Knowing your history is important, no matter what field of study or profession you choose to be a part of. Having an understanding of where you came from and how things got to be the way they are, for better or worse, is important and everybody should do their reading and find out the things they really want to know. What we choose to do with that information once we have acquired it however, is our own business, even if we choose to forget it or ignore it completely.
In a piece published in the Evening Standard from July last year concerning the dance maker Hofesh Shechter and his, at the time, up and coming festival "Hofest" (stop laughing at the back), Mr Schechter said this about some dance students;
"They have cool hair, they talk cool, they sit in cafés; why aren't they working? I see students around the world and they're eating well, they're reading, they're seeing performances. Here I speak with kids and they don't know who Mats Ek is, they don't know who Jirí Kylián is [two major European choreographers], and I'm like, 'Are you joking me?'"
Now, Mr Shecter's claim is uncorroborated and lacking in specific details. He doesn't say who these students are for example, or what school they were attending or what, if anything, he was actually doing at the school at the time. But even if these students were real and in their third year at Laban, for example, and they didn't know who Mats Ek was our response, here in TheLab™, would be; "so what?". To put it another way, the Snopes website would have a field day with the whole sorry story.
Dance, as a profession, doesn't have an entrance exam you have to pass before the village elders will let you play at being a professional. Perhaps that's because the ability to recite pointless minutia about dance history isn't all that important when you're trying to find a job as a dancer or wrestle some funding from the Arts Council or persuade a belligerent dance agency to give you some support. There's a longer game to play and 70 year-old Swedish dance makers, for most part, don't factor into that game.
While dance students, real or imagined, may not be too concerned about dance history and how it relates to their career, the wider dance world is, unfortunately, obsessed with history to the extent they won't let any new kids into the school yard so they can play too.
A few weeks ago some folks on Twitter; dance critics, ballet fans and the like, got a little upset with Article19 when we were less than enthusiastic about English National Ballet paying, what is probably a lot of money, for the rights to show Pina Bausch's 'Rite of Spring', a work that dates back to 1975 and was performed by her company Tanztheater Wuppertal. If you're a not familiar with the piece it's set to music by Stravinsky, the stage is covered in dirt, there's no interval and, depending on your point of view, it's either a stunning piece of art or a miserable way to spend what seems like hours of your time. Because we work in the arts we can say stuff like that, even about Pina Bausch, and the world keeps turning, it's ok!
The point we were making in our criticism of this purchase, and it is a purchase after all, was that the money could have been better used to commission new works, because if there is one thing the ballet world needs, it's new work and lots of it. Some, like dance critic Graham Watts, countered that ENB is commissioning new pieces so, somehow, spending huge amounts of money on a piece from 40 years ago is justified, or something.
Another issue is the actual work the company is commissioning. Pina Bausch died in 2009 and to say that she was a bit particular when it came to her creations and how they were presented is almost certainly an understatement. Ms Bausch also didn't like to share at all and her works were performed by Tanztheater Wuppertal and by that company alone. Her working relationship with the dancers she employed was the stuff of legend, so to speak. Dancers remained with that company for decades and it wasn't the fabulous pay and luxurious working conditions that kept them around. It's difficult to imagine Ms Bausch's reaction to her work being rented out to, of all things, a British ballet company that is the living embodiment of the phrase "risk averse".
Leaving aside the irony of a critic being critical of somebody else being critical, Mr Watts also said; "it's plainly a nonsense argument - art is made every day but not at the expense of burning what was made yesterday...." As if not commissioning 'Rite of Spring' was akin to burning books. Ironically, the show is actually still performed on tour by Tanztheater Wuppertal and it does exist on film, somewhere, so if you really want to see it then it can be arranged, you just have to put a bit of effort into it. Nothing would be lost if the ENB did not commission 'Rite of Spring Lite™'.
A Deeper Malaise
Like Elsa from 'Frozen', the dance world really needs to learn how to 'Let It Go'. Not reviving old works or commissioning old dance makers doesn't mean you're throwing them out with the trash and besmirching everything they have ever done or achieved in their careers. It's why we have books and videos and the internet or the odd retrospective festival here and there.
In an interview discussing his retirement Mats Ek bemoaned the fact that he had been working constantly for 50 years and what he desperately needed was a nice lie down. That's either a testament to Mr Ek's creative prowess or a stinging indictment of the creative and commissioning process in the wide world of dance. Too many in a position to commission dance works have too few dance makers on speed dial.
The broader point is that we need to allow new dance makers to create new history. We need to let the next Mats Ek, Pina Bausch or (god help us) Jirí Kylián flourish and they can't do that if the old guard won't get out of the way, no disrespect intended. If new dance makers want to forge their own path by completely ignoring what went before then that is their choice and more power to them we say.
When Ms Bausch passed away it would have been OK if Tanztheatre Wuppertal had gone on tour for a couple of years and then ceased to be. Merce Cunningham made sure that's what happened to his company but we still remember who he is and what he did and you can see his work on video, just do a web search. Far better to do that than to slowly have the work auctioned off to the highest bidder and slowly but surely become diluted by endless re-working and re-staging.
Nothing lasts forever and in contemporary dance the need to move on is literally written into the name of the art form, "belonging to or occurring in the present". As any good performer understands, you have to know when to get off the stage.
Top Image by Joey Lax-Salinas