Kim Jones is a dance detective.
That means this associate professor of dance at UNC Charlotte digs up fragments of information – decades-old photos, a choreographer’s notes, original performers’ fading memories – and pieces them together to make a choreographic case: Restaging a work lost for decades.
This month, she brings one such case to fruition. Jones, a former dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, will re-create noted choreographer Paul Taylor’s “Tracer,” which premiered in 1962 in Paris – and hasn’t been seen since 1964.
“Discovering something great choreographers created is unlocking a piece of romanticized history,” said Jones. “With work considered lost, curiosity compels me to dig into the past and reveal some of that mystery.”
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The work takes cues from her source material but is, of necessity, something new.
She has spent the past 18 months leading a team to reconstruct “Tracer,” which had a set piece and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg. She is doing the piece with Taylor’s smaller dance company, Taylor 2, as part of a three-week residency at the university in September.
Jones came to Taylor’s attention after she reimagined the choreography for a lost 1935 Martha Graham solo work, “Imperial Gesture,” in 2013, at the invitation of Janet Eilber, the Graham company’s artistic director. This is the first time that Taylor has authorized a reconstruction of his work outside his company.
Definitions of what constitutes a “lost” dance vary.
“If we don’t have film, it’s a lost work,” Eilber said. “There are 181 works Martha Graham created, and we think we can authentically restage between 50 and 60 of them.”
That’s where Jones came in. “Kim’s reimagining of ‘Imperial Gesture’ brought it back to life,” Eilber said. “Not in its authentic original state, yet it recaptured so much of the inspiration.”
For Jones, lost work represents a starting point for discovery.
“ ‘Lost’ is something that may not be visible at the moment,” Jones said. “That doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. I approach a project like ‘Tracer’ as an exciting archival dig and an opportunity to explore the early postmodern genre. I’m not immediately worried about the outcome when I take on a project. My goal is to have a successful collaborative process.”
Political, economic and cultural conditions fueling moments of creation are critical elements informing reconstruction of lost work, Jones said.
“When Graham created ‘Imperial Gesture,’ the work was in response to many factors including the rise of fascism in Europe, workers’ rights, and the emergence of American expressive dance,” she said. “With ‘Tracer,’ it’s the beginning of the Vietnam War. Rauschenberg is finding value in using found objects. Why? I want to bring these historical elements to my students and an audience.”
Ann Dils, a dance historian, professor and chair of the dance department at UNC Charlotte said that all reconstructions are reimaginings. “We are always in a new historical moment. Things that are 50 to 100 years old are new and surprising for contemporary audiences. Techniques that once underpinned those works have moved on. Body types have moved on, costuming and new ways of presenting contribute to the dance not being what it once was.”
Taylor’s “Tracer” was last seen at the American Dance Festival in Connecticut. “When I select which dances we keep doing, I generally choose dances that I want to see,” Taylor said in an email. “We did ‘Tracer’ for a while, and then it was time to move on.”
Though no video recording exists, “Tracer” offered Jones a considerably deeper trove of material to work with than “Imperial Gesture.” For that Graham dance, she had only 32 photographs by Barbara Morgan and two critics’ reviews.
For “Tracer,” Jones had as a resource Bettie de Jong, the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s rehearsal director, who was an original dancer in the piece. She shared with Jones recollections of the work and more than a dozen photographs. Other Taylor alumni, Elizabeth Walton and Dan Wagoner – Jones’ former teacher – provided historical context.
And the Taylor company archives had more treasures.
“I found several reviews, the original costumes, six handwritten pages of Paul’s detailed notes and, most amazingly, a reel of the original score by James Tenney,” she said. “We had a sound engineer extract and enhance a recording with excellent quality.”
Ruth Andrien, the Taylor 2 rehearsal director, said that deciphering Taylor’s notes was challenging. “They are detailed yet still cryptic,” she said. “Each little phrase is like going through a jungle with a machete.”
“Tracer” was the 12th and final collaboration between Taylor and Rauschenberg. For the piece, Rauschenberg made a kinetic sculpture – a “combine,” or mashup of found objects, a bicycle wheel mounted on a wooden base driven by a variable-speed electric motor.
For the coming staging, Jones arranged for Charlotte artist Jeff Crawford to look at the piece to create a design inspired by the original.
Nearly 10 minutes long, “Tracer” features four dancers performing abstract movement and never straying far from the Rauschenberg wheel.
Movement authenticity comes from the Taylor 2 dancers’ experience in performing pieces of the same era. Their feedback allowed Jones to imagine movement and sequencing that they said felt right. Rehearsal began earlier this year in New York and will be fine-tuned during the Charlotte residency.
“I can’t do this in my head,” Jones said. “We’re rebuilding this on Taylor 2 dancers. I throw all the photos on the floor and give every dancer a copy of the reviews. We pull out words. These give us perspective on the work and help inform what we do.”
What: Paul Taylor’s Taylor 2 Dance Company will perform associate professor Kim Jones’ restaging of Taylor’s “Tracer,” concluding a three-week residency at the university.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30.
Where: UNC Charlotte’s Belk Theater in Robinson Hall.
Tickets: $18; $10 for seniors; $8 for students; bit.ly/2bYrnsf.