilatory attitude among the dance community to finding tools to preserve work of obvious value to a generation’s contemporary art.

For Balanchine’s work in the US it was complex, drawing together many people, but it was done. Today companies around the world perform his works, as they are recorded, licensed by his guardians. As Barbara Horgan, the Foundation’s instigator and chairman, says, even if you see a bad performance of Serenade here and there, Serenade itself survives.

RainforestByrnes observes that the difference in modern dance seems to be that the works, even in revivals, were continually being reinvented by their choreographers. When Rambert performed Rainforest this spring (picture right, Chris Nash for Rambert), a 1968 work never until then performed by an outside company, its stagers were drawing on versions Cunningham himself had changed over the 40 years - which one would be “right” to preserve? And what are the audience’s rights in the matter? Or those of the society to have records of its art? And anyway are those who passionately claim that dance’s details can never be reproduced only really indulging their own memories? Her questions come thick and fast, and acutely aimed to draw blood.

She leaves one big question unasked: the political one, in a world of vanishing faith in subsidised arts. If all that dance is willing to be is a sandcastle built at low tide, which the high tide will swiftly sweep away, then it certainly puts itself at a disadvantage next to all the other artforms scrapping for survival in the jungle. Who in the results-obsessed, bean-counting world of today is willing to support an artform that uniquely abstains from saving itself?

Dance gives you nothing back. No MS to store away, no paintings to show on walls, no poems to be printed and sold - nothing other than that fleeting moment when you feel alive.

Share this article


Well, before we get into too much tooth-gnashing, one could start by making available to the next generation of dancers, the hundreds (thousands?) of performances - including film of rare choreography - locked up on film all over Europe and in the USA for copyright reasons. Margaret Dale's films have never been issued on DVD. Frederick Ashton's masterpiece, Symphonic Variations, which has been filmed with several excellent casts, has never been released. The Rambert Collection of films, given to the British Film Institute, which goes back to the very early thirties, is hidden away in some hidey-hole. An incredible collection of films made of the Royal Ballet of Denmark throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies, lies mouldering in a cellar. If dancers, teachers and the public, had access to this treasure-house, THINGS WOULD CHANGE.. And many of these works would be revived.

There is also a wealth of video archived at the American Dance Festival going back to the beginning of festival http://americandancefestival.org/archives/aboutarchives.html and they mention a link to the Dance Heritage Coalition (danceheritage.org). But just having the video of something doesn't mean you have all the information you need to revive it. I remember that the Paul Taylor Company had an interesting way of preserving repertory within the company that involved several videos. One with each dancer in a different color unitard to make it easier to follow learning choreography, one a fully produced version etc. And I believe they also had a corresponding Laban score. Another aspect of this is how audiences might react to restagings. I've seen a few that frankly feel outdated and stale. Keeping them alive for the current generation of dancers and dancemakers to be educated in dance history is one thing, expecting a general population of audience goers to appreciate them seems totally different.

17 years ago Alwin Nikolais died. He would have been 100 this year. He has an extensive body of work and some of it is still refreshed in some palaces. I have the privilege of touring with him many many years ago, along with other leaders in the modern dance field. One of the elements that is lost when you see modern restagings is that you are not seeing dancers who were developed in the pedigogy of the originator. Today's dancers are magnificent but they are also replaceable parts --performers who learn roles in Balanchine and Cunningham works. But they don't become Balanchine or Cunningham dancers and they certainly don't have a point of connection that is found in the many less famous, but still talented choreographers from the early golden age of dance. Dance is ephemeral, and is washed out with the tide, but every now and then we see glimpses in the recorded record and the occasionally inspired staging that makes us long for more. The low tide sand castle is a good analogy as it is not just the creative impulse of these works but the practitioners who delivered those wonderful performances that are lost.

One major french choreographer whose work is being passed on is Dominique Bagouet. the last dancers who worked with him set up "les carnets Bagouets" named after the extensive notebooks the choreographers kept. I think they have the right approach. They often restaged works using 2 or 3 of the original dancers to teach the piece. They also allow for "personalisation" during interpretation as long as the spirit of what bagouet wanted (from their memories and notes) is kept vibrant. It is this aspects , in my view that makes restagings potentially stale. Choreographers would always allow the dancers a certain degree of freedome, making subtle or even big changes to their movements if so inspired by the artists in front of them. that is what dancing is all about. Passing on the spirit of things. That is why notation and video, whilst invaluable, cannot replace the oral tradition of teacher to dancer, and why so many pieces are badly restaged. No one dances the classics as they were when they were made just as no actor delivers texts as they did 200 years ago, nor should they unless for academic study reasons. One has to accept things will be lost down the years, what me must preserve is the direct passing on of that knowledge. One to one.

re. Monday, 09 August 2010 There is a misquote by Jeannie Steele in her discussion about her staging of Cunningham's Rainforest. She quotes Cunningham himself describing the work, but the quote is taken from a very personal description of the dance as I experienced it, which appears in my book "Chance and Circumstance: 20 Years With Cage and Cunningham." See page 499. Merce did not describe or explain his dances to his own dancers, let alone to interviewers. I doubt he would be pleased by my words being put into his mouth. I would greatly appreciate this error being publicly noted. Carolyn Brown

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters