The summer of 2020 has forced us to reconsider the role of film simulations, despite the dance world’s conviction that dance can only take place via live performance. I’ve never thought a dance on screen was a substitute for a dance onstage, but I’ve used screen dance for decades, both for myself and my students. It’s a great way to study choreography, understand how a dance works, and gain a greater appreciation for the achievements of those who create. I’ve also thought about screen dance itself as a creative work. The pandemic shutdown has encouraged dancemakers to employ the two-dimensional medium as a primary instrument. Sometimes this produces inspired work, sometimes an inadequate substitute. It’s been impossible to survey all the dance on screen over the summer months, almost as hard as it was to see every performance in New York or Boston when the world was functioning. But I’ll concentrate here on different media-adapted ways dance companies have tried to remind us of their past achievements.
Twyla Tharp went out of the dance company business in the 1980s, but since then, she’s maintained the entity Twyla Tharp Dance and kept a cadre of dancers on tap for occasional tours, choreographing projects, and revivals. Dancers from Tharp’s early days come back occasionally to teach the old dances to other companies. These revivals keep her brand in front of a growing public.
Tharp made use of screens before almost anyone in the field. Her second or third choreography (Stride, 1965) was made for the camera; it was a linear dance filmed on a city rooftop and seen only in bits that she selected and incorporated in her other films. When she got a video camera in the late 1960s, she used it to film herself, in increasingly pregnant condition, making up phrases in the attic. She managed to document most of her ensuing dances one way or another, and by the mid-1970s she was learning what television could do from a professional director, Don Mischer. Making Television Dance (1978) was the mind-boggling result. Having learned from a BBC special of Eight Jelly Rolls that film could dwarf the dancers (an English jazz band was projected in supersize behind them for one section of the 1971 Jelly Roll Morton dance), she decided to make a live TV dance. Bad Smells (1982) was an essay in distortion, as dancer Tom Rawe, using a video camera, danced among the company, capturing them in ghoulish close-up, with the video image projected, stage-size, behind them. Tharp thought she could achieve what her big 1981 dance The Catherine Wheel couldn’t do in its theatrical run. The video revision she made for the BBC two years later was supposed to clarify the complicated relationships among the characters. Instead, with the application of several technical devices she’d learned, she made the dance thicker and more impenetrable.
Despite the list of Tharp’s groundbreaking fusions of dance and screens, the most recent screen-Tharp I could find is a traditional rendering of a stage dance, Miami City Ballet’s revival of Nine Sinatra Songs. Tharp has interpreted Sinatra’s songbooks at least six times, but the Nine is the best known, having been staged by at least 20 ballet and modern dance companies since its creation in 1982. Miami City first acquired it in 2004. The Miami film document was taken down from the Internet before I could see it more than a time or two, but it revealed something of Tharp’s evolution over nearly four decades.
Between the ’80s and the ’90s, Tharp dance ripened from high-art to popular art to in-your-face entertainment. The Miami City Ballet Sinatra online this summer was directed by Alex Brady, who danced with Tharp in the early 2000s, when the Tharp company was boosting its popular reputation. Though the Miami City edition recapped the original movements, the dancers on video seem oriented to the audience rather than focused on their partners. The copies of the original Oscar de la Renta costumes are fluffier, floatier. The whole thing looks less personal. It’s not exactly vulgar, but it’s a surface artifact, a glossy magazine view of romance in Sinatra’s later years. This Nine Sinatra revival seems retro, backward-looking without nostalgia.
Reflecting the populist trend in the arts, Tharp’s dance became more audience-oriented, less dependent on its underlying structures—though she was never as esoteric as she was sometimes perceived to be. With the publication of three self-help/memoir books and the ongoing maintenance of her repertory, her name is now a public phenomenon. Bill T. Jones has also gained public attention as an individual, apart from the choreographic portfolio he’s accumulated since his early collaborations with Arnie Zane. After Zane’s death from AIDS in 1988, Jones retained the name Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, remarking that it was their joint creation, in a sense their child.
