Wednesday, May 28, 2008


By Paul Gordon Emerson

Barring a set of devastating changes on the planet or society, someone, somewhere is going to be looking at what dance to reconstruct for the 2042-2043 season sometime in 2041. Chances are they'll look at the archives of works designated American Masterpieces (on their implanted servo-LIB [for library] that connects them to the world database through a thought-link). They'll come upon "Folksay," because it will meet the centenary criteria. And they'll see...?

As a company devoted to history and reconstruction, something we have to take into account in re-staging dances is that we too are historians -- on both sides of the timescale. What we do today becomes the archive for tomorrow, and how we document what is taking place right now determines the success of what someone very likely not born yet does in 2042 to say "here's a bit of America 100 years ago." No one dancing that dance in 2042 will be able to talk to Sophie Maslow or any of the original cast members. The video that we are referencing today will have long-since deteriorated to a point where its useless -- and the only chance of finding a VHS player will be in the Museum of Video and Film in Shanghai (no, there is no museum of Video and Film in Shanghai --- at least not yet) and there's no chance it will work (they don't work now, why should they work then). And besides, the video we are referencing today, which was shot in the 1980s, looks like bad Star Trek footage just after Kirk flips open is communicator and says "beam me up Scotty." 

So, what will they find when the decision to do "Folksay" comes up at the artistic staff meeting? These questions should determine the processes we use -- and it must inform the way we look at how we conduct interviews, what camera angles we use, how many cameras we use, how the footage is catalogued, how the video is stored and to whom it gets sent. They must guide how we manage long-term media -- right now that media is the DVD, but these things will be frisbees in 5 years, and in a decade or so there won't be computers with them or players for them available at Circuit City. The best prospect right now is all-digital storage, archiving footage on a server which migrates data each time an operating system is updated or a drive system is upgraded. It has the advantage of ease of access across the internet. 

But the irony here is, in part, that what is written will remain vital. Words, in print or online, will likely last. So will the paper on which the Labanotation is stored. But someone has to continue to understand how to read that notation, and that takes study. But words don't translate into dance. Images do -- but they have to be images that move. And, most fundamental, people who have "been there" have to stay involved. When I look at the room today, the process of constructing "Folksay" is succeeding because Lynn, Greg and Abby have a life-history with this work and with this artist. Greg noted that he danced "Folksay" many dozens of times. Who in CityDance will assume that mantle -- to get so far inside the work that they are qualified some day to coach a reconstruction? 

When Alice's head rings in 2041 and some 25 year old on the other end says "we're thinking about reconstructing a dance you were in in 2008," how much will someone who will then be in her mid sixties remember? Will we establish a chain of people who, like the great oral historians and the great cultures of our past, will hand down the actual experience of these dances to one another, preserving history as it has been preserved throughout time? And if so, who will start that process? It lives in the Graham Company, and in the Ailey Company, and it lives in the long-storied ballets. But what about all the rest of the work? 

We can, and maybe we should, be putting all our dancers in motion capture suits and creating fully realized 3D versions of all these works -- things that you can go to and watch at every angle -- from the ceiling to the floor, the front to the back -- to understand all the spacial relationships. But it is still a human art, and Gollum, Iron Man and the Panda notwithstanding, it needs to be seen as a human art. 

These are questions we are obligated to ask, and obligated to answer. Its too easy to get caught up in the "what we have to do today and tomorrow" and forget that tomorrow is just over the hill -- just like 1942 is just behind the last hill -- and that its on us to be the next conduit to preservation. If we don't, we've just satisfied ourselves, and forgotten our descendants. And that's not the point behind dancing. 

1 comment:

Beth said...

Motion capture would definitely constitute a more comprehensive record of the movement, but, like video, it would only capture the dancer's perception of that movement, which is influenced by an infinite number of things, and may or may not reflect the choreographer's intentions. A Labanotation score most definitely makes a dance piece more permanent, provided someone can read it. I hope that many more companies undertake these kinds of recreations from Labanotation scores, like the Maslow project CityDance is working on. You are to be commended.

My personal vision for 2042 is a proliferation of performances of dances from notation, as prominent and as copious as the reproductions of classical musical and theatrical works. The reconstruction of these kinds art are commonplace, and in any cases their creators have been absent from the process for a long time. Skilled professionals are trusted to recreate the work in a way that honors its creator's intentions entirely by interpreting the words or notes on the page, and without the assistance of any musicians or artists that participated in the original performance. My hope for Labanotation is that it will provide a means for dance to be as easily reproduced and performed.

I will refrain from writing an entire paper about my thoughts on the subject. Thank you for documenting your experience, it is truly fascinating.