Archives and archival have been quite in fashion in certain circles in contemporary dance - I'm thinking of Xavier le Roy's Retrospective, Jerome Bel's Veronique Doisneau, Siobhan Davies' Table of Contents, reconstruction of Judson Church pieces.... it's a terrifically rich subject because archiving dance is really paradoxical and complicated. Videos and labanotation scores only capture the physical/spatial/visual aspect of performance and partially at that. Those can't come close to representing the experience of the live work, the temperature in the room, the emotional content and background to the piece, needless to say the process of creation.
What becomes particularly tricky in dance archival as opposed to many other live performance forms is when the archive is used as a tool for re-creation and replication. There is no gold standard for notation, no score sheets or script book. The priority in replication rarely specified - we know it's not the sound (as in music) or the text (as in theatre) - in my experience as a dancer with old-fashioned repertory, there's a kind of unrealistic expectation that everything must be re-created. That's the steps, the timing, the dynamics (quality/energy), the spacing, the theatricality, the facial expression, the costume, the makeup, the lighting, the set... as far as humanly possible.
Video is often regarded as a secondary source, or just a starting point. The generally recognised best source is the dancer and their body: when a major work of (Western contemporary dance) is restaged, the choreographer or an anointed assistant is preferably flown in to give corrections and clarifications to the movement, convey key points about intention and aesthetic, make decisions on casting and staging. Learning a repertory work in Bharatanatyam or Odissi (as I have experienced it anyway) can only be done via a teacher or a guru.
In my experience of conventional conservatory-style training (I mean western here but I'm guessing this is true for many other dance cultures), faithfulness to the source is a priority for reconstruction or re-staging of repertory, but also a sacred tenet of dance training and in working with choreographers who transmit material by demonstration. My collaborators in other disciplines are often surprised to find out that one of the main components that I was graded on in dance technique training was "Replication". One of the most offensive things that a dancer in conservatory-style training can do in front of a choreographer or a teacher is "change" (in my case, forget) the choreography. I am in great awe of dancers who meet these standards as perfect repertory machines.
On the flip side of the conventional coin, when you're a choreographer, or when as a dancer you put your choreographer hat on, you inherit license and obligation to be original/individual/in control/wilful/responsible/unpredictable and to have your own ego and demand that things should be a certain way because that's your vision.
Some companies still operate that way, but thank goodness for times a changin'. For post-modern dance. For improv. But I think the baggage still hangs around. I think of the story of how Yvonne Rainer went from saying Trio A was a piece that anyone could dance... till she saw a Trio A she didn't recognise. She now requires that it be learned, from her or one of a handful of certified "transmitters" who will coach you in the very fine details. Certainly not from the 1978 video, as even she made mistakes in that one.
For the arts festival Archive Box project, artists who presented their own works at the festival's Dance Marathon (unfortunate reference, see They Shoot Horses, Don't They) were also requested to either make an "archive box" of one of their dance works, or to be a "user" of a box made by another artist. Intriguing, because of the impossibilities, especially when the originator-user pairs were mostly from different countries, different dance traditions and had never met. The boxes took the forms of actual cardboard boxes of production-linked material, stage designs, props, and in other cases a website, a letter in a glass bottle. Tonight three pieces were presented, between wine and cheese breaks. There was some great stuff! I'm not reviewing here, but as far as I could tell from watching the official programme shows by the same artists, there were no "copies". The boxes presented this evening turned into stimuli for a new work, new interpretations, new ideas and sometimes new working processes as well.
The showings were followed by a discussion, which festival director Ong Keng Sen urged in the direction of considering the significance of the archive, questions about ownership, loyalty to the transmission, transmission across different cultural contexts, and possibilities for copy-left in dance. He provided a very interesting tidbit about the legal arrangements that had been made for this Archive Box project, specifying the intellectual property rights for each box and each new interpretation. He ended it off by paraphrasing a lesson from law school that a contract itself does not have a significance; it is the relationship between two persons that has a significance. (I am also paraphrasing very loosely here. Please correct me if you were there.)
Incidentally, I spent a week exploring the transmission of dance material as "gifts" (open to re-interpretation) as opposed to "copies", at a choreolab facilitated earlier this month by Danny Kok for the Esplanade dan:s festival. We had some great discussions about the impossibility of a perfect copy, the specificity of the author or transmitter in setting the priority for certain aspects of the copy, the leakages and transformations through receivers/transmitters with different physical facility, different personality, and varied intellectual and artistic interests.
For a while I fiddled around in my head with the artificial dichotomy of "making copies/reconstructions" vs "making interpretations". But originals, copies, interpretations, collaborations... so much potential in each and in between!
In the end I noticed that the post-showing discussion this evening ended up like many post-show dialogues that I have been in. Rather than a wider discussion on issues of archival, copy-left and ownership, there was a great desire for the audience (and in this case the artists themselves as well) to simply uncover the creative process and the personalities of the author(s). Human relationships remained the pull of gravity.