Neither Jones nor Zane was a trained dancer when they met at SUNY Binghamton in 1971—Zane wanted to become a photographer; Jones had engaged in high-school dramatics and track. But both of them were immersed in the counterculture; they had no special reverence for high art and no aversion to incorporating contemporary artifacts in their performances. They spent a year in liberated Amsterdam, then returned to Binghamton. Jones took classes with the Trinidadian teacher Percival Borde but felt he needed more exposure to conventional modern dance. So they migrated to Brockport, where the university had a strong modern dance faculty and also harbored improvisational training with Richard Bull. Jones realized he wouldn’t be able to catch up to the technical standards of lifelong modern dancers, but he still wanted to dance and perform. Improvisation would allow him to move in his own way, without any preordained movement or format.
Around 1973 Jones and Zane met Lois Welk, who had studied contact improvisation with the form’s inventor, Steve Paxton. The pair took improvisation sessions with Welk and later started the American Dance Asylum with her in Binghamton. Contact improvisation was about reciprocity; partners learned to feed off each other’s physicality and impulses. This was the era of democratization, and the novices Jones and Zane could think of themselves as dancers. Contact improvisation could be called the ultimate leveler, the ultimate facilitator. Different bodies could work together, relying on an ongoing impetus to determine the moves, rather than falling back on the codified vocabularies of modern dance. In Jones and Zane’s performance, differences were emphasized as often as they were minimized. When Zane lifted Jones, you had to marvel at how this slight, small white man could lift a muscular black giant. They could liquefy and perform smooth gymnastics, flipping and rolling together. They could press their bodies into complementary shapes. Zane made brainy connections, and Jones spoke his mind.
For 15 years after moving to New York at the end of the ’70s, Jones and Zane made collaborative duets and individually choreographed pieces. The duet form got integrated into larger schemes: they enlisted other performers, they moved away from dingy lofts into theaters. By the ’80s, liberation was veering back to the safety of the marketplace. Jones and Zane had gained a reputation in the world of downtown dance; they were also making work for outside dance companies and community institutions, but they never became mainstream artists. Jones liked to think of himself as the only black person in avant-garde dance. There were others working downtown—Gus Solomons Jr., Blondell Cummings, Bebe Miller, Ishmael Houston-Jones, for example—but none of them had Bill T’s flair for self-promotion.
Under director Harvey Lichtenstein, Brooklyn Academy of Music was expanding its presence in the art world. BAM’s Next Wave series brought together non-mainstream artists of different disciplines by commissioning them to make work together. In 1984, Jones/Zane were invited to collaborate with composer Peter Gordon, pop artist Keith Haring, and costumer Willi Smith. The result was Secret Pastures. The trendy associates’ work distinguished the result as much as Jones/Zane’s dance itself. This past August, New York Live Arts posted a video of the complete dance as performed on 15 November 1984 at BAM. Seeing it again, I’m almost as mystified as I was in the audience 36 years ago.
A sprawling intermissionless work, Secret Pastures had two named characters, the Fabricated Man (Jones) and the Professor (Zane). The other eleven performers surrounded them with athletic moves, partnering, and processions. Zane was an academic of some sort, who arrives to research an undiscovered society. Jones was a caricature savage, clumsy and pigeon-toed. I’m not sure whether the other dancers are supposed to be natives or companions of Zane. They wear recognizable if shapeless garments. Zane wears a long white lab coat, flapping open over trousers; a white ruff sits on the top of his head. Early in the dance he meets the others, greeting each one with a different handshake, a kiss, a slap. They line up as if they’ve been picked for two teams. With Zane in the lead, they move off one step at a time, each step freezing in a crooked pose.
In the nine-minute duet that follows, Zane tries to teach the ungainly savage to do proper moves. Jones tries to imitate them but often gets the wrong idea. Jones is a clearly different species, with his awkward behavior and his lumpy, motley-painted body suit. This encounter could be a reflection of the two partners in reality trying to learn how to work together, or it could be a symbolic scene of seduction, like a ballet pas de deux.
