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"When the Choreographer Is Out of the Picture"

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The Diane Solway article in Sunday's New York Times, which discussed the plans Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor have for their repertories once they are gone, touched on something that I've been pondering for some time: What is the key to continued longevity for a modern dance company once the driving creative force behind it is gone?

I thought there were two very interesting quotes in the piece that pointed out the problem and its solution (at least for some):

". . . no single-choreographer company built by a towering figure has ever sustained its status after the founder's death. Not even the Graham company."


"But he [Paul Taylor] intends for his company to become a repertory company and admit work by other choreographers, as the thriving troupes of Alvin Ailey, Jose Limon and George Balanchine have always done."

While Ailey, Limon and Balanchine were alive, their companies were -- to varying extents -- true repertory companies. This to me seems like the key as these companies were better positioned -- institutionally and psychologically -- at the founder's death to branch out and renew themselves with new works (which, admittedly, are rarely as good as the heritage works.)

I guess the problem for single-choreographer companies is this: Is the underlying creative philosophy expansive enough to accomodate outside ideas? And if it isn't, does the reliance on recycling one person's works over and over again lead to diminishing creative returns?? It would appear that the Graham company will be the test case for this approach but, based on my impressions of a recent Graham company performance, the jury is still out on the viability of that approach.

I would be interested in reading people's thoughts on this . . .

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This is a frequent topic in my part of the dance world, and I thought that Ms Solway laid out many of the key elements very clearly in her article.

American modern dance is still so young that we are just now grappling with these post-death issues. The Limon company got a head start, and although they had some very difficult times they seem to be doing fairly well right now. With them, I wonder what will happen when there is no longer someone who had first-hand experience with Limon himself to lead the ensemble -- I think that will prove to be another significant hurdle for them.

The Graham company, on the other hand, seems intent on pushing away that part of the population. They are, however, working hard on placing some of the repertory in the college dance environment, which will give it ongoing life, and get it in front of young artists, who don't always know enough about their heritage.

The Graham company has actually invited other choreographers to create and/or set works on the ensemble -- Twyla Tharp and Martha Clarke have both made new dances for the group, but I don't know that they were considered unalloyed successes and I don't think they are still in the active repertory.

Another sad example is the Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis companies. For a time after Nikolais' death, they worked as a combined group under Louis' direction, but even that has evaporated. Some of the dances are still produced with other companies, but not many, and not necessarily the landmark pieces. (at least I can watch a smidgen of Tensile Involvement in the title sequence from The Company...)

In modern dance, a single choreographer group often reflects a specific aesthetic or technique -- to see the works performed by artists who are not necessarily trained or focused in that way is a different experience than seeing them performed by 'true believers.' In its own way, it's a more intense version of what we see in ballet when a general purpose company performs Bournonville of Ashton -- they are usually very respectful of the technical and stylistic differences, but they can't necessarily replicate the details.

I wonder sometimes if we would be more sanguine about leaderless groups fading away if we had better documentation (film/video and notation) of the works themselves. I think many people feel that the only way to keep the dances alive is to keep the generative company going as well.

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sandik -- You raise some very thoughtful points regarding the "survival after death" issue as it relates to modern dance companies.

Another issue these companies (and ballet companies, for that matter) may have to face is one of "overreverence" towards the core repertory. I thought of this recently when Deborah Jowitt, in her review of the Limon company's recent season at the Joyce, wrote that the company's performance of a suite from "A Choreographic Offering" was reverent to the point of dullness. I suppose there are worse problems (like being disrespectful to the core repertory) but it does seem like companies will have to be on guard against a kind of creeping reverence that drains all the life out of the classic dances.

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I have been thinking about this issue in dance and also in opera.

What occured to me is that both are built on music... which opera IS music as well.

A choreographer creates a ballet to a piece of music. The music without the dance is not ballet. And indeed a various choreographers can create different ballets from the same music... they're supposed to do that. Choreographers are artists who paint with dancers.

Their work can be preserved through time by faithfully reproducing his or her choreography. There is value in doing this. But there is value in creating a new ballet to the same music and libretto (if there is one).

Opera will have different stagings.. and different voices singing, but you can't change the music. A choreographer could use a completely different complement of dancers. They have more flexibility and there is really no equivalent person in the opera to the choreographer. A Zeferelli Traviata is really about the sets and costumes... isn't it.. on recording it sounds like another staging (except with different voices). So to haul out an old production of the opera seems to be little more involved that getting out the old sets, costumes and blocking.

A ballet needs to be notated or recorded so the parts can be reproduced as the original. With newer works this is possible... but works from before film might be a lot harder (I plead ignorant about dance notation as a language going back to the earliest ballets). Opera doesn't suffer this handicap because hand drawings could be used to document how things looked. And this is why we know how poeple looked and lived in the past... art.

Yet even when one can see the work in video or film after the choreographer has passed... can the current ballet master (or whatever this person is called) get the same "quality" in his rendition from the company?

Interesting stuff eh?

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There is trouble, too, in moving the repertory on to the college scene... Have you ever seen college reconstructions that have an extremely careful "studied" look to them? The movement is so "studied" that it has no life? Nothing seems like death so much as considering a work a museum piece. The dancers look like "this doesn't feel right to me, but I know I'm supposed to move in this fashion for it to be right".

I think it's wonderful for college students to study the work and perform it. I'm just not sure what the formula is to get inspired performances out of them. Inspirational coaching isn't always available. I wish the students could see it performed live by professionals before attempting to learn it themselves.

It makes one wonder how works like Giselle & Swan Lake, & company have survived all these years. I suppose they bear very very little resemblence to the original productions...and yet they are still pretty alive and viable in their current forms (usually). Why?

Does there need to be almost a legend built up around a work for it to continue to inspire new dancers?

The Duncan dancers have all felt pretty "inspired", but I'm not sure how much of the Duncan repertoire survives... but there we're not talking so much of "choreographic" stage patterns of the corps but rather star vehicles... no? (I use a very crude meaning of "choreographic" here... basically floor plans). I guess being inspired and being inspiring aren't always the same thing, though some Duncan interpreters have made a good go of it.

I, of all people, would love to say good documentation of the choreography & coaching is all that is needed, but dance doesn't live on video on a shelf, it needs an audience. I wish there were more subsidized repertory companies in the US.

Perhaps we need a festival tour of reconstructed dances... competition to choose which ones make the tour and sponsorship by an organization of the college dance departments in the country. Couldn't they come together to mount an annual competition, and then host a tour through several of the member colleges' theaters of the winners of that competition?

(Why can't we have an ideal reality?)

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