The New York Times Sunday magazine article, Can Modern Dance Be Preserved, by Arthur Lubow poses fascinating questions about the reasons for, approaches to, and integrity of preserving the choreography of modern dance pioneers such as Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch and others. Both Cunningham and Bausch passed away in 2009.
I am interested in this, as for the second time, we are engaged with the Dance Heritage Coalition in developing a vision and strategy for preserving and accessing America’s dance legacy. Thanks to DHC, significant steps in documentation, preservation, education, and access have been taken over the past decade in response to the findings of the National Dance Heritage Leadership Forum that we facilitated in 1998-2000. Technology, funding, and the economy are all dynamic environments. Therefore dancers, choreographers and their companies, funders, and policy folks must all remain engaged in developing frameworks, tools, and agreements that assure issues of legacy are addressed intentionally and with great care. DHC is to be commended in this regard.
Yet, legacy goes well beyond artistic output. What lessons are learned over these fascinating careers that span decades, even centuries? What did these pioneers learn about organizing in ways that support artistic impulse and intuition? For example Merce founded his company at Black Mountain College, a short-lived, yet furiously lively paragon of artistic creativity—where Buckminster Fuller built his first geodesic dome and William Burroughs published the first chapter of Naked Lunch. How might this inform how we develop supportive environments for artists? What lessons did they take from confronting the major challenges of their career? How did they manage the moments of no money, the vagaries of fickle philanthropy, and the misguided advice of well meaning managers?
And it’s not just choreographers from whom we should be learning. In the last 12 or so months we have lost some really important individuals in the field. What lessons about organizational effectiveness and impact did Paul Baker take with him as founder and long time leader of the Dallas Theatre Center; or Peter Donnelly from his forty-plus years at the helm of the Seattle Rep? Through his journey from Columbia University, to jail and torture in Brazil, to exile in Argentina, what helpful warnings about protecting free expression did Augusto Boal have to tell us? The indefatigable Gerald Arpino led the Joffrey from New York to Chicago and from financial ruin to prominence. What did he have to say to aspiring leaders about stamina, conflict, conviction, and grace?
It’s one thing to read their obituaries and then later, their biographies. It’s yet another to have their voices, their lessons, their insights and wisdom to draw on—forever. We need to capture and put to better use what our best and brightest have learned from their phenomenal leadership adventures, as it will certainly assist us on our own solitary expeditions.