The Dancing Lives conference at Wolfson College offered an exceptional opportunity for archivists, academics and dance practitioners to discuss and discover new ways to research and write about dance and dancers’ lives.

The speakers for first panel, on Historical Dancing, demonstrated the vast range of material that dance historians draw upon to investigate the past. Mike Webb and Jennifer Thorp used Jeffrey Boys’s manuscript annotations in his almanac of 1667 to paint a picture of the social dancing scene in seventeenth century London; Michael Burden used caricatures vividly to recreate and interpret the scandalous adventures of Mademoiselle Mercandotti, and Julia Bührle showed how the technological invention of the lithograph helped to make Marie Taglioni a ‘superstar’. While the first four speakers showed how creatively scholars use documents, images and ephemera to advance our knowledge, the plenary session, in which Sue Jones expertly interviewed Jennifer Homans, began to explore what the dance itself can reveal. Homans is currently working on a book about George Balanchine; as a dancer, she is seeking to use the (unstable text of) dance to extract the ideas behind the movement and discover the man himself. If she is successful, this will be a book that goes beyond the traditional scholarly sources (documents, films, images and interviews), using the actual ballets to shed new light on a choreographer whose claim that his work stood apart from the ‘self’ seems to work against the biographer.

The afternoon’s opening panel on Inter/National Dancing Lives began with a letter to a nineteenth century newspaper, as Jane Pritchard used the life of Julia Seale to illustrate the largely forgotten range of dance that existed in Victorian England. Starting her story with Seale’s letter to The Era protesting at the misrepresentation of her profession by Arthur Winterbotham, MP, she used pictorial sources that clearly belied the myth, encouraged by some twentieth-century writers, that ballet in England began with Diaghilev. It was an example of the way in which the story of just one life can help to disrupt inaccurate but widely held assumptions about the history of dancing. Lydia Lopokova’s biographer Judith Mackrell followed, and made some interesting points about the importance of remaining rooted in fact, even when giving rein to the historical imagination; the biography can only be a version of the life, and there are lacunae in the life story of even such a well known and recent figure as Lopokova. Next, Michael Huxley spoke about Kurt Jooss, using archival sources to give an historical perspective of his dancing life, but also drawing on interviews from 40 years ago when they met, and in which he now says he asked all the wrong questions!

The third panel of the day, on Dance and Biography, featured Funmi Adewole on Francis Nii-Yartey and Ramsay Burt on Berto Pasuka. Both speakers brought out the fascination and frustration of writing about dance from outside the Western tradition in a Western context, and the ways in which such dancers and choreographers may address or absorb Western ideas without losing their own notion of self. Both talks raised questions about the impact of modernity and colonialism on their subjects, and the ethical and artistic choices involved in bringing traditional dance to the theatrical stage.

The final plenary session was a lecture by Monica Mason on ‘Travelling and Dancing’. Dame Monica reflected on her own experiences and the dancers that she had worked with from many countries. In response to a question from Hermione Lee about internationalism and the significance of national styles, she pointed out that English ballet, through the influence of Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton, Marie Rambert, and others, has always taken material and ideas from many sources, and that this continued into the 1960s with Nureyev’s arrival in the West. As to whether dance reflects political situations, it was interesting that Dame Monica felt that the Royal Ballet’s purpose is less political now than it was in the past. While speaking of the importance of encouraging the creation of new work that is ‘of today’, she stressed the need to respect the past and give dancers the experience of dancing the works that have been ‘left at the back of the cupboard’. As part of her commitment to teaching a younger generation the ‘classics’ of the nineteenth and twentieth century, she had been rehearsing Royal Ballet School students in Les Sylphides earlier in the day.

The conference concluded, gloriously, with a dance performance by Rambert dancers Simone Damberg Würtz, Liam Francis and Hannah Rudd of Francis’s R1 – An Exploration of Content from the Choreographic Wastebasket. This work, made from rejected pieces of choreography, reminded us of just how much is discarded (and usually lost) during the creative process. They danced in the open air in the round, wearing amber tops above black leggings and sneakers, to a sound track that started with quiet percussion, gradually augmented the sound with strings and then subsided back to percussion. The work opened as Francis and Rudd approached each other from different points in the circle and began by reflecting and mirroring each others’ movements. Damberg Würtz joined them, and the three dancers worked together in different configurations, echoing each other’s movement motifs, or dancing separately but as if linked by invisible threads. It lasted only a few minutes, but in that time the sun set behind the quad and sunshine turned to shade. It was a fitting end to a day in which we had all contemplated the ephemeral nature of dance.

Great thanks are due to the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing and DANSOX for organizing and sponsoring the conference.

Maggie Watson

14 July 2017