Above: “Skulls Duet” from Gallery (1978)

Below: Scenes of “Interlude” from Gallery

Gallery at the Joyce

Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company
February 9–14, 2016
Joyce Theater, New York City


I am aesthetically challenged by the revivals of those dance works that chor­eographers produced in the “dim” past. What is the obligation of those who prepare and present the revival?

First, we need to recognize that the recording of dance works is nebulous. A Labanotation score is a dry document. Film lacks the third dimension. And words… well, are just words.

So where do we go to reproduce the real works? Art works such as painting, sculpture, and architecture exist and so can be copied as desired. Music? Music has problems. How different from the original is Bach played on a modern piano! And how many versions of the “Hallelujah Chorus” have we heard? But when produced by artists we recognize it because the notes have not been changed. The fundamental premise of the piece has not been al­tered. And done by artists we are uplifted.

Dance has Bach’s problems. In reconstruction the “instruments” have changed. Every body is different, with a tonality of its own, just as a mod­ern piano differs from Bach’s clavichord. Music, in addition to the actual notes, has its tempo, its volume, it accents, etc. (which gives the line of sound distinction), and its environment (the acoustics of venue since music is an aural art). And motion has, in addition to the “steps,” tempo, texture of motion, accompaniment, manner of performance, and its environment.

So how do we fulfill our obligation to reproduce dance art as faithfully as possible?

Labanotation gives a fairly accurate record of “steps”—the movement of the dance, together with a visual record. Film does the same. Written instruc­tions exist. But just as music reproduction depends upon the performer, so does dance. The dance artist can (and most usually do) do a good job of presenting the motion of historic works.

However, there are some works of dance that require more than good mo­tion and the reenactment of the foot and body work. Some dance requires a specific setting. Some of Graham’s works without sculpture would be meaningless. The Green Table requires a table. Singing in the Rain re­quires a street and water. The performance of these pieces requires these properties so that the motion can be seen as intended. And some dance requires speci­fic lighting. Pioneer modern dancer Loïe Fuller (1862–1928) constructed a stage with trap doors to the cellar, from where lamp oper­ators could direct lighting from below. Lighting from traditional lamp positions would not present those dances as Fuller intended. The motion may be the same, but the aesthetic impact is not.

And now to the reason for this exposition—Alwin Nikolais’s black light bal­lets wherein the black light effects and not the motion of the dancers are important. I refer specifically to the “skulls duet” in Gallery. The costume for this work is black capes with small white skulls thereon that glow in the black light. The magic of this work is the illusion of the many tiny, disembodied skulls cavorting in air and not the “dancer-mechanism” that makes it happen. Seeing the dancers destroys the illusion.

Now I have no doubt that when this ballet was recorded the dancers may have been lit so that the reconstructionist would know just how those skulls were moved. But… someone needed to make note of this fact. The recorder needs to be more thorough in exposition. And he who reproduces needs to understand the aesthetic of the work. And we who were there need to add our voices so that masterworks can maintain their glory for new generations to enjoy.

Ruth E. Grauert, February 2016