Saving Our Collective Memory

On Preserving America’s Modern Dance Legacy

By Robert Johnson

Good news arrived last month, in a press release from the Paul Taylor Dance Company. It seems Taylor is refusing to go quietly.

courtesy Paul Taylor Dance Company, bottom, courtesy former Merce Cunningham Dance CompanyWhen the grand old man lays down his burden, a duly anointed successor will step in as head of a new enterprise called Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance, which, for the moment, Taylor is directing himself. According to the bulletin, it will be “a place where a new generation of contemporary choreographers will be nurtured and showcased.” That sounds good. But it gets better. The release goes on to promise that the new institution will be a repository, “where the masterworks of the genre’s great pioneers are preserved and presented” both by Taylor’s dancers and by skilled guest artists. Finally, the document concludes, Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance will be dedicated to propagating the faith. It will be a tabernacle “where modern dance — an indigenous American art form — is exposed to large audiences to be experienced and celebrated.”

Let’s not quibble about the “indigenous” stuff, and whether American modern dance got its start here or in Europe. Any serious effort to preserve our fragile dance inheritance deserves a rousing “Hosanna!” and “Amen!”

Based at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, in New York, Taylor’s re-purposed dance company will begin to perform its expanded repertoire in 2015. The release offers no clue yet which young choreographers may be deemed worthy of encouragement, but Taylor has expressed an interest in presenting the works of Martha Graham, and maybe Doris Humphrey. There are a lot of old choreographers who need saving.

What seems certain is that Taylor’s own dances will not be allowed to disappear from public view. We can’t know what audiences 50 or 200 years from now may think of the sauntering parade that breaks into a mad dash in “Esplanade,” or of the tormented Bible Belt fanatics in “Speaking in Tongues.” Someday the crooning of the Andrews Sisters, in “Company B,” may sound as ghostly as the songs of Stephen Foster do today, when we hear them rehearsed in Taylor’s “American Dreamer.” Yet the gallantry of “Airs,” the over-boiling passions of “Promethean Fire,” the nuclear terror of “Scudorama,” and the sardonic laughter of “From Sea to Shining Sea” will endure, by golly. And who’s to say if, in that hoped-for future, America will not still be struggling with its identity, and straining to make out its reflection in the mirror that artists like Taylor hold up to their fellow citizens for the purpose of soul-gazing? Audiences yet unborn may yawn at Taylor’s dances without comprehending them, or they may cherish them even more than we do. Like thoughtless children, we may be taking him for granted.

Call him “ornery” if you will. Paul Taylor was a rebel in his time, but he was also once a bright college kid who read about the history of dance and became curious. Before he ever stretched his own legs in a dance class, he grew fascinated with Vaslav Nijinsky, the vanished star of an earlier generation who became a legend and an enigma. Now Taylor is 83 years old, and among the most imaginative, the most prolific, and the most acclaimed dance-makers America has produced. He has earned a place of honor in the annals of dance, but, after a lifetime devoted to vigorous movement, he wants more for himself than the dry and unsupple pages of a book. Why shouldn’t he have more? Technology now makes it relatively easy to preserve dances, so why should any great choreographer have to take his achievements to the grave? Is money the only issue, or can we blame our attitudes, too?Technology now makes it relatively easy to preserve dances, so why
should any great choreographer have to take his achievements to the
grave? Is money the only issue, or can we blame our attitudes, too?

The question of whether dances ought to be preserved seems unwarranted. Other art forms have their museums, whose contents are jealously guarded in buildings like stone-clad fortresses. Nations bicker over the shards assembled there. Enshrined in musical notation, Mozart’s symphonies and Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” can be played anywhere in the world. While our language continues to evolve, the printed word ensures that the speech of bygone generations, and the insights of long-dead scientists and philosophers are all readily available to us in libraries. Our laws are a storehouse of judicial experience. Only dance has done without its heritage of accumulated wisdom, lacking much of a sustained presence in the West. Eastern cultures, by and large, have been more respectful of the past, with China’s Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge standing in relief as destructive exceptions.

