Ephemeral may be an idea, a style, a movement or a gesture that lives and operates within a short life span. One of the most widespread misconceptions is that dance, like performance, is inherently ephemeral and exists only when performed. From this perspective, dance simply disappears the very moment it takes place and is materialised. This rhetoric of the ephemeral, which still permeates the culture of Western theatre dance and its historiography, is related to the disputable immateriality of dance and also its consideration as a feminine art, a concept that was established in the 19th century as part of the Romantic ballet. The origins of this concept date back to the separation between the genres of performing arts that opposed dance to music and drama, which both have a text responding to specific canons and a language encoded and transmitted through one or more writings, as in the case of scores or librettos. Through this lens, dance has been associated with being “unruly, light-headed, slippery” (Lepecki 2004: 126), which are also some of the negative characteristics historically attributed to femininity from a Western perspective. Despite this association between femininity and dance that is rooted in a Western patriarchal perspective, ephemerality is precisely what makes dancing invaluable as an experience and as a cultural activity. What leaves no trace must be experienced fully in the moment of its manifestation, but at the same time, what disappears can escape the mechanisms of censorship, acquiring a formidable power of penetration into the consciousness and collective memory.
In recent times, performance studies scholars have reconsidered the notion of transience and self-erasure of dance as its main characteristic trait, claiming that dance, as performance, remains through its traces (Schneider 2011). Ephemerality is no longer considered a deficiency for dance, but rather a quality that allows it to be critical of conventional forms of knowledge. One of the most important consequences of this approach to dance and what remains of its existence is the way in which the archives and the policies of dance conservation are rethought through the notions of the body archive, the choreography as the writing of movement and the score as a document. Dance scholars and artists consider the score (usually of a material nature, whether written, visual or aural) not so much as a source of stable and certain information, but as a trace open to a plurality of interpretations and capable of revealing the invisible qualities of events, and sometimes even just the testimony of their existence. For these very reasons, scores are useful tools to study the remnants of dance practices, works and techniques as traces that survive in different forms and are open to new interpretations. By transforming itself into a material or immaterial trace, dance preserves its history and is also preserved as a memory of the spectators who may testify to its existence and of the performers who may reproduce and transmit it.
Until the advent of technology and recording techniques of reproduction, such as chronophotography and early film practices that emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century, it was thought impossible to preserve a dance work in the exact way it was created, and inscribe it again in the present. The gradual evolution of technology and recording techniques has enabled more and more artists to explore the intersection of dance and the moving image, which has been increasingly expanding since the 1960s, and to create an excess of the traces that dance can leave through documentation techniques, such as recording, digitisation and notation. From the attempts to computerise some notation systems, such as Labanotation and Benesh Movement Notation, to the experiments with motion capture systems of recording physical movement and using these records to animate digital versions of bodies in 2D or 3D computer animation, dance has at present a sophisticated recording technology on its side.
The confidence in the recording power of the contemporary world and the growing production of audio-visual files, which can be made, organised, stored and shared by anyone, quickly and at any time even via the internet, is currently overloading the archives. Despite the reduced public funding, archives as institutions, centres and digital places of storage for dance are increasing, especially after initiatives that took place during the recent global pandemic. Dance archives that usually host documents (such as images and films, interviews, texts, notations and scores, costumes and objects) are created or donated by artists, scholars and collectors to preserve and transmit the dance works of the past. However, this attitude disregards that dance traces cannot be stored and catalogued according to the logic of order and permanence. In this context, the role of archivists, scholars and at times artists is to rediscover and reconstitute the implicit as much as to make visible the invisible dimension of the dance work (Pakes 2020).
Reflections on the nature of dance archives, which are progressively assimilated as “places of memory”, have also fuelled theoretical approaches on how dance is transmitted from one body to another, affecting our understanding of dance as a form that can survive in time. In this frame, dance as an embodied practice may also be considered a strategy to retain meanings and imaginaries. On the one hand, dancers incorporate choreographies and movement techniques that become part of their acquired knowledge and cultural patrimony through their body as archive. On the other hand, a moving performer informs the spectators’ kinesthetic responses that also persist in time. Neuroscience has recently proved that we are constantly enacting at a neural level the actions we see because our neural networking provides a functional mechanism, the embodied simulation, through which we are able to share intentions, feelings, and emotions with others even through the passage of time.
The practice of reenactment stimulates an additional reflection on the presupposed ephemerality of dance and performance. Following Mark Franko in his introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment (2018), dance reenactments can be seen as “post-ephemeral” in the way they stress the physical presence of the dancers in dialogue with the historical documentation and the traces of memories. By presenting the past for and through contemporary audiences, reenactment deals with different temporalities: the past of the restaged dance, the present of the bodies that make it available to the audience and the future of its existence, which is stored as an experience of movement in these bodies and in those who attend it. Reenactment may also encourage trans-historical approaches to curatorship inside museums encouraging experimentation with the perception of the present by activating our interest in the past and leading us to rethink the future. Inside museums, the presence of dance, precisely because of its volatile nature, like other intangible collections such as rituals and other forms of embodied and oral knowledge, also affects the logic of conventional acquisition and collection display, and the commercial mechanism of the art market.
Franko, Marko (ed.) (2018) Introduction: The Power of Recall in a Post-Ephemeral Era. The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lepecki, Andre (ed.) (2004) Of the Presence of the Body. Essays on Dance and Performance Theory. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Pakes, Anna (2020) Choreography Invisible: The Disappearing Work of Dance. New York and Oxford University Press: 2020.
Schneider, Rebecca (2011) Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment. London and New York: Routledge.