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Dancework Reconstruction: Kinesthetic Preservation or Danceworld Kitsch?
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Renee Conroy

When we think of kitsch, our thoughts turn immediately to things like C.M. Coolidge’s depictions of dogs playing poker, Margaret Keane’s paintings of wide-eyed waif children and cuddly animals, and plastic gift shop miniatures of the Eiffel Tower. Our world is so liberally peppered with obvious examples of kitsch that reconstructions of historical danceworks, such as Isadora Duncan’s Water Study or Vaslav Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, do not come readily to mind as instances of this aesthetic category. However, many critics of the reconstructive enterprise disparage reconstructions for their perceived tendency to be danceworld kitsch. Herein, I will argue that this kind criticism of the reconstructive enterprise is based on misguided assumptions about dancework reconstruction.

Although there is no univocal understanding of the term within the danceworld, ‘reconstruction’ generally refers to the activity of ‘bringing back to the stage’1 a dancework of historical importance that has been lost due to the passage of time.2 Since danceworks have a short life-span relative to works in the other performing arts,3 most danceworks that were choreographed before the first half of the 20th century survive in performance today only as a result of reconstruction.

In brief, reconstructing a lost dancework is a two-part process. First, the reconstructor qua archeologist gathers as much information as possible about the work of interest by scavenging old photographs, journals, playbills, critical reviews, and dancers’ memories. Second, the reconstructor qua proxy-choreographer weaves together the results of her research into a dancework that is as much like the original as possible. Her efforts are typically justified on the grounds that, in most cases, ‘re-building’ of this sort is the only way to preserve masterworks that have been created in a predominantly kinesthetic artform, one that has traditionally proceeded without using any forms of ‘fixation.’4

However, from the point of view of the critic the reconstructive enterprise is a pernicious, rather than a perspicuous, way of preserving our dance past. Contemporary dance writers and theorists often complain that reconstructions amount to nothing more than the ‘exhumation of lifeless artifacts’ and assert that they fail to capture the interests of contemporary audiences because they tend to look dated to those with more modern tastes. Furthermore, they maintain that the reconstructor’s focus on archeological detail produces performances that are overtly pretentious insofar as they claim themselves to be of widespread historical and aesthetic importance whilst appealing to only the danceworld’s ‘intellectual elite.’ Critics also assert that reconstructions waste valuable resources that could be better spent fostering more creative danceworld activities, and that they smack of undue sentimentality. In short, they have a number of reasons to countenance reconstructions as a kind of danceworld kitsch.

Aesthetic literature indicates that kitsch comes in many forms and can manifest a variety of aesthetic defects. While the term is colloquially associated with art that is cheaply made or is in bad taste, kitsch objects are frequently regarded as aesthetic flotsam in the philosophical community for one of three reasons. First, something may be kitsch because it is ‘too easy,’ i.e., because it promotes only superficial aesthetic responses (e.g., Keane’s paintings). Second, following Clement Greenberg’s use of the term, an object that pretends to be art may, in fact, be kitsch because it is overly formulaic or involves a mechanical use of traditional art techniques (e.g., renderings of Leondardo’s Last Supper in tapestry). Third, something may be rejected as kitsch for its excessive sentimentality, that is, because it suppresses the represented object’s negative characteristics and exaggerates its positive qualities, thereby eliciting an emotional reaction in viewers purely on the basis of idealization and cliché (e.g., Precious Moments figurines or Norman Rockwell paintings).

On the basis of these characterizations, how might the critic argue that reconstructions of danceworks like Duncan’s Water Study or Martha Graham’s Primitive Mysteries are forms of danceworld kitsch?

First, one might claim that reconstructions are formulaic and unoriginal. After all, since they are attempts to resurrect danceworks that have been long-forgotten, they are not merely examples of academic art (i.e., art that is made in the tradition of the masters). Instead, they seem to be exercises in blatant reproduction. Even worse, one might think that reconstructions are bound to be second-rate facsimiles (like paint-by-numbers versions of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers) since they are built on dancers who are often unfamiliar with the style of the original choreographer and are constructed from limited, and often contradictory, information about the original work. This point of view is implicit in Mark Franko’s injunction that the danceworld ought to replace the enterprise of reconstruction with radical reinvention, which, as Franko describes it, ‘involves actively rethinking dance history’s uses as well as its meanings now’ by producing new works based on old danceworld values, insights, or themes.5 According to Franko, reinvention is to be preferred to reconstruction because new works (based on old ideas) involve creative returns to important pieces of our dance past that are both aesthetically relevant to today’s audiences and that do not run the risk of being ‘cheap knock-offs.’

