“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The famous opening line of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between could equally have opened the recent Preservation Politics conference at the Roehampton Institute on 8-9 November, which discussed ‘dance revived, reconstructed, remade’. Both the theme of the novel – the attempt to evoke, recapture and make sense of the past – and its pervasive sentiments of nostalgia, loss and regret, seemed also to suffuse the Roehampton conference. For dance has often been regarded as the most ephemeral of arts, vanishing at the moment it appears, no sooner performed than lost to history. It leaves only traces, in the memories of choreographers, dancers, audience members; and, more concretely though not always more reliably, in the form of notes, reviews, costumes, paintings, photographs, film or notation.
Still, if there was a general regret that dance works are forever disappearing, there was also a general agreement that reconstruction and revival are valuable and worthwhile undertakings. The conference organisers had deliberately encouraged an interdisciplinary approach, and to this end there was a variety of presentations by notators, reconstructors, academics and dance practitioners, with both spoken papers and practical demonstrations – a diversity reflected in the interests and knowledge of the 200 or so conference attenders, many from overseas.
One question cropped up again and again: how true to the original is reconstruction? Is it a preservation or a creation? In short, are the results cooked or pickled? Inevitably, the reply was: cooked – though you aim for a kind of pickled effect. For there can only ever be interpretations of the original dance work, dependent not only on the documentary evidence available, but also on the particular training, skill, physique and movement style of the performers, and on the creative input of the reconstructors – though often the practitioners seemed to fight shy of addressing this last point directly, preferring to emphasise their role as mediators between the original work and the reconstruction.
Yet the question isn’t as simple as that, for even to suggest that a work might be ‘pickled’ (authentic) presupposes that there is such a thing as the original. In their opening address, noted reconstructors Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer pointed out that identifying the original dance work is no straightforward matter. What is the original? The one performed on the first night, by the first cast? The earliest version, the latest version, the version most often seen? It’s common practice for choreographers to make adjustments to a dance, for a whole host of reasons: choreographic revisions, or adaptations to suit particular dancers, companies or stage spaces, for example. The question of which version to set as a standard has no ready answer: often it is simple expediency that determines the choices to be made, on the basis of what evidence and indeed what resources are at hand (it all costs money, after all).
Perhaps inevitably, then, the dances selected for reconstruction tend to be those considered as major works. Not only would these have left behind the most documentary evidence – in reviews, photographs, memories, biographies – but they would also attract most attention from the dance-going public. The question of which works are reconstructed then becomes more complex. Hodson and Archer explicitly stated that they chose ‘masterworks’. But again, critical opinion shifts with the times: some works date quickly, others seem timeless (but why?); some divide opinion, and yet others, like Massine’s symphonic ballets, seem to go in and out of favour.
Other factors also influence the choice of works revived and the manner of their reconstruction. Several speakers made the point that works revived from the past are nevertheless performed today, and so need to take account of current tastes, lest the results of research look too recherché. Hodson and Archer stated that the ballets most easy to reconstruct were those that operate within relatively clear stylistic constraints: The Rite of Spring or L’Après-midi d’un faune, for example, with their stylised bodily stances and clear positions; or Skating Rink, with its movements based on skating, the Apache dance, and the exaggerated mime of silent film acting.
Style, in fact, seems of the essence in capturing the spirit of a work, yet also the most elusive quality to secure: for even works that remain in repertory are constantly subject to the loss of small detail. Former Paul Taylor dancer Susan McGuire spoke of how subtle nuances of weight, flow and stance are so easily eroded in reviving dance works; the steps may be there, but the style is not. She illustrated the point convincingly in her lecture-demonstration, comparing Taylor’s Airs danced by her own students from London Contemporary Dance School with video excerpts from productions by the Royal Danish Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.
Reconstruction is clearly subject to several potentially conflicting influences and interests – historical, legal, financial as well as artistic.
The cooking process is, then, a complex one, with questions raised at every stage. What ingredients do you have, which recipe do you follow? Are you really adding flesh to old bones or just covering up the lack of meat with a smothering of sauce? Who are you serving the dish to and what are their tastes? Reconstruction is clearly subject to several potentially conflicting influences and interests – historical, legal, financial as well as artistic.
In the process of reconstructing and preserving past dance works, then, history is not just discovered, but made. At Roehampton, this point tended to get rather lost beneath the nitty-gritty of practical examples; but it was addressed directly in Carol Martin’s lucid paper on Ashton’s early ballets. She questioned the orthodox view of Ashton’s early career, which sees a progression from Rambert and the Ballet Club, to de Valois and the Vic-Wells. Instead she suggested that the work with Rambert could be seen in its own right, rather than as a rung on a career ladder, as could his work with the Camargo Society. She also argued that Ashton’s work in commercial theatre tends to be overlooked and undervalued because of his canonical position in ‘high art’ history. The point she made was that history tells a story, and so depends not only on facts, but on which facts we see and why, on how we see them, and what we invest in them.
