Everything Old Is New Again

December 26, 2007

Reconstructing a ballet is a legacy of love, but one with a ticking clock. Today’s dancers, with their 21st-century bodies, sensibilities, and training, face challenges in assimilating the aesthetic of early and mid-20th-century choreography.
Dance Magazine spoke to three dance artists deep into the process of restaging noted ballets: Suzanne Farrell, who is rebuilding a Balanchine work; Dianne McIntyre, who has made a second career of staging Helen Tamiris’ How Long Brethren?; and Clay Taliaferro, who recently revived The Traitor, a 1954 work by José Limón. We also spoke to some of the dancers who are breathing life into these ballets.

Suzanne Farrell has likened reconstructing once-lost ballets to piecing together fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are the missing words and gaping spaces that time has eaten away, mistranslations and misunderstandings of what remains, and the impossibility of fully comprehending life in the context in which the manuscript was created.


Farrell decided last year to piece together Balanchine’s 1968 Pithoprakta, which she danced with Arthur Mitchell for a fleeting season or two. Known as Balanchine’s last muse—and now at the helm of her own pick-up company—Farrell has been attending to her mentor’s forgotten works. What she finds, she says, “might just be a shard of something, but it opens up lots of curiosities, like a word here or there, that clarify and substantiate a ballet’s existence.”


“The central duet looks like Balanchine,” says company member Amy Brandt. “But in the corps work, he wanted something new. It seems very ’60s. We sort of prance around with arms sometimes hanging loose. Then we do little hand movements in front of our faces, hands very close together, alternating with heelwork. It’s very eye-catching.”


Part of Farrell’s own Balanchine Preservation Initiative, Pithoprakta had the advantage of being filmed in rehearsal, although without Mitchell, who wasn’t available the day the camera showed up. “I did go to Arthur, desperately,” Farrell says, “but he didn’t remember anything.”


Farrell isn’t interested in restoring Mr. B’s works as musty museum pieces. “When I preserve them, I don’t want them to be embalmed,” she says. “I want the choreography to have a life.”

In 1990, when Dianne McIntyre was approached to resuscitate Helen Tamiris’ long-lost How Long Brethren? for George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, she said without skipping a beat, “I love Tamiris. I’ll do it.” Now she laughs at her naiveté: “I didn’t know what I was getting into.”


McIntyre, a pioneer of dance theater pieces about black culture, had nothing to go on, save her classroom experience learning Tamiris’ Negro Spirituals from a notated score. She spent long days in the Federal Theatre Project archives perusing photographs and sifting through notes, reviews, and old programs to track down long-retired dancers who might remember a phrase here or a motif there that would let the 25-minute work dance again.


Ultimately, it did. In the past 17 years McIntyre has restaged Brethren, the 1937 epic that deals with the pathos and passions of Southern blacks, for several universities and professional troupes. Without notation or a film record, she acknowledges, the project was as much artistic as it was archival.


McIntyre’s greatest challenge has been pushing today’s dancers to attain the emotional depth required of Tamiris’ stark motifs. Often, she observes, they lack the dynamism the work demands. “They don’t move with strong energy. They’re floppy. And dancing in a more dramatic way—that’s different for them too.” By the end of the process, McIntyre expects shuffling rows of stooped bodies, tautly held tableaux, and fearsome Grahamesque hinges that few present-day dancers can finesse on 16 counts.


“The piece is very controlled, very specific,” says Jackie Nowicki, a senior at Western Michigan University, who danced in the work at ADF last summer. “It’s very awkward the way your body is positioned. Your head is torqued, your arms are completely inverted, and your feet are both inverted.”

“Reconstruction is difficult if you just go in to record steps and reread notes about the characters,” says Clay Taliaferro, who last summer reconstructed José Limón’s The Traitor for the Limón Dance Company. A former Limón dancer and recently retired Duke University professor, Taliaferro learned the tension-filled work in the 1970s directly from cast members Lucas Hoving and Chester Wolenski. Now it was his turn to pass it on.


The Traitor
, a distillation of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, vibrates with masculine energy. Taliaferro believes the choreography shows the way: “There’s no great need to ‘act’ in this work if you do the fullness of the movement—etch, flash, carve through the space using weight as a resistance.”


Taliaferro worked to bring out the distinct personalities of the men. “Clay wanted each of us to have a personality of our own,” says company member Roel Seeber.


Limón dancer Francisco Ruvalcaba added that in the case of a classic like The Traitor, he’s mindful of the future. He is aware that, within one generation, dancers who worked with Limón will no longer be around to call upon. “If I would be in Clay’s shoes years from now,” Ruvalcaba says, “I could bring back the version of the work that I got from him.”

McIntyre, too, is attentive to the future. Brethren has been notated, videotaped, and performed multiple times since her first reconstruction in 1991. Now, at the University of Maryland, the work lives again. “You’re the next generation,” she told her 16 students. “You need to know how I did this so one day you can do it.”


As for Farrell, with the plethora of Balanchine works available, why dig up the few forgotten ones? “I do all of this because I care,” she says. “These ballets should be remembered in an effective way on somebody’s body.”


Likewise, Taliaferro says, “It is my responsibility to pass this on and let José’s choreographic voice be heard. Now there’s a next generation to pass it on after me. It will live in the bloodlines of these dancers.”

Lisa Traiger writes on dance and the performing arts from Rockville, MD.