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Revisiting revision

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In "Get Me Rewrite" in today's NYTimes Book Review (4/7/03), Judith Shulevitz argues that an author's revisiting of an older work may actually harm it:

"Revising years later may be the riskiest thing a writer can do. At best it adds a sophisticated gloss to a youthful text; at worst, it interpolates anachronistic detail and violates the integrity of the original. Revision of this sort can even be seen as cannibalism, the devouring of the younger self by the older."

Are there comparable examples among choreographers? I think we've discussed Apollo as a possible example; are there others? Are the two art forms insufficiently analagous? (i.e., the material conditions of dancing may be more influential on a work than those of writing). Any thoughts?


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What an interesting question. I think choreographers cannabalize their works fairly often, either producing "rough drafts" of ballets that are then scrapped and replaced by a version closer to what the choreographer intended, but couldn't pull off for whatever reason. (Balanchine -- "Mozartiana," had several versions; solos from "Figure in the Carpet" appeared in later solos. Material for Tudor's "Leaves are Fading" were in older works, in a smaller, or less finished form.)

I think novelists do this too -- a novel doesn't turn out right and is put in a drawer, but the hero will resurface in a later work. So that's one kind of cannabalism.

In writing revisions, I'd draw a distinction between the kind of revisionism referred to in the quote above -- the "Oh, my God, how could I have written THAT," from the man of 40 about the man of 20 -- and the kind that Fitzgerald did to "Tender is the Night" (in that case, the novel wasn't right, but, as I recall, he couldn't tell why, and it was acceptable and went to press. Shortly thereafter, he realized that if he began in medias res and then told the story in flash back, it would be better, and did that, and that version was published as well. Both versions survive.)

The "material aspects" of choreography is a good point. It could be that Tudor's first "Leaves" attempts were rough drafts because he was choreographing on students and was limited by what they could do, both technically and emotionally. But if one thinks of experience as the writer's material, then they really are analagous, I think.

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This is a personal response rather than a general one. There are a lot of points on the continuum. The times I have revived a work, it's almost never without tiny revisions; the type of tailoring you need to do for individual dancers. In that way choreography and writing aren't analogous - writing isn't performed, the reader encounters the text directly.

I've edited sections of certain ballets more thoroughly; it's a lot more problematic. As implied in the article, one's style changes with time. "Meeting myself" from 1993 or 1995 is a surprise - my movement style had changed and I could see the "rivets" where the revisions had been inserted. What was interesting was that my sense of musical architecture had changed less than my vocabulary. There was a variation in a '93 work I didn't think was successful. When I reset the work in '99, I didn't look at the variation on tape, but made a new one instead. Once done, I looked at the variation. It wasn't the same, but it was structured the same - ideas changed and new ideas were introduced at the same musical points in both versions. In another instance in the same ballet I changed a section that had been bothering me for years - and honestly and unfortunately, I don't think I made it any better.

Often, rather than revise I'll chose to gut the choreography entirely and redo the piece. I've done that with a few works now, personally I almost always like the second version better, but I'm supposed to! There was music I used in '95 I reused in '02 - again, I chose to look at the old work after the new work was completed. What was gained in the interim? Confidence and fluency; I was very pleased. What was the trade-off? There was an energy in the earlier work which came from experimentation; it was part of the package along with the awkwardness. I still like the the later work a great deal more, but I respect the me (1995 model) for charging at a cliff and jumping off to see if and where I'd land.

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One example of choreographic revisioning, or more accurately, recontextualizing, is Balanchine's "Theme and Variations" (1947). It has a totally different impact as a stand-alone work than it does as the closing section of "Suite No. 3" (1970).

Personally, I'm much more fond of the original, automonous version. For my eyes, by the time I get through the preceeding movements in the later version, the clarity of the initial moments is lost, and the structural patterns lose their impact.

I'd love to hear from someone that likes this amended version better and understand what they're seeing.

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There have been internal changes to Theme over the years, too, although I'm not able to specify which.

I'd have loved to see the original version of Serenade, with each entree danced by someone different. And before the final movement was added. It always looks tacked-on to me, beautiful as it is.

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ray - just wondering if you are someone who i met, last year in australia? any chance you could PM me, with your real name and location, if it suits you to do that? if you are who i think you are, you were at WAAPA to stage a work for dance students, last year: is that right?

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Ray, I am not sure if your source article focussed solely on literary texts, or discussed art works in general. In either case, it's impossible to generalize either about the benefits or the disadvantages. One simply has to proceed on an ad hoc basis. All artists evolve (and we have immediate proof of that in LW's post above)--some so dramatically that they renounce their earlier work and try to suppress it, others along a steady evolutionary line in which the later work is comprised, to some extent in the early. The latter kind of artist doesn't mind having that line displayed in a "complete works," though even he or she might want to carry through a few cosmetic changes here and there on the callow outpourings of youth. In literary scholarship, all changes can be assembled in a "variorum" text, where textual history of any one poem or novel or whatever is laid bare, comma by comma, article by article. Usually the author's final revisions are taken to be definitive, and constitute the reading text. But even here, there are all sorts of problems. Do we modernize Shakespeare's spelling and punctuation? And if we don't, do the plays remain readable where the general public is concerned. (Or--to put that balletically--do we want, say, Giselle to be performed in unblocked shoes that would permit far fewer turns and much shorter balances?)

However--and here I might be wrong--I can't think of any literary revisions that compare in scope and scale with Verdi's, whose style underwent a dramatic transformation over three stages. In the case of Macbeth, he modified an early (first phase) work in his third phase style, and, in Simon Boccanegra, a second phase work in his mature style. The textual problems that result are enormous because, while the revisions are superb, they are so discontinuous with the originals as to seem utterly unneighbourly. Imagine Leonardo going back to his Annunciation and repainting Gabriel in the style of his John the Baptist. Almost unbearable, though one might acknowledge his John has more sophisticated morbidezza and tonality etc etc. than that rather stiff, iconic angel.

And that brings us to ballet. Changes here and there aren't the problem. I have seen a film in which Ashton rewrote the port de bras for Sinfonietta years after it was staged because he found the original too montonous. Evolutionary change; nothing dramatic. The real problem is the great C19 classics, many of which have come to us in an intolerable musical condition, or with feeble libretti, or with a patchwork choreography. Think, for example, of the mishmash score to which the ABT dances Le Corsaire, and compare it with the recording of Adam's original. That market place dance with hands that pierce the back would never have been written by Petipa, and the music clearly dates from the mid C20. And--to confront Petipa himself, who did the same thing--what about Giselle's E major variation? It's TOTALLY out of style with the ballet as a whole. So what to do? Do we get a great choreographer to try and improve the mess, or, even more radically, to start from scratch in his own style? If we do, it's the Verdi revisions all over again. Superb, but discontinuous. In Graeme Murphy's great Nutcracker, for example, we see Tchaikovsky's danse arabe rendered into contemporary movement. Or do we get a Lacotte to juggle creatively with known C19 formulae. That means stylistic consistency, but choreography of doubtful worth. To quote Dickens, "it's aw a muddle."

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