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Learning the moves
The relevance of repertory

Maryam Pirnazar
February 1, 2007

In an unrelenting downpour last April, a group of us stood outside the Mainstage Theater at the University of California, Santa Cruz, during the intermission at a performance by Ballet NY. Huddled together under umbrellas that evening I was struck by the force with which a performance can inspire immediate engagement in a new audience in a small town.

I was in the company of a group of local friends (mostly women) who were for the most part new to dance. Frankly, I had hardly expected to hear much beside polite comments, thanking me for the invitation to the performance. As the rain beat down on our umbrellas and soaked shoes and elbows obliviously sticking out, however, the discussion got heated. “That last piece was fabulous,” said one. “You mean that piece of garbage that had neither head nor tail?” jabbed another. “Who was the composer?” asked yet another as she flipped through the program notes. “Everything worked so well together.”

It is perhaps true that we usually see dance in company of people like ourselves. I normally go to performances with others who have long-standing involvement with the arts or at least are seasoned audience members. Over the years we develop preferences and acquire knowledge that inevitably colors our receptivity to performances. But after the performance that evening, as our little group of nine assembled at a friend’s house discussing the pieces well into the night, I found it infinitely more interesting to listen than offer my own views. Our group ranged in age from mid-thirties to early-eighties, and in profession from physician and real-estate agent to writer and high-tech marketing director.

The program had been a mixed bill. The performance was excellent: strong beautiful dancers, interesting interpretations, serious artistry. All these merits were commented on by our group. Costumes, lighting, and color schemes were noted. Choice of music was appreciated. But what really heated up the discussion was the choreography -- and by no means was a consensus reached. Musings and rapturous declarations accompanied the dissecting of each piece on the program. Two works, however, elicited the strongest passions: Jodie Gates’s “now and again” (2005) and Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” (1970, going back to the 1930s). The Gates camp found her piece exciting and “mind expanding” while Balanchine was “quaint and boring.” The Balanchine camp could not fathom how anyone could miss the glorious choreography of Balanchine and find Gates’s “meaningless rambling” of any interest. The discussion went on and on.

As I listened to the spectrum of observations and tastes expressed that night, it became clear that it was the range of the presented works that had generated the excitement. That night’s sampling of “repertory” had given this particular group a glimpse into what is possible in ballet. Noting this, I pondered the space occupied by a small repertory company in the dance world today.

When Judith Fugate and Medhi Bahiri started Ballet NY in 1997 (it was called DanceGalaxy then) they were frequently warned that they were embarking on a most difficult path. They quickly learned that a company performing the works of a variety of choreographers is a most difficult project to get off the ground. With the exception of a handful of old and established companies, foundation and corporate funding generally goes to companies who principally perform the works of a single or a very small group of choreographers. Yet, Fugate and Bahiri persisted in their effort to create a company that presented a variety of works from both established and new choreographers. After the performance last April I had a talk with them about their vision.

“We have found that companies that present only one person’s work not only limit the dancers, but often do not hold the attention of the audience for an entire program,” says Artistic Director Judith Fugate, a former principal with the New York City Ballet. “Often the vocabulary is not strong enough and the pieces all look the same, just with different music and costumes. We wanted a company that would challenge accomplished dancers in the works of a variety of choreographers and provide the opportunity for emerging choreographers to work with first-rate dancers.” Medhi Bahiri, co-Artistic Director and a former dancer with Maurice Béjart’s Twentieth Century Ballet and the Boston Ballet (among others), adds a further consideration: “After the departure of Joffrey, the only repertory companies in New York were American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet. These companies’ often prohibitive ticket prices limit access for many dedicated as well as new audiences. Also, because of their size and large touring costs, these companies do not tour often, which makes dance even less accessible to audiences outside of New York City. We felt that Ballet NY would be what the major repertory companies could not: an excellent but affordable and portable small company that would attract audiences both inside and outside New York.”

Creating varied opportunities for dancers and choreographers and, indeed, winning new audiences for dance are immensely worthy goals and crucial to the very survival of the dance world. But this aspect of things is mostly apparent to dance professionals. What I witnessed that night in my little group was not their concern over the role of repertory companies in keeping dance alive. What I saw was that suddenly a certain artistic depth and complexity had flashed before their eyes.