However, the claim that dancework reconstruction is a form of kitsch because it is a purely mechanical reproduction of a past work that is destined to be nothing more than a ‘shoddy copy’ fails for two reasons. First, it suggests that the process of reconstructing does not involve a substantial amount of creativity. This is simply a mistake. ‘Re-building’ a lost dancework is not like unearthing an old Etruscan vase or discovering an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus. You don’t simply dig up Doris Humphrey’s Soaring, dust it off, and then make it available for public consumption. Instead, the reconstructive enterprise – which is properly understood as an act of re-choreography – is inherently creative since it involves making numerous choices about how to most effectively and faithfully ‘fill in the gaps’ between surviving pieces of movement material. As Kenneth Archer and Millicent Hodson, two of the danceworld’s most influential and prolific reconstructors, explain:

Just as ballets do not make themselves, they do not reconstruct themselves – we must intervene. As reconstructors, we place ourselves in the middle of a historical process. From the time we start the dossiers and choreographic score until the time the ballet is premiered, we function as artists as much as scholars. We must construct the lost parts and incorporate them with what we have been able to retrieve of the original. We take responsibility for the intervention and never claim that the reconstruction is identical to the original work.6
Second, when the critic claims that reconstructions are destined to be ‘shoddy copies’ he conflates the aesthetic qualities of the original dancework with the aesthetic merits of the reconstruction. What he fails to realize is that reconstructions, and the danceworks of which they are reconstructions, are different aesthetic objects and are evaluated by distinct aesthetic criteria. After all, one can produce a very good reconstruction of a very bad dancework, or a very poor reconstruction of an excellent piece of choreography. The aesthetic merits of a reconstructed dancework qua reconstruction are products of things like the following: the extent to which the gaps that the reconstructor was forced to fill merge seamlessly with the surviving movement material from the original, the extent to which the dancers’ performances were true to the movement style of the original choreographer, and the extent to which the reconstructor was able to capture the spirit and creative impetus of the original work. The aesthetic merits of the reconstructed work qua dancework, on the other hand, involve considerations such as the extent to which the movement material is suitable for conveying the larger emotive or narrative point of the work and the extent to which the piece ‘works’ from a formal or expressive point of view. When we mark the conceptual distinction between the reconstruction and the dancework it aims to preserve, it becomes evident that reconstructions are not merely ‘aesthetic knock offs’ because we evaluate their success or failure on different aesthetic grounds than we use to judge the merit of the dancework that is ‘brought back to the stage’ through the reconstructor’s efforts.

Another way that one might argue that reconstructions are forms of kitsch turns on seeing reconstruction as a kind of unbridled nostalgia. To this end, one might maintain that the desire to reconstruct is intimately related to the hope of recapturing a ‘lost golden age.’ In support of this claim, one might point out that the appearance of reconstruction as a ‘minor industry’ in the danceworld in the 1980s coincided with an increasing dissatisfaction with the widely adopted postmodern approaches to choreography and performance that emerged from the Judson Dance Theatre in the 1960s. To those with more conventional tastes, danceworks that involved carrying beds up and down theatre aisles, eating bags of potato chips on stage, or having performers with no dance training improvise movement on the basis of open-ended rules often seemed less like dance than performance art. Hence, one might plausibly argue that reconstruction as a danceworld enterprise was the product of the desire of those with more traditional predilections to return to ‘the good old days’ when revolutionaries in dance created significant works that utilized systematized movement techniques and were based on long-standing aesthetic values such as unity and harmony. From this perspective, the attempt to recapture the artistic accomplishments of the past through reconstruction appears to be, as Franko puts it, ‘a return to in a nostalgic sense,’7 one that signifies an attitude that ‘can occasionally verge on a preciousness about the purity of [early modern] dance, and sometimes leads to protests about its erosion and impoverishment.’8

