Is it possible to preserve a moment in dance history? To some, I imagine, my question seems absurd. “Of course!” they will respond. “And in so many ways, film, still photography, dance notation, even good old-fashioned storytelling. And plus, this is what repertory companies are for!”
I have difficulty arriving at the same conclusion. Don’t danced moments have a here-and-nowness, an ephemeral quality to them? And don’t they happen at unique points in human history that can never occur again? If these things are true, it seems to me that just as a danced moment happens, it escapes. That is, dance is at the same moment here and lost forever. And so, it strikes me as absurd when one suggests that dance could ever possibly be preserved, whether by a filmmaker, photographer, dance writer, or even the very best storyteller.
At least, that was my line of thought until I had a chance to see the Martha Graham Dance Company’s performance at the Joyce Theater on March 2, 2013. Now, it occurs to me that what I’ve believed up to this point is at least partly false. And so, the question I find myself asking is no longer whether a moment in the history of dance can be preserved, but how and when it happens.
The performance opened with Cave of the Heart, one of Graham’s Greek-themed masterworks choreographed in 1946. Set to music by Samuel Barber and inspired by the story of Medea, Cave… was a dramatic exploration of love’s dark side. Pairing quintessentially Graham movement vocabulary with striking facial expression and theatrical gestures, the four dancers moved throughout the sparsely ornamented space to communicate this tragic narrative.
Luca Veggetti’s From the Grammar of Dreams followed, set to a score of the same name created by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and consisting of a series of texts by American poet Sylvia Plath. Five daring women wearing black pants, black socks, and flesh colored tops slid, hovered, and twitched their way across a bare, starkly lit stage, performing a series of fragmented, sometimes disjointed movement vignettes in, around, and away from spotlights that would periodically illuminate patches of the stage. Perhaps the most beautiful part of this piece was its source—the artistic team for this piece contributed their work on From the Grammar of Dreams to support the Martha Graham Dance Company’s storm recovery efforts.
Third was the newest installment of Lamentation Variations, an event conceived in 2007 to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11. Invited choreographers create a movement study in reaction to a 1930s video of Graham dancing the Lamentation solo, and set the work on current Graham company members. This evening’s installment included a flesh-toned, pendular interpretation by Taiwanese choreographer Bulareyaung Pagarlava (2009), a vision of purple tulle and paper shredders by postmodernist Yvonne Rainer (2012), and the New York premiere of Doug Varone’s contribution—a sensitive and athletic quartet for men.
Graham’s Diversion of Angels closed the show, filling the stage with bright and uplifting images of love’s many manifestations. Xiaochuan Xie and Lloyd Knight, who danced the role of The Couple in Yellow, were a genuine pleasure to watch. Overall, the work was a touching and inspiring glimpse at the stages of love.
As I mentioned earlier, this performance moved me to reconsider my long-standing belief that moments in dance history cannot be preserved. My change of mind came about after having reflected a bit on the overall impact of the storm losses that the Company suffered.
Though I do not think that these losses were fortuitous, I wonder if they may have revealed something valuable to all of us in the dance world, and perhaps even to the Graham Company. Perhaps moments in dance history cannot be preserved in the traditional sense because they aren’t things that exist outside of the dancers that make them. Perhaps ours is a living history, an ever-transforming account of dancers’ thoughts, visions, movements, and words. If this is true, it might be that though danced movements evaporate at the very moment they are conveyed, their having been conveyed changes the cultural and historical context within which future danced movements can be dreamed up and done. A change in the world’s dance space, then, is a moment in dance history completely preserved.