Butterfly Hunting

Dance disappears. It is an art form that leaves no concrete trace, no material remains. This is dance’s doubtful advantage, its fundamental characteristic: dance’s actuality is determined by its immediacy. This is also what creates challenge, both in terms of the preservation of individual dance works and the conservation of dance as an art form. Dance in fact extinguishes dance.
Some dances resolve to this inevitability, death on their own terms. While others, through a handful of conservation practices, try at the very least to decelerate the descent. And yet dance conservation is a complex issue historically pursued with speculative success. No method has proven singularly successful and despite concerted efforts, there still exists no standardized method of dance documentation. 

Historically, the most practiced form of conservation has been observation and oral traditions. Dance passed from body to body. Class, rehearsal, repertoire. However times change, and the democratization of dance that began in the last part of the twentieth century has encouraged an inevitable break in certain linear streams of knowledge. Dance has been emancipated. Dance too has been disassociated.

There are other practices as well, tools meant to defy dance’s demise. There are artifacts, object remains such as costumes and photographs that sketch a vague framework and substantiate dance’s existence.  And there is notation, the laborious process of coding movement to concretize dance’s immateriality into written scores, a pragmatic proposal for dance’s contemporaneousness. But the map is never the territory.

New technology promises new possibilities, but in the absence of dance exists only conjecture. Flawed, well-meant attempts to materialize vapor. And because no single method of documentation is neutral, even efforts made in earnest sometimes only exacerbate the problem. Dance, as choreographer Doris Humphrey writes, is undeniably bound to the ‘hard realism of now’. For better and for worse.

And so what is left to do? As dance, once again, is called to rally against rapidly diminishing resources, proof will be demanded. Evidence will be expected. After all, a lack of proof is a lack of life. It will be as if it never was. Though perhaps this is dance’s necessary precondition. The covenant pre-ordained. Dance’s cleansing fire.

And yet there is one fundamental principle of dance as art: we are all going. In the universality of this concern, there is both consolation and courage. Because to dance is to live wild among the tame, to fly unburdened towards the inevitability of our finality.