A choreographer supplies the vision for a work, but the dancers give it an identity. So when a choreographer restages a work on a different company, on entirely different bodies, how does the dance retain its physical, and metaphysical, essence?
San Francisco choreographers Val Caniparoli, Christy Funsch, KT Nelson and Amy Seiwert shared their insights into the process. Beyond their unique choreographic visions, they have singular motivations for restaging work, their own methods for eliciting results, and approaches that run the gamut from emotional to intellectual.
Their varied perspectives highlight, once again, the diversity of Bay Area dance artists as well as dance’s limitless creative possibilities. And in a field where critics sometimes judge a performance as good or bad based on its fidelity to the past, these insights suggest the value of a more fluid, open-minded approach to evaluating dance.
Living Experiment: Christy Funsch
Christy Funsch has developed an oeuvre of deeply personal solos over the past twenty-five years. In March 2010 she restaged nine of them for the show Funsch Solos: One on One, but instead of performing them herself, she cast Nol Simonse, Laura Elaine Ellis, and other close colleagues in her roles. Together they followed a shared muse to wherever it led.
“As I put these works on other people, I get a much more solid read of them,” said Funsch, who cast Hope Mohr in 1994’s Ravel. “I knew that what she could bring was the very things that that particular piece was missing.” Rather than revive Ravel, Funsch and Mohr reinvented it. “They’re two different pieces,” Funsch says of the 1994 and 2012 versions. “To reimagine it on another body and bring it forward was just thrilling. It felt like I was staying with the original hook, but looking at some of these questions that lingered for me about it through this other body.”
Funsch was just as happy to let Erin Mei-Ling Steuart expand on the 2001 piece Pilgrim. “She’s such a really intuitive actor. It became much less about this particular dance phrase, and it became more about the character’s journey. For Erin to have a path through the piece that made sense to her as a performer was much more important to me than ‘On 5-6-7-8 we do the giant leg kick.'”
“I have no interest in trying to capture or recreate something that happened,” said Funsch, whose goal was actually to let go of everything she thought she knew about her work. “That’s the way forward, for me. That’s how I learn about the work. And that’s also how I pay tribute to and respect my colleagues. There are so many really just drop-dead gorgeous movers out there that I feel like I have a lot to learn from… That was just one gift after another.”
Beyond Ballet: Amy Seiwert
As artistic director of Imagery and choreographer in residence with Smuin Ballet, Amy Seiwert uses ballet as a springboard for contemporary ideas. Her work is in repertories from coast to coast, and whether she is creating or restaging for them, she sees the dancers as her partners.
“You see some dancers who are amazing imitators,” she said. “And then you see dancers who really discover something; it might not look as close to what the original thing was, but you see this more organic discovery. Personally, I’m more interested in the dancers having their own true experience and relationship to the piece. It’s not going to look the exact same,” she said, adding that letting go of that expectation is part of the process.
“The dancers aren’t just paint; they’re living, breathing souls that are going to hopefully add their own voice,” which Seiwert feels is vital to successful restaging. “Through the collaborative process, you really discover intention together. When restaging…you can’t leave that part out, or you just have this surface picture of the ballet; you’re missing what made it what it is.” So although she teaches the dancers her steps, Seiwert lets the integrity of the piece be the ultimate guide.
For Seiwert, restaging is a litmus test of a work’s vitality. “You won’t actually rediscover that first intention; you’ll discover a new one. Which is fantastic, because that’s how you know the ballet has a life. It’s evolving and aging in a way that you want to see it continue,” she said. “I didn’t know this the first time I restaged something. I was like, ‘Why don’t I like this ballet anymore?’ We were kind of missing what made it what it was originally, and it just became about the steps. That’s when you lose it.”
Seiwert’s open-mindedness shows how vastly attitudes about ballet have changed in the last century. “I was reading Nijinksa’s early memoirs, and she was talking about a ballet they were getting ready to premiere. There was this stress because, ‘Once opening night happens, the ballet is set and nothing can change.’ I remember reading that and going, ‘What?’ I’m constantly changing and tweaking works. To me, that’s how the ballet stays alive.”
