Gregory Sporton

‘The Life of a Dance: Double Take Part II’

Gregory Sporton
University of Greenwich.


The documentation of dance regularly asserts a false concept.  This is that dances can be fixed, like a text, script, a painting or even a musical score.  Dance academics and organisations like ballet companies and the trusts that claim to protect and preserve the heritage of specific choreographers, struggle with this idea.  Focussed far more on outputs than production, they decontextualize dance by ignoring its context: the working process. Notwithstanding the problematics of this assumption about the archival form of such material, that the tokens of the types that Wollheim (1968) posits as necessary are simply too flexible to be captured as definitive, this in itself presents a creative opportunity.  This paper posits this working process as played out in performance as well as the confines of rehearsal, and gives as a practical example the performance of a work by the same dancers across a thirty year time frame, presented in sync with original video material.*

For dancers and choreographers there is a more subtle process of evolution that occurs with the regular performing of a dance: the dance changes itself to suit its purposes, and this often renders the meaningfulness of documentation an academic (or more lately legal) exercise.  Evidence for this can be found not only in the experience of dancers, but in the actions of choreographers dealing with their own works, even when they are considered classics.  The limitations of this approach have been known from early times, from Arbeau (1588) who tells young Capriol that the dances of thirty years before would bore him; classics as canonical as ‘Swan Lake’ or ‘Giselle’ that are subject to countless revisions; Cunningham’s observations about the differences that emerge when dancers other than his company or from a different generation perform his work; the different filmed versions of ‘Troy Game’ to offer up an eclectic sample before even broaching those dances that are intentionally different every time. Dances, it seems, simply wear out unless they are subject to regular revision, and a definitive version cannot be said to exist. This is not to say an account of a dance is impossible, but to question the artistic validity of ossified reproduction.

This paper presents a specific practical example and challenge designed to examine this assumption.  More than thirty years ago, as a young professional dancer, the author performed a duet with Sandra Norman from the Royal New Zealand Ballet in theatres around New Zealand.  When the company for whom it was originally commissioned were commemorating their 30th anniversary, they enquired about documentation or video from this early period of which they had very little.  It happened that, stuffed in a box somewhere, the author had preserved some VHS material of the duet in good condition.  An idea emerged for two long-retired performers to reconstruct the performance with a simultaneous showing of an edit of the original source material.  The intention was not to reproduce the dance, but to capture its essence and extend its reach.  The result was a strikingly fascinating process of adjusting to the changes of the dancers, not merely as altered, older bodies but as our personal histories played out against video of our younger selves engaged in a process we, in retrospect, consider ourselves to have barely understood. By applying technologies unknown at the time of the original performances, it has been possible to present this as a physical and personal history.


Gregory Sporton is Professor of Digital Creativity at the University of Greenwich.  He was a professional dancer for many years, turned academic, originally focussed on dance before looking at the ways digital technology affects the visual and performing arts.  He published a book on this ‘Digital Creativity’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), and also holds a patent for MotivePro with Jonathan Green, a wearable device used to enhance proprioception and used extensively in the training of nurses. He founded the Visualisation Research Unit at Birmingham School of Art, and is currently the Head of Department for Creative Professions and Digital Arts at Greenwich.