After a lot of kinky acrobatics and ritualistic solos, the tribe/ researchers march past in militarized unison as the orchestra screams. A blackout. Jones emerges standing over a body—Zane, we learn when the lights come up. After the others return, he carries a limp Zane off into the wings, then back again. He transfers the body to another dancer, who takes it away. Jones writhes as if he’s suffering. Zane’s ghost appears from stage left and dances in triumph around Jones. He disappears, leaving Jones alone. The now-dislocated savage stumbles around in different directions, then steps into a metal framework, the remains of the scientist’s tent, and he’s last seen shuddering in a fading light.
Is this a commentary on civilization’s failed enlightenment of the noble savage? Is it about the white man’s attempted dominance of the black man? Or has Jones won in the end, to his regret? Is it about trying to make a dance out of BAM’s imposed collaboration and finally finishing the work with the pieces left unmatched? Is it about the differences between Jones and Zane themselves? The first-scene duet between them could be an ironic reflection of the brain vs. body issues they may have faced in their relationship. Subsequent critics have placed the dance in the gay liberation canon.
Although Secret Pastures wasn’t Jones and Zane’s first theater piece, it can be seen now as a turning point. By the end of the ’80s, Haring and Smith as well as Arnie Zane were dead from the effects of AIDS. Jones was HIV positive, saved by medications. After Zane’s death, Jones’s choreography became more overtly political. He took on the role of public intellectual for the dance community, engaging with media pundits and collaborating with culture-wide artists like Toni Morrison, Max Roach and Jenny Holzer. He kept the joint designation Jones/Zane in the company’s title. That title, as well as the dance company, has been subsumed since 2011 into the wider worldview of New York Live Arts.
Secret Pastures turned out to be almost a one-off dance. It’s hard to find out whether it toured; the Keith Haring sets alone—a large graffiti-covered rolling tent with pull-out side pieces—would have made it cumbersome on the road. The dance’s resurrection on Vimeo now is somewhat odd, since it didn’t become a repertory staple for the company, or a conveniently controversial icon like Jones’s big polemical pieces Still/Here (1994), Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990) and D-Man in the Waters (1989). One of the few benefits of the COVID-19 shutdown is that dance companies are staging their old films on the Internet. Like Miami City’s Sinatra revival, an old dance can emerge, spike up interest, enjoy a few screenings, and disappear. Secret Pastures, at this writing, was still available on Vimeo; I don’t know if there was ever a plan to revive it onstage.
Prominent dancers often move into new roles when they leave the stage. Tharp has recast herself as an author and lecturer. Jones is out there as activist, provocateur and facilitator of forums on cultural issues. The earliest modern dance companies were identified by their leaders. Members of each group literally copied the leaders’ movement to develop both choreography and teaching styles. These distinctive approaches to movement and performance created and fragmented the idea of modern dance. The counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s downplayed the central role of strong individuals and depersonalized the modern dance by giving rise to groups with anonymous corporate names. The Internet, now a central part of our contact-deprived lives, has expedited another transition, to new roles and meanings.
When Martha Graham died in 1991, the Graham company was in danger of losing its identity. She’d been feeding the company for nearly half a century, creating dancers, a technique and a repertory—indeed, an aesthetic—that was all hers. Under the current artistic director, Janet Eilber, the company has struggled to retain that fixed Graham and at the same time stay alive in the present. She has recirculated the extant repertory and turned to Graham’s early dances with reconstructions. Too spare and unsexy to bring in the audience during the choreographer’s last years, Graham’s dances of the ’30s proved intriguing, even politically charged, in the twenty-first century. The company also uses the early relics as thematic triggers for new inventions. Thus: Lamentation Variations (2007–2015), by a slew of contemporary choreographers, from Doug Varone to Michelle Dorrance, riffing on Graham’s eponymous 1931 solo.
Last summer the Grahams came up with one of the more imaginative virus-related solutions to the dilemma of how to get new work out to the public—a restoration of whatever is left of Graham’s two powerful solos in response to the Spanish Civil War, Deep Song and Immediate Tragedy (1937). Both were celebrated as rare danced examples of the choreographer’s cloaked politics. The company connected with the Soraya Center for the Performing Arts at California State University Northridge for a video project. The two dances are introduced on a program by Eilber, the Soraya’s Thor Steingraber and composer Christopher Rountree of the ensemble Wild Up. The video went online at the end of August. First, the two dances are introduced by Steingraber, with Eilber and Rountree discussing the origin of the newly revealed Immediate Tragedy, which hadn’t been seen since its first performances. The Graham company’s own YouTube channel includes a longer version of the Soraya conversation, with more information about Henry Cowell’s music and the dance’s reconstruction.