Modern History: KT Nelson
KT Nelson has created over sixty contemporary works for ODC, where she is co-artistic director, and restaged them prolifically. One of her most-frequently restaged works is The Velveteen Rabbit, a family production popular with dance schools and youth programs. Rabbit is performed so often that she’s developed a long-distance restaging system: “We send the video ahead of time. They find a local coach, they audition kids, and then they teach them,” and Nelson follows up with an on-site visit and fine-tuning.
“Learning from video is very interpretive; I might do a drag-a-foot move, and someone will see a glissade,” she said. “I do a lot of changing of what they’ve learned. Not really the structure of the phrase, but how the steps are executed.” It’s a challenging process for someone who puts a premium on the choreographer’s intention. “This is my feeling about dance: It’s an oral history. You need a dancer who was there, a choreographer who was there, that can explain the subtlety of the execution.”
Mastering the fine points is one thing, but maintaining them is another. “When I’ve done a piece on a dance company and I go back three years later to check on it, it’s just so different than when I left,” she explained. “Because whatever the set of values are in that company, and over the three years people have imagined it and tried it, it gets influenced by their values, not mine. ‘A real good arabesque’; no, actually the arabesque I want is low–and they don’t believe that! Their culture reinterprets it and reflects on it and realizes it their way. So then you have to go back and try to get the values that you care about.”
Nelson recognizes that “our language evolves; I know it does at ODC. What we did fifteen years ago is not what the dancers are doing today.” But when she restages an earlier work, she asks dancers to perform it in the style of its time. “The value of bringing old rep is to try to find that state of mind and see how it may have influenced the present, how maybe it is still very apt for today. If you don’t stick to it, and you reinterpret it, it’s unclear what the reflective nature of it is.”
That can be uncomfortable for dancers who strive to meet current standards of technique–and audience expectations. “You have to ask for their trust: ‘I’m not going to make you look like what you think is good.’ But one of the wonderful things about repertory companies is that a dancer really does get to be exposed to different choreographers’ physical vision, physical language. And a good dancer will just eat that up.”
A Classical Approach: Val Caniparoli
With works in the repertories of over thirty-five companies worldwide, Val Caniparoli is a master choreographer and restager; in any given year, he juggles roughly fifteen works on an overlapping schedule. In the 1980s he was named resident choreographer at San Francisco Ballet, where he has danced since 1973.
“As a dancer, I liked those choreographers that came in and gave the dancers freedom, instead of ‘This is how you do it,'” he said. “I give room for personal interpretation almost all the time. To a point–definitely to a point.” He knows what he wants, and “I keep a tight rein. I don’t allow something to go for years without an assistant [checking on it]. If it’s evolving, it’s evolving on my terms.”
That said, Caniparoli’s restaging process is a truly reflective one. “I think ballets get better the more you do them,” he said. One of his most-restaged pieces is Lambarena, a demanding mix of classical ballet and African dance that dozens of companies have performed since 1995. “The Lambarena that was done almost eighteen years ago is recognizable, but probably half the choreography has changed,” he said. “I think going from company to company with these works is an asset, in having different points of view, where you see a different dancer doing it and you go, ‘I like that better.’ So when Lambarena has come back to San Francisco Ballet, it’s different. The look of it, the energy, the vision of it is still the same, but you’ll see it as tighter and smarter in many ways.”
As Caniparoli sees it, restaging is an artistic luxury. “There’s not a lot of time to create genius on that opening night. Most other art forms, like Broadway or theater, movies, you get trial runs. You get previews,” he said. “Dances get shut down so fast, criticized so harshly, and you’re supposed to be a genius after three weeks of rehearsal? If they’re lucky enough to be done again, they have to change.”
“Even Balanchine changed his masterpieces up until he died,” Caniparoli observed, quite rightly; critics still debate Balanchine’s artistic decisions nearly thirty years after his death. But in the end, an artist can only take creative leaps and see where they land. With each restaging, “you learn something and you go on to the next. Hopefully it’s always learning…from mistakes and from ‘Wow that was amazing.'”