All these stages involve, whether consciously or unconsciously, choices, decisions and vested interests – which is why, presumably, the conference was called Preservation Politics rather than, say, Preserving Dance History. Given this, I feel we could have done with more politics. Or rather, more links between the theoretical presentations and the practical ones (only Ramsay Burt and Hodson and Archer coincided in this way, over Skating Rink). It would have been interesting, for example, to hear about the vested interests around licensing, copyright and authorisation. These very pragmatic aspects to reconstructing or preserving a legacy sit alongside the loftier aims of art history: who inherits what, how much is it worth, claims over legitimacy (remember the trouble with the Tudor estate over Ballet Rambert’s version of Dark Elegies?). Reconstruction and preservation, whatever else they may be about, are also about staking claims – of authenticity, ownership, legitimacy, entitlement – and these claims can be traded on. All the works discussed at Roehampton, for example, were staged dance works; there was no social dance. Is this because social dance, though no less fascinating for dance history, is not ‘authored’, not owned, and so has simply less currency in the business of preservation and reconstruction? Please discuss.
If reconstruction is subject to conflicting influences and interests, then so was Preservation Politics: the concerns and specialisms of speakers, presenters and attenders varied widely, sometimes wildly. This diversity was both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it could and did lead to indifference or even blank incomprehension as people from different backgrounds attempted to (or refused to) communicate. On the other, it a rich mixture with potential for expanding horizons. Besides, even (perhaps especially) conflicts can be unpredictably productive. For example, Sarah Rubidge’s technical philosophical paper on the identity of dance works went completely over the heads of most attenders, and provoked an exasperated response from Financial Timescritic Alastair Macaulay. Riled by the wordiness of her paper, he castigated Rubidge for her excess of ‘verbiage’ – a case of one self-conscious linguistic style (high-flown philosophical) meeting another (rarefied literary), but not making friends. It was a moment to savour from an unsavoury encounter; and, on the positive side, the clash certainly became a talking point among the attenders – at least during the coffee breaks, which are after all where much of the cross-disciplinary dialogue goes on at events such as this.
The incident was probably not what conference chair Stephanie Jordan had in mind when, in her opening speech, she said she’d be delighted if the conference turned out to be ‘positively disrespectful’. On this count at least, I suspect she had cause for disappointment, for a tone of polite reverence prevailed. For example, the very basis of the conference came in for little scrutiny. Why dance works are or should be preserved was largely left unexplored – and anyway, the most frequent reason given was: If I/he/she (or whoever) were run over by a bus tomorrow – a phrase I heard on three separate occasions – then another dance work would be lost to history. Fine as far as it goes; but that’s not very far.
Of the speakers I heard, only Ramsay Burt explicitly asked why dance works are or should be reconstructed. Using Skating Rink as his example, Burt suggested that it echoes particular concerns and anxieties in the current social climate. Indeed, he went further, saying that unless reconstructions did in some way engage the current Zeitgeist, they would end up simply as ‘illustrated corpses’.
dance reconstruction not only answers particular needs, but also disavows a sense of loss – like constructing an image to memorialise a loved one
More intriguingly, Burt also hinted that reconstruction not only answers particular needs, but also disavows a sense of loss – like constructing an image to memorialise a loved one. For me, this passing remark hit at the heart of the conference, with its faintly morbid ambience of regret and longing, its feeling that whatever happens in the present can never be as real as what happened in the past – as if the present is a fall from grace. It is an outlook shot through with ideas of resurrection and afterlife. At best, reconstructions will be touched by the spirit of the past; at worst they become animated zombies, the return of the living dead, or a Frankenstein’s monster of reassembled limbs. And this, I think, was why there was so little of the ‘disrespect’ that Jordan had hoped for, why there was so much reverence for lost dance works: their sanctity is preserved by their unreachability.
Only once was this atmosphere swept away, at a debate in which no dancers, choreographers, notators or reconstructors took part. Instead there was a Shakespeare editor, Ann Thompson, and two theatre and opera directors, Tim Albery and Phyllida Lloyd. In a flash, and probably unwittingly, they punctured that aura of preciosity, and made me remember that the conference was supposed to be not just about dance reconstructed and revived, but also dance remade. Though the dance practitioners all acknowledged that reconstructions and revivals are to some extent remakings, this was generally downplayed, and a cause for anxieties over authenticity. These non-dancers, however, took the bit between their teeth and galloped with it, speaking with passion, intelligence and commitment not about what had passed, but about what could happen. What can be made of artworks, what possibilities can he opened up? Where the dance people acted as go-betweens mediating between the past and the present, these people looked to the future.
It may be that dance is not confident enough about its history to look forward from it (perhaps simply not enough is recorded yet); or that dance ‘texts’ work in a fundamentally different way from those of plays, literature, opera, or music; or that dance remains like an oral culture within our predominantly literate one. Whatever the reasons, that one non-dance session served to highlight a cautionary note sounded by Helen Thomas: that the project of dance preservation risks fossilising its history into a set of untouchable museum-pieces, producing an ossified and backward-looking dance heritage instead of encouraging a living, growing and forward-looking dance tradition.