My friend Mel and I are sitting in the back corner of studio three at TRDance. A few of our fellow company members are learning a duet with our director, Todd, in the middle of the room. I’m massaging my calf and leaning on the barre, and Mel is poring over a sheet of notes that Todd handed out in rehearsal the week before.
The notes are a list of the movements and counts of the piece we are currently learning, New Moon, which was choreographed by modern-dance icon Erick Hawkins in 1989. Mel is muttering and counting to herself over one section. It doesn’t mean much to me: “3×5–star lean R, 3 L front, 4 R front, 5 L front (roll with side-lifts and arms front); repeat.”
Mel eyes the paper skeptically, like she’s waiting for it to speak to her.
“Do you think that’s three fives or five threes?” she asks.
I have no idea.
“R boomerang jump,” reads one cryptic instruction. Another notation could be a sort of poem: “skitter swerving upstage with eyebrow arms.”
It strikes me that more than any art form I can think of, dance resists capture. You can preserve the beauty of an aria or a rock song in a pattern of notes on a score. Plays are constantly given new life by performers, but they also live in the words on a page. Sculptures arrest motion and save it for thousands of years. Of course, all performing art forms are most powerful in the moment of performance, but it seems to me that dance carries so little meaning in preserved forms. The words that might describe a wonderful moment in New Moon when my friend Caitlyn bends slowly to the floor would probably be the same words that might describe “drop it like it’s hot” at the club.
One form of dance notation, created in the time of Louis XIV, looks like a combination of hieroglyphics, music notes, and chicken scratches. Two prominent forms of dance notation in our time, Laban and Benesh, are known by very few dancers, and in my experience they are rarely used in the actual process of dance-company life.
New York City Ballet cofounder Lincoln Kirstein talks in his Ballet Alphabet about the paradox of wanting to preserve the intangible power of dance. He writes, “A desire to avoid oblivion is the natural possession of any artist. It is intensified in the dancer, who is far more under the threat of time than others.” Kirstein writes about the invention of systems that record dance steps and then concludes that “from a practical point of view, for work in determining the essential nature of old dances with any objective authority, they are all equally worthless.”
photo credit | Ryan Livingston
Of course, video technology has made documenting dance much easier. As part of the process of learning New Moon, we’re looking at two videos, one from the 1989 premiere performance featuring Laura Pettibone, who is setting the piece on TRDance along with Todd. Todd performs in the second video, which is from the nineties. Video is a great tool for preserving movement, but the one-dimensionality of video strips away much of the power. It’s notable that when documentarian Wim Wenders decided to create a film about legendary German modern dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, he filmed his documentary in 3D.
In our first New Moon rehearsal, Laura read from an E. E. Cummings poem that was one of Erick Hawkins’s inspirations when he began to choreograph the piece after recovering from an illness. Early in the poem, Cummings writes:
and now you are and i am now and we’re
a mystery which will never happen again,
a miracle which has never happened before–
and shining this our now must come to then
The our now that Cummings writes about is why “star lean R, 3L front” has so little to do with the actual experience of a moment of dance on stage. The best moments of dance are gone so quickly you can barely catch them.
Today in rehearsal for New Moon, as a dancer performed a solo in which she gestures at the new moon, my friend Cheyenne pointed out to me that the new moon is the moon when it’s gone. There’s nothing there to see—just a memory of light.
Come see us dance! Todd Rosenlieb Dance will present the first performances of its 10th anniversary season on November 13 and 14 at 7:00 p.m. at the Roper Theater at 340 Granby Street in Norfolk. A 10th Anniversary Gala event at Work/Release on Granby Street will follow the show on Saturday evening. For gala tickets call 626-3262. For advance tickets to the show, go to tccropercenter.org.