In every other field but dance, the wisdom of preserving humanity’s achievements is acknowledged without debate. How could it be otherwise? Our self-awareness as individuals and our ability to function depend upon our memories. Without memory we are as helpless as infants who have yet to discover the world, and as disoriented and bewildered as old people in whom the loss of memory is classified an illness. Our recollections may be fragmentary, inaccurate, or dishonest (see Taylor’s “Three Dubious Memories” for a wryly humorous perspective), but for better or worse they’re who we are. Societies have collective memories — what we call “culture” — which are equally indispensable. For the dance community, retaining a set of canonic masterpieces is an act of self-preservation. It seems vital to the community’s ongoing existence, and to establishing dance’s place within the longer narratives of American and world history. Teaching ourselves to value and protect this canon is a change long overdue, and well worth any disruptions it might cause.

courtesy Paul Taylor Dance Company, bottom, courtesy former Merce Cunningham Dance CompanyTaylor isn’t the only American choreographer to face encroaching age, or the first to consider the posterity of modern dance. Alvin Ailey and José Limón both tried, but failed to establish repositories for our modern masterworks. Their instinct to share resources, however, led them to include dances by other choreographers in their repertories, which has helped their companies to survive and shelter the works orphaned at their deaths — a just reward for their generosity. Since ballet companies are usually repertory companies, the creations of the late George Balanchine have also survived and continue to be disseminated. No one (well, hardly anyone) is suggesting that Balanchine’s works should be abandoned as historical clutter irrelevant to the present day. Through the efforts of historian and former New York City Ballet dancer Nancy Reynolds, the George Balanchine Foundation’s Interpreters’ Archive has done priceless work to secure the memories of his dancers. Martha Graham’s death precipitated a crisis tha her fellow artists, funding organizations, and pundits all found distasteful and do not wish to see repeated. Yet what was it about? Graham’s heirs were fighting over their inheritance, and over who would have the privilege of keeping her works alive. The winners have transformed her company into a mixed repertory company, and a flexible institution capable of adapting old dances and commissioning new ones. Its story is far from over.

The Dance Heritage Coalition, a consortium of libraries, has composed a list of “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures” as a basis for so-far limited action. The National Endowment for the Arts provides “American Masterpieces” grants that
sponsor dance revivals. Yet in the absence of a national policy supporting long-term continuity for our dance companies, and without consensus and cooperation in the field, the rescue of America’s dance legacy has been piecemeal and mostly a matter of private initiative and personal relationships. Thus the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company preserves some of the repertoire of the late Alwin Nikolais, with which it continues to tour successfully. Small groups like Anna Sokolow’s Players’ Project will do what it can, while still around; and faithful individuals like Lori Belilove maintain the spirit of Isadora Duncan in their dancing bodies. A sense of personal responsibility motivates those artists who undertake revivals. Thus Joan Myers Brown commissioned the retrospective program “On The Shoulders of Our Ancestors” for the Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco) in 2000, and has resuscitated classics like Talley Beatty’s “Southern Landscape.” Urban Bush Women investigated and salvaged the legacy of Pearl Primus. And Olive Dance Theatre, of Philadelphia, used an NEA grant to reclaim the innovations of hip-hop dancer Ken Swift. Meanwhile, once sought-after celebrities like the choreographers Charles Weidman and Helen Tamiris survive on the fringes, thanks mostly to college dance departments. It bears emphasizing that all these worthwhile efforts are only temporary.

We can see that our solutions are inadequate by considering the cases of Trisha Brown and the late Merce Cunningham. With Brown incapacitated by the loss of her memory and unable to create new work (here we see most clearly the crucial relationship between memory and our ability to shape the future) in 2013 the choreographer’s proxies announced their intention to carry on without her. Hampering their efforts, however, will be a dance establishment focused almost exclusively on the creation of new works. Avant-garde theaters like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with its Next Wave Festival, are not in the business of presenting revivals. So Brown’s company will have to adapt to a touring network of smaller theaters that are not wealthy enough to pay the freight costs associated with transporting large-scale productions. Brown’s heirs wisely have decided to maintain her company, guaranteeing a continuity of live performances by dancers trained in her methods. Yet dances like “Newark (Niweweorce)” or “Set and Reset” may be presented minus their spectacular scenery, annulling some of Brown’s most famous collaborations with visual artists. Charisma and personal charm, it seems, are essential to fund-raising the American way, so the absence of a choreographer who is a “living legend” at social events and during curtain calls becomes a major disadvantage.

