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Preserving Forsythe?

by Brendan McCarthy

photo courtesy of Sadler's Wells

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Ballet.co interview

Forsythe Interviews

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Forsythe in Postings

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Brendans links:

Ismene Brown Forsythe interview

Deborah Bull on the Rite of Spring

Stuart Hodes on Martha Graham



In a recent interview with Ismene Brown of the Telegraph, William Forsythe made it clear that his ballets would be performed for only as long as he lived to direct them. "It's in my will," he told her, "that when I die, my works won't be performed. Because ballet is a living art." To Brown's objection that such a purist approach would have deprived future generations of Giselle and Balanchine, Forsythe replied: "It would be fine. The world would just move on. There would be plenty of choreographers. Someone new would come along."

At first sight there is something shocking about Forsythe's attitude. He might be accused of high egotism. An artist's creations, it might be argued, are part of the patrimony of all of humankind. The artist is a channel for the genius of the age, and not a creator in isolation.

Or is it as simple as that? Many choreographers have spoken of the ephemerality of their art. "The longer a ballet exists in the repertoire", Fokine wrote in his memoirs, "the further it departs from its original version. After my death the public, watching my ballets will think "What nonsense Fokine staged!" Ashton too predicted that his own works would in time be considered passé, and that most would disappear into oblivion.

The issue of preservation is uniquely difficult for dance. A performance vanishes with the closing curtain. Afterwards it cannot comprehensively be recaptured either from notation or video. The camera often misses key detail, concentrating perhaps on the central action to the detriment of what may be happening elsewhere on stage. This is true even of companies' specially commissioned video-records, some of which fail woefully to document work properly. As a result, much still depends on dancers' memories; without them it is harder to make a piece come alive. When a ballet is taught, one wonders how much detail is changed in the process, and what gets remembered and handed on. The transmission of a ballet is as erratic as is the transmission of folklore.

Choreographers have taken different attitudes to this dilemma. One approach, that of the Balanchine Trust, is to vacuum-pack the works, to document them scrupulously, to insist that they can be performed only under license, and taught only by a handful of accredited people. Even when permission is given, it may be revoked if the Trust finds evidence that steps have been altered or the style changed. A change of artistic director can mean that a company's licence is reviewed. Interestingly Balanchine was until very late in his life unconcerned about the survival of his work "For whom?" he asked. "For people to see that I don't even know what they're like, that aren't even born yet? And are my ballets going to be danced by dancers I don't know, that I haven't trained? Those won't really be my ballets"

Until 1976 ballets had no legal protection in US law. Then copyright protection was extended to include choreography largely in view of the spread of notation. Where copyright protection does not exist, artistic directors can take extraordinary liberties with ballets by long dead choreographers.

The issues have been brought sharply into focus by the attempted restorations of Nijinsky's ballets by Millicent Hodson. She and her associate the art historian Kenneth Archer have reconstructed The Rite of Spring, Jeux and Till Eulenspiegel. While it proved possible in time to reconstruct the designs for Rite of Spring, the choreography offered a considerably greater challenge. Old drawings were scrutinised, as were writings by Stravinsky, contemporary critics, the dancers, and, most importantly, by Marie Rambert. The crucial record was a rehearsal score closely annotated by Rambert; with its help Hodson was able to complete the reconstruction for the Joffrey Ballet.

But what relationship did Hodson's reconstruction bear to Nijinsky's original? For the New Yorker's critic Joan Acocella it was "a dud". Acocella was even more dismissive of Hodson's attempts to disinter Jeux and Till Eulenspiegel. She had been able to interview Valentina Kachouba from the original cast of Till. According to Kachouba, the rehearsals for the original performance had been impossibly rushed and Nijinsky had improvised most of the choreography in performance. While Hodson and Archer, have told journalists that their version of the works is 'after Nijinsky' and not a reconstruction, a recent programme for the Rome Opera House left out all caveats and billed the ballets "choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky".

Opinions differ over Rite of Spring. Deborah Bull danced in the Rome Opera House's production. This is what she wrote for her column in the Telegraph earlier this year:

"For me, the nagging question is not one of authenticity. It's this: a range of highly intelligent, knowledgeable individuals - dancers, writers, choreographers and film makers amongst them, not to mention audiences - respond to this Sacre as a great piece of dance. If it's not Nijinsky, what does that make Hodson?"

Deborah Bull's question hangs in midair. The issue of authorship may not be decisive. The extension of copyright protection to dance was based on the premise that notation somehow captures performance. What if it does not? Are we better off with an untidy transmission of heritage and a reworking of choreography in ways likely to be unrecognised by its creator, or with a copyright law that allows such a stranglehold to the "creators" of a dance as to impair or stop its transmission altogether?

I can see why Forsythe thinks as he does. Divested of their choreographer's original intended meanings, steps can become empty and lifeless. But Forsythe has rewritten the grammar of ballet. Whatever the risks, it would be appalling if future audiences were denied the opportunity to see a body of work that has had a profound effect on the art's direction.

Some of these issues may well be rehearsed in a US court judgement expected imminently in the case of the very bitter dispute over the ownership of Martha Graham's choreography. The website www.danceinsider.com recently quoted Stuart Hodes, one of Graham's former dancers.

"It was 1950 and we were in Paris. Martha was despondent because she'd hurt her knee very badly and was worried that she'd never dance again. Another of the dancers tried to reassure her by saying, ‘But your dances will be danced forever.' At which point Martha turned to her and said, 'If I can't dance, I don't care if my dances are ever done again!' I remember being outraged and thinking 'How dare you consign your dances to oblivion, they don't belong to you, they belong to the world!'

Forsythe’s case is different. It is hard to imagine, for instance, Eidos:Telos in other hands, or to make any convincing case for the licensing of performance art pieces after their creators’ deaths. But does this also apply to Steptext? And what of the worrying precedent that Forsythe sets for other choreographers who might will that their work should die with them? It would be appalling if creative men and women masked acts of egotistic vandalism with the excuse that their behaviour was somehow justifiable because "ballet must be a living art".

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