I talked to Mark Franko, Professor of Dance and Performance Studies at the University of California in Santa Cruz, about the idea of repertory. The discussion inevitably led to the canonization and preservation of dance. “The art a culture, or a given professional class within the culture, believes should be seen again constitutes the canon,” says Franko. Apart from critical assessment, questions of copy-right (“ownership” of choreography) and acquisition choices based on exigencies of performance (from staging to box office considerations) all come into play in determining what pieces are performed, on their way to “canonization.” The dance canon, therefore, is determined as much by what it excludes as what it includes.

The exclusionary nature of canonization has been studied in many other disciplines, most notably in literature and ethnomusicology. The debate, however, has not spread to dance quite to the same extent. “This is perhaps because, not objectively grasping the way canon formation functions,” explains Franko, “choreographers have worked in cooperation with its mechanism, continuing to hope it will one day include them.” With no challenge to the concept of the canon, canon formation in dance continues to be not only limited in scope but circular in logic: a piece is not usually performed unless it is in the dance canon and it is not canonized unless it is performed. This double bind is of particular significance in dance history, where the very question of the preservation of the art form has been tied up with the question of canon. For apart from fragmentary collections of personal memory, partial notation, sundry documentation, and occasionally film footage, what has “preserved” a dance has been its performance -- and what has elicited the performance has been the place of that particular piece in the canon.

The digital revolution, however, is starting to change the very notion of dance preservation. With recent technological advances new attempts are made to preserve dance regardless of whether individual pieces are viewed as canonical. The Dance Heritage Coalition is one such attempt in consolidating, and improving access to, archival material. Another example is the Metamedia project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where faculty members build “mini-archives” in various arts disciplines, including cinema, theater, literature, and dance. While the DHC project is geared more towards documentation and preservation, MIT’s Metamedia has more directly pedagogical application. Nonetheless, digital media have made possible a more comprehensive approach to dance preservation and a more inclusive one to canon formation. The impact on dance history as a field is just beginning to make itself felt.

Paradoxically, however, the advent of the electronic archive poses its own peculiar challenges. For one thing, in light of the dwindling support for the arts, digital archives have made it possible to privilege (less costly) preservation over (more costly) creation. For another, as Franko puts it, “canon formation has been displaced from live performance to the visual archive.” Typically, it has been up to repertory companies to both preserve dance and extend the canon in the form of commissioning new pieces. Now it is possible to relegate both these functions to the visual archive. It is now conceivable that new pieces performed on a very small scale -- say, with one’s friends in a rehearsal studio -- can find their way to a dance archive and on the periphery of the extended canon, without ever having been performed in front of a live audience. What this means is that the emergence of the visual archive has put repertory companies in an even more vulnerable position. With the continuation of the “dance bust,” it is conceivable that repertory companies will fall even further in disfavor with funders and presenters.

Yet, thinking back on the Ballet NY performance that rainy night in April, it is clear to me that while electronic archives may be of enormous interest to dance practitioners, the student of dance history, or seasoned audiences, they are of little use to people such as my little group. It is the immediacy of a live performance that attracts the interest necessary for the survival of dance as a performing art. This is especially true of audiences outside of the established (and more set in their tastes) audiences in major dance centers like New York.

Earlier in the day of the performance, I watched the company rehearse with my six-year old son. He sat with particularly rapt attention during one of the pieces. Later when I asked him what he liked about it he said, “The ballet was boring but I want to learn the moves.” Coming from a little boy with a taste for extreme sports this was a welcome comment, but I tried to understand what exactly had inspired him. My son has watched plenty of ballet and certainly all the pieces he saw during that rehearsal were in the classical idiom, so what he meant by “the moves” could not have been merely ballet vocabulary. Liking the “moves” of one particular choreographer must have meant that what got through to him were certain choreographic elements, perhaps the core element of what a historian like Franko would call the “matrix of choreographic activity.” Now, this is a subtle point! But perhaps this is also exactly what elicited such passionate response in each one of my friends that night.

It feels somewhat strange that we are now at a point where we might pose repertory as an alternative to non-performative preservation or even creation. (“Non-performative” dance would have probably sounded untenable even to the 1960s avant-garde!) But grapple as we may with the historical and theoretical implications of this new position, there is little question that ultimately it is the live performance that fires up the imagination of an audience. It is what sparks the passion for dance: to want to see it and to do it. The relevance of repertory can only be done justice to in this context. Comments

Maryam Pirnazar

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