Saturday, February 25, 2006

Recreating Nijinsky

A few months ago, I saw a work in progress, where Tina Curran was recreating the work of Nijinsky's L'apres midi d' un faune based on Mallarmé's poem which inspired Debussy's tone poem. Pavlovich Diaghilev helped launch this new "collaboration" when he produced Nijinsky's remarkable first ballet inspired by the Mallarmé and Debussy works.

In the printed program, Curran is described as a "stager" which somehow falls short of her actual contribution to the evening. The staging of great dance repertoire is now possible through the miracle of Labanotation, a system of recording movement down to the smallest detail. A stager acts as a choreographer, an emissary of the original creator/choreographer, who carefully and faithfully shapes the movement in the muscles, limbs, and minds of the dancers. Rehearsals are a discovery process in which the work of the past gradually comes into view, and the stager must constantly check the actual movement of each dancer against the template of virtual movement that exists in the dance "score."

Some have likened this to the role of a music conductor who rehearses a Beethoven symphony by guiding the musicians through a realization of the score that brings the symbols on the page into being, a sound in time that presences the world of the composer. But the conductor has the latitude of personal interpretation, and such license enables us to gain new insights into the nature of the work through the endless variations of perceptions that breathe new life into works of the past. But the stager is not permitted a personal interpretation, but rather serves as a medium to translate the original movements of the choreographer into the emerging moment and gauge the accuracy and faithfulness of the results while attempting to recreate the spirit of the past as a context to understand the movements.

This is an exacting task, and despite all efforts to remain faithful to the original conception, it is virtually impossible to decipher intentionality behind the movement. In addition, there is a variable that makes each staging absolutely unique even though the movement may be identical between different stagings. This came through in the performances of the work as staged by Ms. Curran February 24-26, and produced by the Princeton University Dance Department in the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Center. Two different casts were used for the leads over the four performances. Even though the movement was faithfully reproduced by each individual, the identity of the dancer left an indelible imprint on the work, making the performances quite different. Despite the attempt to somehow erase a personal interpretation of a work, the very presence of the individual dancers underlies every movement.

I regard this as a strength, and as dance accrues a history of performance practice of recreating masterworks of the past, perhaps a deeper insight will emerge and the role of the "stager" will be recognized as one who is creating a new moment in time, revisiting the work with fresh insight in the context of remaining faithful to the score.

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