By Cheryl Ossola and David Favrot
Call it a sign of the times, a response to the sorry state of the economy. But I’ve noticed some marketing methods and “value-added” efforts by major ballet companies that boost their own visibility and image while promoting creativity in others.
I’m talking about companies’ community-oriented efforts during their Nutcracker runs: San Francisco Ballet’s “Magical Memories Nutcracker Video Contest” (make a short video “that reenacts or re-imagines a scene or a favorite magical memory from Nutcracker”) and Pacific Northwest Ballet’s call for choral groups to perform in the lobby before performances. PNB has had professional singers perform in previous years, but this year, to save money, it asked for volunteers. In a similar vein, Cincinnati Ballet had young violinists playing in the lobby pre-Nutcracker. These ideas are smart because they’re fun, they hit us where it matters most—in our hearts—and they inspire creativity, which seems fitting for arts organizations.
I wasn’t in the lobby in Seattle or Cincinnati to hear those community choral groups sing and the pint-sized violinists play, but I can tell you that hearing them would have made going to Nutcracker that much more memorable. Sure, I like the idea of engaging professional singers and musicians—they need to stay afloat too—but think of all the youngsters who saw kids just like themselves singing and playing at such a big-deal event. If they’re not destined to be dancers, they just might think about adding music to their lives.
Since it was online, I had full access to SFB’s contest. With few exceptions, the videos proved the depth of our emotional connection to this American ballet tradition. Most were funny, quirky, or sentimental, and their creators showed talents that have nothing to do with dance: developing a concept, writing a script, designing a set or costumes, and figuring out how to bring their ideas to life, real or animated, on the small screen.
I hope these companies achieved what they set out to with these ventures and I’d like to see this trend continue, regardless of the state of the economy. Whether you find fulfillment in music, making videos, or dancing, it’s all good. It’s all art, and we need more of it in our world. —Cheryl Ossola, Editor in Chief
Now You See It, Now You Don’t
She isn’t much to look at on YouTube: a stout, middle-aged woman, dressed in what look like the living-room draperies. Arms outstretched, she waltzes back and forth in front of a row of formal, impassive men for a few seconds. Still, this snippet of grainy, silent, black-and-white film, shot outdoors near Moscow in 1921, is the only surviving dance footage of Isadora Duncan: breaker of taboos, proponent of socialism and sexual liberation, and—for lovers of modern dance—the Mother of Us All.
Of course, we should be grateful even for this morsel. Photographer Edward Steichen recalled that Duncan “didn’t want her dancing recorded in motion pictures but would rather have it remembered as a legend,” and she got her wish. But one can’t help thinking of more recent dance figures whose documentary record falls far short of the ideal.
Take Merce Cunningham, for example. He was creating new work right up to the end of his life last year at age 90, but how much is readily accessible to the curious? (I’m singling him out because I’m a fan, but the video shelves aren’t overloaded with Paul Taylor or Pina Bausch, either.) Search for Cunningham on Amazon, and you find this: Two documentaries by Elliot Caplan, Cage/Cunningham (1991) and Points in Space (1986), and Charles Atlas’ Merce Cunningham—A Lifetime of Dance (2000), as well as two instructional DVDs on Cunningham technique. There’s also a DVD of Cunningham’s Split Sides (2003), though the scores by rock critical faves Radiohead and Sigur Ros may play a role in its preservation, and Caplan’s Merce Cunningham Collection, Volume 1, a set of three works. Atlas’ DVD of BIPED (one of Cunningham’s most acclaimed later works, from 1999) has been discontinued for the U.S. market; I have a French copy in the PAL video format that I can play only on my MacBook.
And that’s about it. The Cunningham Dance Foundation has announced an ambitious plan to preserve his choreographic legacy, but in the meantime, what we have is a paltry representation of six decades of creativity from one of the last century’s most acclaimed dancemakers. Merce Cunningham, those who loved his work, and those who might learn to love it if they could only see it deserve better. —David Favrot, Associate Editor