However, the claim that reconstruction is mere nostalgic return and, hence, that it involves undue sentimentality about the past is flawed in several ways. First, the reconstructive boom in the 1980s may be attributed to a generally burgeoning interest in dance history and dancework preservation rather than to a desire to ‘hide away from’ or reject contemporary dance practice by affecting a return to ‘the glory days.’ The mid-1980s marked the first time that dance history had a substantial academic foundation (thanks to the work of people like Selma Jean Cohen and Deborah Jowitt), and thus it was the first time in the brief tenure of dance as an autonomous theatre art that dance history was regarded as an important area of dance study. In addition, dance scholars of this time regarded enhanced discussion about dance history and dance research methodologies as a vital tool for promoting more widespread acceptance of theatre dance as a full-fledged fine art. To the extent that reconstruction was originally part of the ‘political manoeuvre to establish a power base for cultural identity as well as for the art itself,’9 the motivation to reconstruct was inextricably related to a desire to bring legitimacy to theatre dance in all forms (including the postmodern). In addition, the 1980s were a time in which the best repositories of information about danceworks from the early 20th century – viz., the first-generation dancers of Duncan’s, Denis’, and Nijinsky’s works – were entering their twilight years. Thus, the reconstructive boom of the 1980s was largely motivated by pragmatic desires to access these transient sources of data before they disappeared rather than by a desire to recapture some mis-perceived aesthetic splendor of yesteryear.

Second, the activity of reconstructing lost works need not be taken to express, explicitly or implicitly, any particular point of view about the aesthetic value of contemporary works. The purpose of reconstruction is to enable today’s dancers to have a more robust kinesthetic understanding of the works that paved for the way for contemporary choreographic masters like Lucinda Childs, Mark Morris, or Bill Evans. By giving today’s dancers the opportunity to understand dance history from the inside-out, we produce dancers that are more technically adept and who are able to apply what they have learned about the movement styles of the past masters to their performances of current works. Indeed, reconstructions give all of us the opportunity to engage more fully with contemporary danceworks since they enable us to see today’s choreographic achievements against the backdrop of older dance values in a way that is more immediate and vivid than reading a dance history book could ever be. Hence, the desire to reconstruct need not imply valorization of the past at the expense of the present since reconstructions are just one way among many of increasing our aesthetic understanding of, and engagement with, today’s theatre dance forms. Furthermore, reconstruction is not simply a sentimental return, a nostalgic regression back to the days of our dance ‘childhood’ that is on a par with repeatedly watching a video of ‘Susie’s first dance recital.’ Instead, it is an actively creative way of re-contextualizing (and reaffirming) our dance present by synthesizing research about our dance past into live performances that make it more readily available to us all.

1. The use of scare quotes here is meant to indicate that reconstructions may or may not be numerically identical to the original works they aim to ‘re-build.’ Since for the purposes of this paper the identity question is left open, I retain the traditional danceworld language about reconstructions throughout while signaling its underlying (and un-argued for) assumption that they are genuine instances of earlier works by using quotation marks.

2. Note that there is a process/product ambiguity in the use of the term. ‘Reconstruction’ may refer to the act of rebuilding or to the rebuilt dancework itself. Following danceworld tradition, I use it in both senses throughout.

3. There are a number of reasons that danceworks have a relatively low survival rate. First, dance is still predominantly an oral tradition. Even with today’s ubiquitous video technology and improved systems of dance notation, dancers and choreographers continue to pass danceworks down from body-to-body rather than having them preserved in notation or captured on archival quality film. Second, dancers tend to be a rather forward-looking group. Even though many choreographers now recognize the necessity of preserving their works for future audiences, most still find working on older pieces less artistically gratifying than creating new ones. As a result, many are reluctant to put effort into saving their older choreography in any way other than in the kinesthetic memories of their dancers.

4. ‘Fixation’ is Julie Van Camp’s locution for anything that might serve as a way of specifying, and therefore preserving, a particular dancework type, e.g., a score produced in standard dance notation or a choreographer endorsed video of a particularly good performance of the work.

5. See Mark Franko, ‘Repeatability, Reconstruction and Beyond’ in Theatre Journal, Vol. 41, No. 1 (March 1989) pp 56-74.

6. Kenneth Archer and Millicent Hodson, ‘Confronting Oblivion’ in Preservation Politics: Dance Revived Reconstructed Remade, ed. Stephanie Jordan, (Dance Books Ltd, 2000) p. 4.

7. Franko, 57.

8. Ramsay Burt, ‘Reconstructing the Disturbing New Spaces of Modernity: The Ballet Skating Rink’ in Preservation Politics, p. 22.

9. Stephanie Jordan, preface to Preservation Politics.

2007 © Renee Conroy

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