On the main video, there’s a performance of the reconstructed Deep Song, the intended companion piece to Immediate Tragedy. The Graham company premiered both dances during its 1937 New York season at the Guild Theater. After five decades, the Graham company brought back Deep Song for its 1988 New York season. It was danced at the premiere by Terese Capucilli. Graham couldn’t remember the choreography, and the dance was probably put together by Graham’s close advisor Ron Protas, with her supervision. They must have been cued by Barbara Morgan’s photographs of the original. Apparently the score was lost by then, and the team chose another piece of Henry Cowell’s, “Sinister Resonance,” for the accompaniment. This version of Deep Song remained in the company repertory, but Cowell’s intended music and its substitute are not acknowledged.
Immediate Tragedy premiered at Bennington College. Though he was in California at the time, the resourceful Cowell devised a way to match his music to choreography he hadn’t seen. He called it “elastic form,” specifying musical measures of different counts, for oboe and clarinet, to be set to dance phrases as applicable. At Bennington, Graham’s musical advisors quickly made the adaptations. This score was also lost.
Two years ago, Janet Eilber began working on a reconstruction of the lost dance, relying on documentation from the period, including newly discovered contact sheets of photos taken at a 1937 performance by Robert Fraser. Since the photos were shot during the dance, Eilber could use them for determining the sequence of movements. Immediate Tragedy (1937) wasn’t performed after the ’30s, but it was often cited as an example of Graham’s resistance to the Spanish Civil War. In the video “The Making of ‘Immediate Tragedy,’” Eilber tells of discovering the floor design made by Arch Lauterer at Bennington, in which he traced Graham’s path from her entrance to the end of the dance with strong zigzags and straight lines. Eilber took this sketch as another source for the dance.
She started the reconstruction on one of the dancers, but after various delays, the pandemic put an end to company activities. Eilber decided to expand the work for the company’s 14 dancers, each pandemic-ing in his or her own space. She gave them each four of the Robert Fraser pictures of the dance and had them improvise, with postmodern dance instructions: make one slow phrase; repeat a phrase . . . Certain prompts were meant to bring all 14 dancers together. Christopher Rountree and the five members of Wild Up had created a new accompaniment by improvising on a fragment of another Henry Cowell score.
What you see first is a black screen. A small photo of Graham appears in the center. Then another and another, until they fill the screen. After a moment to take that in, a contemporary dancer emerges in the corner, replicating Graham’s pose. The choreographer’s ghost fades, leaving today’s image. Like Ruth St. Denis stepping into the pose of an Oriental goddess, or a Graham devotee in 1930 learning Martha’s moves, the dance is being re-embodied. The screen fills with blocks of present-day Graham dancers, all dressed in black, filmed in their living rooms or kitchens. Improvising on Fraser’s assigned photos, they stretch, curl, press and lunge into what little space they have. The video ends with all of them swaying with feet together and arms folded overhead.
The dance you see is a montage of images, 14 glimpses of Graham-triggered moves, but not a single dance. Arch Lauterer’s two-dimen- sional sketch, which is reproduced in Sali Ann Kriegsman’s indispensable 1981 documentary book on the Bennington School of Dance, compresses the dance into a busy square. Eilber’s reconstruction translates the pathways and Fraser’s photographed gestures onto the flat surface of the screen. Each dancer’s space, confined to a room and further squeezed into one of 14 electronic rectangles, cancels out the others that came before or share the screen. This dance is Martha Graham meets Merce Cunningham and the twenty-first century. Space as cluttered, immediate, quarantined.
At the beginning of the “Making of ‘Immediate Tragedy’” video, the writer Neil Baldwin quotes a letter from Graham to Cowell about how she felt performing the dance: “I was dedicating myself anew to space.” When life returns to normal, it would be fine to see the reconstructed dance Eilber meant to make two years ago, or even to track each of the beautiful present-day Graham dancers in their own Graham-inspired immediate tragedies.