In the early 1950’s, renowned dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham produced a series of solo dances, one of which was called “Changeling.” Merce never taught it to any one else, and when the performances stopped less than ten years later, the dance disappeared. With the discovery of a video of the dance in 2014 by director Alla Kovgan, we explore, through the legacy of Merce Cunningham, how dance is particularly susceptible to decay, how it is remembered, and how to bring back work that wasn’t necessarily meant to be recreated.
Executive Producer: Terence Mickey
Producer: Bart Warshaw
Research and Editing Assistance: Kerrianne Thomas, Samira Tazari, and Carson Frame
Memory Motel Logo Design, Theme Song and Music Supervision: Bart Warshaw
I am not a dancer and my knowledge of Merce Cunningham was limited until recently. I occasionally met with Paul Lazar and Annie B Parson of Big Dance Theatre to do interviews, and the name Merce Cunningham would get thrown into conversations like he was Prince or Michael Jackson. Then in May 2016, a voice on the radio was giving information about performances at the Baryshnikov Arts Center of a lost piece by Merce Cunningham. I emailed Annie B and Paul them to see if they were going. A video had been found of Merce performing a piece called “Changeling” and now after many years had passed, the dance could be performed again.
As I started diving into “Changeling”, My goal was to closing the basic gap in my understanding of an art form. I had no comprehension of how dance is recorded and remembered.
This was in many ways compounded by the interviews I had with Silas Riener, Annie B Parson, Alla Kovgan and Christian Wolff.
Silas Riener, told me about Labanotation, and when I asked if it worked he responded “Whether any dance reconstruction works… is a much more nuanced question”.
Annie B taught me about dumb counting, using imagery, and the famous reconstruction of Nijinski’s Rite of Spring by the Joffrey Ballet in 1987.
Alla Kovgan, helped me understand how video is a medium for recording, but along with dance, is equally flawed because even her 3D film is only able to capture so much.
When Annie B mentioned the word “Palimpsest”, I instantly realized it was an identifying word for my curiosity. She gave me Sappho’s poems as an example of how different the same original work and be treated to produce new and different results.
“Palimpsest” for me became an investigation into the ephemeral nature of dance, memory and life, and how important it is to see performances (like “Changeling”) live. Unlike so many other art forms, dance has a particular susceptibility to decay, so when we see a piece, it is strangely magical to know that each moment we see performed is the last time it will ever exist.
A big thanks to everyone to participated in this episode of Memory Motel!
Annie B Parson; an American choreographer, dancer, and director.
Silas Riener; dancer and choreographer.
Alla Kovgan; Film Editor and Archivist.
Christian Wolff; Composer.
Here are some additional links relating to the episode:
Silas Riener on Working With Merce Cunningham: ICA Boston
Watch Sila’s performance of Split Sides here.
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