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The Nature Of The Beast

June 30, 2009

In his excellent article about Merce Cunningham's decision to disband his dance company following his death ("Why Dances Disappear") Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout does a brilliant job of explaining how dances are taught by choreographers to dancers and how this impacts the longevity of the pieces he or she creates. My favorite part of the article is where the writer compares the transmission of a piece of dance from choreographer to company to the transmission of a piece of classical music from its composer to an orchestra:

Dance notation is so complex and inexact that no choreographer has ever used it to create a new piece from scratch. In fact, most choreographers and dancers don't even know how to read dance notation, much less write it. Instead of sitting at a desk and writing down the steps of a new dance, a choreographer makes them up on the spot in a studio and personally teaches them to his dancers, who then perform them from memory on stage.

No other art form works this way. Imagine that instead of writing down his Fifth Symphony, Beethoven had taught it to the members of the Vienna Philharmonic by playing it on the piano over and over again until each musician knew his own part by heart. Now suppose that the Philharmonic liked the Fifth Symphony so much that it continued to perform the piece for the next two centuries, with each succeeding generation of players learning the score by rote from its predecessors. Ask yourself this: What would Beethoven's Fifth sound like today? Would it still sound the same way it did in 1808, or would it have undergone dramatic changes in the process of being transmitted by ear from musician to musician? Or might it have been forgotten altogether?

The only aspect of Teachout's story which strikes me as odd is the author's surprise at the idea that a choreographer might want to keep his company going on past his death (Cunningham is 90 years old.) "Why break up so solidly established an ensemble?" writes Teachout.

To my mind, the dissolving of performing arts companies as a result of the death or indisposition of its artistic creators is a natural thing. Companies ARE their directors in most cases. Without the charismatic visionaries at their core, they often lack the energy to continue. There's just no point.

I believe that more companies should follow Cunningham's lead. And I speak somewhat from experience: When I was in my early 20s, I worked right out of college for the London-based theatre company Cheek By Jowl. It was an eye-opening debut into the world of professional theatre. When I arrived, the company was in pretty bad shape. The relationship between the artistic directors and the executive director had turned sour, morale was low, and the artistic directors were being increasingly solicited by admiring producers to work outside Cheek By Jowl.

Instead of continuing with the charade of running their own company, they decided to close it down for a while. Eventually, Cheek By Jowl came back with the original artistic personnel (though without the original managing director) in place and went on with a renewed sense of vigor and purpose and continues to make inspired work to this day.

At the time when all the upheaval was going on, I was confused and sad. I was only 22 after all and I ignominiously lost my job after a year. But now that I look back at the artistic directors' decision, it makes a lot of sense. Sometimes you have to raze the mountainside to make it grow anew.


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