The Heritage of Dance
History is Made

Screenshot of the homepage of Dance Heritage Fund
Screenshot of the homepage of Dance Heritage Fund | © Tanzfonds Erbe

For some years, there has been growing interest in the cultural heritage of dance. History is becoming the subject of dance in the interplay between funding policy, artistic practice and the New Media.

“There’s nothing older than yesterday’s newspaper“ was a popular adage in Berlin in the Weimar Republic, which was obsessed with the latest news. Only what was up to date counted and all people wanted to talk about were the very latest events. At the same time, this was the time of the first new departures in modern dance, which also liked to look ahead in ever new creations. There was little regard for dance traditions, whether of classic ballet or frivolous forms of music hall. Surprisingly, little has changed in this attitude over the decades. Even in contemporary dance, the past is less important than the future. Today, creating new pieces, presenting original work, breaking with conventions and establishing one’s own style are still the basic principles of dance and choreography.

Make something new out of something old

But that is just one side of the coin. It is quite natural for creative artists to ask themselves in the course of their training and professional career what is the source of their means of expression and design elements. What principles do they have and to what do they respond? The answer may be social issues, issues intrinsic to art or academic issues. Another subject of growing interest, however, is history. In recent years, the world of art has become aware of the heritage of dance, that is to say the totality of its historical development, works, figures and discourses.

Both at institutional level and in the creative work of a growing number of choreographers, the question of the genre’s past has become increasingly important. While performance art, postmodern dance and the Judson Dance Theater were the subject of - usually critical – discussion at first, the field is now spreading out in two directions. On the one hand, choreographers are themselves interested in cultivating their own repertoire, which, as in the case of Pina Bausch and William Forsythe, covers nearly four decades. On the other hand, the dance culture of the pre-war period is also emerging from the thicket of hagiographies. People are realising that there were many other personalities besides Rudolf Laban, Mary Wigman, Gret Palucca and Harald Kreutzberg who made a major contribution to its development. And finally, there has been only very patchy research into the history of dance in Eastern Europe, and here other quite “new” elements, such as folklore and socialist realism, come into view.

Turning to heritage

Many institutions, both in Europe and the USA, have been involved in this historic turning point. One that is involved right now is the Federal Cultural Foundation (KSB). Its “Dance Heritage Fund”, launched in 2011, pooled initiatives and interests and has provided a total of some 2.5 million euro to fund artistic projects that deal explicitly with dance heritage in Germany. The first allocation of grants was made in March 2012, with ten projects selected for funding. In early 2013, a second, considerably larger tranche followed. 22 projects are being funded, including film projects, Internet platforms, neighbourhood activities, and above all, of course, restagings and reconstructions in a contemporary context.

Dance archive

Dance companies that can afford the staffing and institutional resources are setting up their own archives, often with Federal Cultural Foundation support. They hope this will enable them to improve the way in which they document and present their œuvre and to do so in a more self-determined way than appears possible under the traditional rules of archive and library work. William Forsythe’s Motion Bank is just one of these web-based, electronic models. It endeavours to preserve choreographic realities on the basis of complex scores and sophisticated recording technology. The Pina Bausch Foundation is also working on a specific system to collate, comment on and study not only the many live recordings of the Tanztheater Wuppertal’s productions around the world, but also supplementary material such as videos of rehearsals and recollections by dancers with experiential knowledge.

New Media, new perspectives?

In all these efforts, which are practically invisible to a broader audience due to technical and legal restraints, classical historiography is being called into question. The choice of sources follows subjective criteria and leads to artistic work being extended into the archive. What counts is no longer the external view of a subject, but the best possible way of transferring of the artist’s intention to media other than the one in which it was originally performed. It remains to be seen whether the buzz words “new knowledge systems“, “web-based communication culture“ or “physical experience of history“ are really appropriate for the contents that are being generated. For the time being, however, the principle applies that “There’s nothing younger than the electronic version of yesterday’s production.”