Photo by Christopher DugganCunningham died in 2009, and so far his trustees are the only ones who have chosen to abandon a body of dances universally acclaimed as works of genius. They excused their decision to disband the Cunningham company, following a farewell tour, by claiming to fulfill the old man’s dying wishes. And they had the nerve to suggest that this abdication of duty might provide a salutary example for others (God forbid!). Yet even if we believe what we are told about Cunningham’s intentions to scuttle his company after his death, his wishes don’t matter. A man’s despair on his deathbed is less important than the extraordinary dances he created at his peak, and those creations filled with vitality and inspiration belong to the whole world.

The illogic of the arrangements made for Cunningham suggests that the problems of touring with an old and challenging repertoire, and the board’s inability or unwillingness to pursue funding proved the deciding factors in the decision to liquidate the company. Supposedly the integrity of Cunningham’s dances could not be maintained without his personal supervision, and his devoted followers could not bear to watch them deteriorate. Yet two years after his death, the company’s final appearances at the Park Avenue Armory in New York were, by all accounts, exquisite and received deliriously by the public. The company had been unearthing old dances and presenting them successfully for years. Furthermore, although this ensemble of dancers trained to perform the Cunningham repertoire was not allowed to continue, ballet companies and student dancers who lack that specialized training are allowed to license Cunningham’s dances and perform them under the supervision of specialists. Can the integrity of those one-off performances seriously be compared to that of a dedicated ensemble, even many years following the choreographer’s death? What integrity will Cunningham’s works have when, as is inevitable, no qualified person remains alive to supervise the amateur revivals?

A terrible irony seems attached to each step in the process of dismantling Cunningham’s edifice. His choreographies will be assiduously documented and stored in futuristic “capsules,” left for strangers (who? space aliens?) to discover and interpret. And while the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, has received the empty costumes and the scenery, which it will house in a temperature-controlled sanctuary — that’s what museums do — the brilliant dances that sprang from Cunningham’s body and mind are the centerpiece unaccountably missing from this flawed conservation scheme. Those dances need to be performed, not freeze-dried.

Modernism and the related faith in progress may seem inimical to the preservation of the past. Yet the lofty goals that modern artists pursue, tirelessly and at great personal cost, and the spectacular results of their labor do not jibe with America’s consumer culture of disposability or with our system for funding the arts. It seems fashionable today to bewail the passing of the so-called “Dance Boom” of the 1960s and ‘70s, but how do we expect our dance community to evolve and grow if its greatest achievements are thrown out like yesterday’s trash? If dances cannot retain their value and speak to future generations, then where is the incentive for young artists to enter a field that offers few material rewards, or even the motivation for the public to buy tickets to thought-provoking events that upset the status quo? Either dances like “Night Journey” and “Company B,” “Agon” and “Winterbranch,” “The Moor’s Pavane” and “Revelations,” are genuine masterpieces of art — in which case they must be saved — or else the fanfare that accompanied the explosion of dance in the 20th-century has been no more than hucksterism and lying publicity. If the latter is true, we can all cancel our theater tickets and settle in contented to watch the latest episodes of “So You Think You Can Dance?” the new American standard of excellence. As if the public agony of the Martha Graham Dance Company weren’t enough, the tragedy of the Cunningham company’s disappearance should be a wake-up call to all American dance companies and arts funders.

In the meantime, Paul Taylor is exhibiting the foresight and common sense that kept America’s pioneers alive on the Western trail. Asked about the project to preserve his dances, he said, “I think the public should see these pieces,
whether they’re old or new. They have value, and they’re just worth seeing.

“You can be a museum, and still be contemporary.”

Robert JohnsonRobert Johnson is the dance critic for The Star-Ledger, in Newark, N.J., and a free-lance writer on dance. For more than 25 years he has covered the American dance scene for daily papers, trade magazines, books and scholarly journals. He has taught and lectured on dance history and criticism; and has worked as an editor at Dance Magazine and Pointe Magazine. He trained in ballet with Nina Youshkevitch; and holds a master’s degree in Performance Studies from New York University. In 2005 Dance New Jersey, the local service organization, awarded him its first Dance Advocate Award. Follow him on Twitter @RobertJ26215165, or visit


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