Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Leading the Dance

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Leading the Dance

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "Dancers as Living Archives" by Martha Unman West, in The Chronicle Review, April 7, 2006.

IN THE KHMER ROUGE'S DECIMATION of Cambodia's educated classes in the mid-1970s, 90 percent of classical Cambodian dancers were killed. With each death went a repository of more than 4,500 gestures and positions, the vocabulary of movements that comprise classical Cambodian dance, an offshoot of India's Bharata Natyam. "By killing off the dancers, the Khmer Rouge came within an inch of killing off the dance," writes Martha Ullman West, a Portland, Oregon, dance writer.

Dances can be preserved through film, video, various notations, the visual arts, and, sometimes, by written accounts. But there is no more satisfactory method of transmitting the intricacies of movement than from dancer to dancer. "Long after they leave the stage, in their minds and muscles they hold the memory of form, rhythm, mood, and intent, constituting an irreplaceable resource for performers, historians, and frequently the choreographers themselves," writes West. In the case of traditional dances such as Cambodia's, the only archive may be the dance performers.

Modern dances are also subject to erosion or distortion. Financial and managerial difficulties crippled Martha Grahams dance company after her death in 1991. Lacking continuity in artistic direction from dancers who personally worked with Graham, the company's performances faltered, though a recent tour shows evidence that it has righted itself somewhat. …

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