Dance Preservation Is a Moving Target

Marcel Marceau, wired for immortality in 2001 (this photo and the one below are courtesy of TRI/ACCAD - The Ohio State University)

By Rebecca J. Ritzel


How do you preserve a fleeting, ephemeral art form like dance? There’s no musical score, there’s no written text, and no painting to encase safely behind glass.

The digital Marceau

You might wonder whether modern technology—starting with film—would offer a solution. Actually, it offers not one, but many. Maybe too many. During the 2010-2011 school year, Ohio State University, the University of Maryland, the Kennedy Center, and the New York Public Library pulled their resources to start a conversation on dance preservation. Representatives from all four, plus a few dance companies and musical-theater choreographers, recently presented an overview of their findings at the Kennedy Center.

Doug Reside, Digital Curator for the Performing Arts at the library, opened the May 16, symposium by declaring the proceedings somewhat futile.

“We’ve got all these different ways that people have tried to preserve dance, but there isn’t a way to preserve the spirit of dance,” Reside said. But, he quickly added, “some really exciting things are happening.”

The symposium was held at the Kennedy Center but organized by the Maryland Institute for Technology and the Humanities, a research center based at the University of Maryland. Regrettably, the event was not well publicized; the small crowd of about 20 nonpresenters included a few area dance professors and a belly dancer who gave her name as Shadiyah.

From Bebe Miller's multimedia work "Landing Place," which incorporates digitized movement (this photo and the one below courtesy of ACCAD/Bebe Miller Company)

But those who did attend had the privilege of hearing high-profile dancers and academics—including Balanchine ballerina Suzanne Farrell, choreographer and Ohio State University professor Bebe Miller, and Trevor Carlson, executive director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company—discuss ways to use everything from brain-wave mapping to oral histories in order to preserve dance.

The simplest, timeless method is to have a dancer—preferably one who learned the work from the choreographer, teach another to follow the same footsteps. But as anyone who has ever played Telephone can imagine, that method is far from foolproof. Over the past 10 years, the Kennedy Center has financed Suzanne Farrell’s effort to restage nine lost ballets by George Balanchine. Most significant was the 2005 remounting of Don Quixote, which originally starred the choreographer as the Don and Farrell as his muse, Dulcinea.

Also from Bebe Miller's "Landing Place"

Farrell based her restaging on a low-quality VHS tape she always assumed was a bootleg. Then one day, she got a call from the New York Public Library’s dance archivist. They had a copy too, and were seeking funds to restore it. There were two rough cuts of the 1965 performance, an annoying buzz in the background, and the music and movement were out of sync. Farrell spent hours in the editing room, counting out the steps as editors sought to create one seamless version.

“Finally, we had a real ballet, the way it was meant to be seen,” Farrell said.

The finished film is now available for viewing at the library. Yet despite that success story, Farrell said she’s still skeptical about relying heavily on film and notes on paper to restage dances. In 1986, she flew to Russia carrying videotape and 60 pages of notes, ready to teach the Kirov Ballet Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony. But she hasn’t used notes—other than cursory marks in a score—since then.

Suzanne Farrell (photo, by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of the Kennedy Center)

“That’s when I decided it was good to have it in your body.” Farrell said. “It might be good to notate something, but I haven’t found a good system.”

Farrell spoke first at the symposium, and didn’t stick around to hear about some of the systems her colleagues, like Miller, are now using. Alongside Maria Palazzi, director of the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design, the modern dance choreographer gave what she called “her very first PowerPoint presentation.”

At ACCAD, as the lab is known around Columbus, dancers are wired up as if they were about to get an EKG. Instead, they move, and computer software digitzies their bodies so they appear on the screen like avatars.

“I have to say, I was kind of seduced by what the technology can do,” Miller said. She’s used the digitized avatars as multimedia projections in her own works, creating a meta-backdrop for her dancers.

American-born, German-based choreographer William Forsythe has used the ACCAD to create an interactive, choreograph-your-own ballet application that’s available online. In terms of preservation, ACCAD’s most valuable work to date may have been recording the movements of a septuagenarian Marcel Marceau in 2001.

The audience chuckled as a neon stick-figure version of Marceau mimed a drunk chugging a drink at a bar. But eyes really opened when Palazzi demonstrated that the digitalized recordings allow you to view figures from all angles—even as if looking up at the dancers from below a glass floor.

This is the technology Meg Booth, director of dance programming at the Kennedy Center, found most impressive.

“Dance is so hard to capture,” Booth said, reflecting on the symposium. “There are just so many different facets to it. It’s musical. It’s timing. It’s steps. It’s totally three-dimensional. Muscle memory and artistic interpretation are so much a part of successful dance. I’m curious to see, as technology has evolved, how much it can capture.”

She had more hope in the comprehensive efforts now underway at Merce Cunningham Dance Company.  The legendary choreographer spent his late 80s developing a “Legacy Plan” that was revealed shortly before his death in 2009 at age 90. The plan calls for dissolving the company after a global farewell tour—final performance December 31—but preserving and licensing out Cunningham works using what the company calls “Dance Capsules.”

Carlson closed out the symposium by detailing his efforts. Plans originally called for preserving 50 Cunningham dances, but the company has already created capsules for 84. The choreographer also had his own extensive computerized process for notating dances, though those might be difficult for an outsider to interpret.

The capsules include films of the dances from multiple angles; details on the costumes, lighting, music, and sets; interviews with dancers and designers familiar with the works; and, in some, footage of Cunningham himself.

“In 50 years, when no one who originally danced this piece is still around, you could open up this capsule and do a good job of putting this back together,” Booth said.

As for some of the other ideas discussed at the symposium, including the Ohio State motion-capture lab and the University of Maryland’s experiments with mapping dancer’s brain waves, she was skeptical.

“I assume it’s pretty expensive to use motion capture to record one person, much less an entire company,” Booth said. “As a dance professional, I am really curious what the practical application is, and, is it possible for companies who are creating work to use any of this technology, or is it strictly academic at this point? What’s the next step? How can we employ it, and actually make it useful?

“Hopefully, this is the start of a deeper discussion.”

Rebecca J. Ritzel is a freelance writer in Washington who contributes regularly to The Washington Post and other publications. She also teaches in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland.

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