Step in time: how to save the legacy of dance from being lost in history

While Richard Alston’s company hang up their dance shoes, archivists and choreographers are grasping at ways to immortalise an inherently slippery art form

Earlier this month, Richard Alston’s dance company performed their final shows after more than 25 years. It was a celebratory occasion – and the end of an era. Alston will continue choreographing independently, but with his company he created a significant body of work, defining a lyrical, light-footed style of English contemporary dance. What happens to that work now? Since dance has no product to collect or put in galleries, how do you hold on to this ephemeral art form?

A few years ago, Swedish choreographer Mats Ek announced he was retiring and taking his back catalogue with him. But after a short break he was back creating a new work and reviving old ones. Ingeniously, American choreographer Mark Morris is creating extra dances to have in the bank so his company can perform premieres even when he’s not here. Merce Cunningham made exacting legacy plans for his New York company, which involved them touring for two years after his death and then closing. Now the works are preserved in a comprehensive archive by a trust and licensed to other companies to perform, taught by authorised stagers. Other choreographer-led companies, from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, have continued with new directors at the helm.

Alston’s company is closing due to financial issues, without much time to plan ahead. The V&A’s theatre and performance archive will collect some of the company’s physical effects, including costumes, posters, programmes and contracts. An unexpected ally has come in the form of Google, who are digitising 400 VHS tapes to create an archive of selected performances, alongside 360-degree photographs of costumes, so a portion of Alston’s work will be viewable online.

Choreographer Siobhan Davies in her south London studio
‘I’ve tried to think of my past work as compost – each laid a ground plan for the next one’ ... choreographer Siobhan Davies in her south London studio. Photograph: Linda Nylind/the Guardian

Video footage is a valuable tool for recording, learning and restaging work, but dance is predominantly passed on physically and orally, with dancers feeding on stories of what the original choreographers intended by this lift or that jump. Many artists find the flat representation of film an unsatisfactory way to capture the ungraspable, in-the-moment energy of dance. Siobhan Davies, a choreographer and classmate of Alston’s in the late 60s, says that video can only show you “an end product, on Thursday 14 April, 1982, and of course it didn’t look the same even the following year”.

You can notate dance on paper – Benesh notation is commonly used in ballet, written on a musical stave; Labanotation is an alternative for contemporary dance – but it is an add-on rather than a fundamental. Dancers don’t learn from a score in the way you would learn to play music from reading the notes or chords.

With an art form this slippery, artists outside major institutions can leave little trace. An exhibition currently at Cell Project Space in east London casts light on one corner of British dance history, displaying photographs and documents from X6 collective and the New Dance movement of the late 70s. It evokes the era’s radical, feminist ethos in hand-drawn posters advertising performances called Bleeding Fairies and Making a Baby. While the X6 founders are keen to formalise the collection, there’s uncertainty over how and where it could be kept.

A different preservation project under way is Voices of British Ballet, an oral history compiled by former dancer Patricia Linton. Her original idea has expanded into a sprawling project with over 400 interviews, bringing huge organisational challenges and the occasional glitch – such as dancers’ instinct to demonstrate what they mean, rather than describe it, which isn’t great for tape. Linton hopes the collection will eventually be held at the V&A.

The V&A’s dance archivist Jane Pritchard recognises that small companies often need the expertise of institutions such as hers. “I think now there’s a more general awareness of the need to preserve things,” she says, adding that she always tells artists to think about the future rights to their work. In May, the V&A will present a display of the Royal Academy of Dance’s archives. Anyone can make an appointment to explore other dance archive material at the V&A’s reading room, but when the museum moves its stores to a new site in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, opening in 2023, there’ll be even better access to materials.

Enter Achilles
A study of modern masculinity ... Enter Achilles. Photograph: Miguel Altunaga Jr/ Rambert

Pritchard previously ran the archive at Rambert, Britain’s oldest dance company. Rambert’s CEO and executive producer Helen Shute is toying with an idea to expand that archive beyond the company’s own works, not just in the stores but on stage, too. Rambert is currently producing a revival of DV8’s Enter Achilles, a landmark piece by choreographer Lloyd Newson from 1995 that’s a study of modern masculinity based on a testosterone-fuelled lads’ night out in the pub. When Shute heard Newson had put DV8 on hold, she didn’t want his work to slide off the radar. When approached, Newson’s initial response was: “I don’t want to do a dusty old relic!” But Shute was convinced of its currency and Newson set out on a research trip around the UK to see if his characters were still relevant. Enter Achilles has now been reworked with a new young cast.

Shute thinks that this might be the beginning of a larger project to conserve a canon of contemporary dance, either in physical and digital archives or live revivals. Not just a catalogue of big names, but dance works that have “contributed to a certain movement or socially important conversation or affected the direction of dance,” she says. “We’re not looking to preserve things in formaldehyde, but we’re interested in how they can be revisited.”

She is currently in conversation with Tate Modern about a female choreographer (whom she can’t yet name) whose contemporaries and collaborators in the art scene are lauded worldwide. The art market elevates the importance of visual artists whose work can be collected, but the nature of choreography “does contribute to a slight devaluing of dance against other art forms” says Shute. “Because you can’t just put dancers away in an archive and keep them at the right temperature and then bring them out later.”

In a sense, every dancer is a living archive, since movement passed from body to body remains in muscle memory. It’s something Boris Charmatz explored in his 20 Dancers for the XX Century, performed at Tate Modern in 2015, with dancers sharing solos from their repertoire to make a compendium of 20th-century dance. London-based dancer Zinzi Minott is currently creating her own living archive of black dance – an area she says has a lack of tangible documentation – which she’ll be dancing on repeat in a 24-hour performance at Gateshead’s Baltic gallery in April.

“I went to [Trinity] Laban, one of the best dance schools in Europe, and I wasn’t given any information about black dance in the UK,” she says. “I was only shown Alvin Ailey. If you teach Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham but you don’t show Katherine Dunham or Pearl Primus then you have a history of contemporary dance full of holes.”

‘I work with my body and I understand that the work changes and degrades over time’ … Zinzi Minott’s past project Atheist Style Prayers.
‘I work with my body and I understand that the work changes and degrades over time’ … Zinzi Minott’s past project Atheist Style Prayers. Photograph: Anne Tetzlaff

Minott is collecting minute-long extracts from current and historical artists she thinks are in danger of being overlooked, including Greta Mendez, Malik Nashad Sharpe and Keyon Gaskin, plus the little known Ballet Nègres, the first black dance company in Europe, founded in London in 1946.

Interestingly, Minott won’t be filming her performance for posterity, because of that friction between the live-ness of the moment and the static nature of film. “Tangible archives try to keep things the same,” she says. “Whereas I work with my body and I understand that the work changes and degrades over time.”

Davies sympathises. Always a progressive thinker, she digitised her own archive in 2009, but having recently announced she is stepping down as artistic director of her company and studios this year, she’s not preoccupied with preserving particular steps. “Dance is about movement and change and that’s one of its extraordinary qualities,” she says. “I want us to notice this idea of the body changing every day.”

“I’ve tried to think of my past work as compost,” she says. “Each laid a ground plan for the next one.” In turn, Davies’s compost has provided some creative mulch for young dancers she works with at her London studios. The artists who work there will find Davies’ philosophy in the air, and some principles written down, “with the idea that people have that as a steer, to play with”.

Davies agrees that great artists’ work must be preserved and cherished, but she also loves the fact that dance is impossible to pin down. “It means we have to keep constantly intellectually and physically alert. Rather than say, that’s it – that’s the way it was, that’s the way it is.”


Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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