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Inheriting Dance’s Alternative Histories
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It is October 2012, and choreographer Rani Nair and I are deliberating the last scene of Future Memory, which will soon premiere at Danstationen in Malmö, Sweden. A decade ago, Nair reconstructed Dixit Dominus, a 1975 collaboration between German choreographer Kurt Jooss and Swedish-based Indian dancer Lilavati Häger. Although Jooss is often central to narratives of twentieth-century dance theater, the solo is not well recognized within his oeuvre, because it was made for Häger almost ten years after what was considered to be his last choreography. After Häger’s death in 2002, her husband, the impresario and dance champion Bengt Häger, passed it on to Nair, telling her “when you inherit the piece, you inherit everything that goes with it.” Yet, wearing Häger’s costumes and hearing stories about her, while attempting to do her movement, made Nair feel farther from, rather than closer to, Dixit Dominus and its original creators. As a second-order performance—a performance about a performance—Future Memory explores how else she might engage with that inheritance.

Having just watched a full run of the work-in-progress, I am troubled that, no matter how far the previous sections go in constructing a constellation of new scenarios from costumes, music, memories, and documentation associated with Dixit Dominus, the current ending fetishizes those traces: the stage empty other than a microphone that sits on a tape recorder, amplifying a rehearsal tape from which Jooss’s elegant, accented voice counts and sings over the Händel cantata. We are enchanted by how it fills the white space with a score of ever-changing numbers and instructions: “one and two and three, four; one, two, three, four . . . swim, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight . . . da-da-da, step, two, three. . . .” But my concern is that to play it alone risks privileging the past at the last minute. Instead, our task is to work with the tape un-elegiacally; rather than finishing on loss, we need to reframe the scene in a way that allows audiences to see the tape as we do—a trace of an overlooked past experiment in hybrid dance practice brought into coexistence with the present through another such experiment, one that locates the multiple times and places it brings together, at the same time as it allows something new to be “re-membered” in the empty space.

The last fifteen years have been full of “reenactments,” “recreations,” and “reinventions,” to name a few classifications, all preoccupied with re-using the material of past performances. Describing what he calls the “archival impulse” in contemporary art, Hal Foster suggests that such work fulfills a specific function: the artist-as-archivist not only considers and reorders but also produces materials, in doing so underscoring the nature of all archival materials as “found yet constructed, factual yet fictive, public yet private” (2004, 5). Yvonne Hardt observes about trends in dance that on European stages, “artists have discovered the past as a playground for the present” (2012, 218), a phrase that seems significant. Earlier debates concerning dance reconstructions revolved around questions of fidelity toward characteristics of a perceived “original” versus allowing the past to mature (for example, Rubidge 1995). By contrast, the newer set of “re”-performances has tended to focus on what can be made in the present using the past. They posit understandings of history that are produced, as Gerald Siegmund puts it, between actively acquiring sources and passively allowing oneself to be affected by that which must remain unavailable within them (2010, 26).

The longer I have spent with Future Memory, the more it has clarified the potential, but also the very precarious nature, of working with such creative strategies at the intersection of multiple contested legacies. Dixit Dominus has often been seen as an addendum that does not fit neatly into the canon of dance history. Likewise, the intertwined German and Indian dance practices that grounded the Dixit collaboration were each themselves reinvented during the twentieth century. One of the challenges of returning to those materials today was how to resist flattening the distinct temporalities that we negotiated, in particular with...

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