Dance and the art of preservation

Spectrum's mounting of the late Merce Cunningham's work shows both his genius and the value of planning for a choreographer's legacy.
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Spectrum's mounting of the late Merce Cunningham's work shows both his genius and the value of planning for a choreographer's legacy.

The recent death of the distinguished American choreographer Merce Cunningham raised anew the question of preserving dance works. What happens to the material created by a choreographer who dies, particularly one whose own company was the vehicle for the work?

In Cunningham'ꀙs case there was a plan devised, with his active involvement, that his company would tour for one final year after his demise and then fold, with a foundation thereafter responsible for re-staging his dances for interested companies. In the case of Martha Graham, another great American dance maker, the preservation of her works was not nearly as well planned, leaving legal battles over who 'ꀜowned'ꀝ the pieces, and how and by whom they might be performed.

Although there are notation systems to record dances, along with film and video documentation and other methods, traditionally dances have been stored in the bodies and minds of those who created and performed them. Further, most choreographers understandably have been less interested in documenting and preserving their work than in the creation and performance of it.

Technology has made it easier and cheaper to record dances in rehearsal and performance, so that a digital camera or even a good cell phone, or more advantageously a consumer-level video recorder, can accurately capture a dance work where the cost of a professional recording might be prohibitive. This was not the case in the past, and much great choreography has been forever lost, poorly recorded if at all, or only remembered in fragments by those who performed it.

There is now ample precedent for how dances might be preserved through such models as the George Balanchine Trust, responsible for perpetuating the work of New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine, or the Jose Limon Dance Company, which for decades has been performing Limon's work under the direction of artists who were in his company while he was alive.

Thus it was especially poignant so soon after Cunningham's death in July, at age 90, to see Seattle'ꀙs Spectrum Dance Theater perform portions of Cunningham'ꀙs Landrover Saturday, during the second weekend of the Byrd Retrospective Festival at the company'ꀙs studio theater in Madrona. Landrover, which made its debut in 1972 and has not been performed by the Cunningham Company in its entirety since 1983, was originally set on Spectrum for April performances at the Moore Theater in tribute to Cunningham'ꀙs Washington roots (he was born and raised in Centralia and was a student at Cornish College). Donald Byrd, Spectrum'ꀙs artistic director, had hoped for a different work, but was turned down as it contained a solo created by Cunningham for himself, and as long as he was alive such roles would not be set on other troupes. Though Landrover might not have been the first choice, it was a lovely showcase for the skills and dedication of the Spectrum performers, and acted as cool counterpoint to the other more heated dances on the program.

Due to an unfortunate injury to one dancer, the Cunningham piece was performed here in truncated form, losing its opening solo and closing duet as seen in April at the Moore. Without them it was more Cunningham the formalist, with neat arrangements of lines and groupings, nifty partnering, and repeats of little hops and jumps. The sound was by longtime Cunningham collaborator Gordon Mumma, who stitched it together from bits of tapes from the original score.

The dance was set on the company by Sandra Neels, a performer in the Cunningham Company when Landrover debuted in 1972, and best remembered for her beautifully long and pliable legs and lovely, almost freakishly arched feet. This was Neels'ꀙ first venture into setting a Cunningham work, and she used old black-and-white video and her own and other dancers' recollections to place it upon the Spectrum dancers.

Any Cunningham work is technically challenging for its performers with controlled movements, one-legged balances, and little quirks. For the most part the Spectrum dancers did very well, with particular notice to the sureness of Kylie Lewallen, whose confidence seemed to grow as the dance went on, the clarity and nice athleticism of Ty Alexander Cheng, and a brief solo from elegant Tory Peil.

Seeing the work in a formal proscenium theater with more distance between artists and audience might allow one to better experience the landscape that the choreographer created, but there were compensations for those viewing it in Spectrum'ꀙs intimate space: focusing on individual dancers, hearing their breathing, and seeing the minor flaws present at any performance. It made the work seem less remote than in a large theater, gave it a more human dimension.

I particularly liked one inadvertent moment when the dancers were in a diagonal line and all a bit too close together. Cheng'ꀙs leg went up in attitude and brushed up against the leg of the dancer behind. He made an immediate and minute shift in position to adjust and the dance went on. That'ꀙs something I likely would not have seen at the Moore.

I hope to see this work on the Spectrum company again in its entirety, and also perhaps more Cunningham works in the future. The evening was completed by four works created by Byrd at different points in his career including Quartet from 1993, an excerpt of a longer dance, with an especially voluptuous duet beautifully performed by Peil and guest artist Jamal Story.

Final performances of The Byrd Retrospective Festival are this weekend, Friday through Sunday, at Madrona Dance Studio, 800 Lake Washington Blvd. For tickets click here or call 206-325-4061.


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