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THE NEW YORK TIMES – Hunting for Lost Choreography

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Kim Jones is a dance detective. That means she rescues lost works by stitching together fragments of ephemera — a choreographer’s notes, decades-old still images — with original performers’ fading memories to restage dances that take cues from source material, but are of necessity something new.

“Discovering something great choreographers created is unlocking a piece of romanticized history,” said Ms. Jones, an associate professor of dance here at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “With work considered lost, curiosity compels me to dig into the past and reveal some of that mystery.”

Ms. Jones, a former dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, has spent the past 18 months leading a team to reconstruct Paul Taylor’s 1962 “Tracer,” with a set piece and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg. She is restaging the piece with Mr. Taylor’s smaller dance company, Taylor 2, which will perform the work as part of a three-week residency at the university in September.

Ms. Jones came to Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” Ms. 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 Ms. Jones came in. “Kim’s reimagining of ‘Imperial Gesture’ brought it back to life,” Ms. Eilber said. “Not in its authentic original state, yet it recaptured so much of the inspiration.”

For Ms. Jones, lost work represents a starting point for discovery.

Political, economic and cultural conditions fueling moments of creation are critical elements informing reconstruction of lost work, Ms. 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 the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said that all reconstructions are reimaginings. “We are always in a new historical moment,” she said. “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.”

Choreographers may flesh out ideas early in their creative process only to abandon or occasionally absorb them into other, more enduring works. That was the case with Mr. Taylor’s “The Red Room,” which debuted in 1964 and was later transformed into the surrealist “Post Meridian.”

“Of Mr. Taylor’s 144 completed works,” Tom Patrick, the company’s archival supervisor, said, “a dozen or more are such transformations. There are another 12 to 15 in Paul’s catalog that are impossible to revive, where no trace remains.”

“Tracer” had its premiere on April 11, 1962, at the Théâtre des Nations in Paris. The piece, created between two of Mr. Taylor’s most notable works, “Junction” and “Aureole,” was performed until 1964. (It was last seen at the American Dance Festival in New London, Conn.)

“When I select which dances we keep doing, I generally choose dances that I want to see,” Mr. Taylor said in an email. “‘Aureole’ was one of those dances and to a smaller extent, so was ‘Junction.’ We did ‘Tracer’ for a while, and then it was time to move on.”

Though no video recording exists, “Tracer” offered Ms. 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,” Ms. Jones had as a resource Bettie de Jong, the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s company’s rehearsal director, who was an original dancer in the piece. She shared with Ms. Jones recollections of the work and more than a dozen photographs from her collection. Other Taylor alumni, Elizabeth Walton and Dan Wagoner — Ms. Jones’s former teacher — provided historical context.

And the Taylor company archives had more treasures for Ms. Jones.

“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 Mr. 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.”

But Mr. Patrick’s intimacy with Mr. Taylor’s movement language was useful here as he was able to match choreographic markers from Mr. Taylor’s notes directly to the music and provide detailed timing for the dancers’ movement sequences.

“Tracer” was the 12th and final collaboration between Mr. Taylor and Rauschenberg, who had made works together since 1954, when Mr. Taylor started his company. For “Tracer,” Rauschenberg made a kinetic sculpture — a “combine,” or mash-up of found objects, a bicycle wheel mounted on a wooden base driven by a variable-speed electric motor. The costumes are light pastel leotards stained with tire track impressions.

“Bob created the ‘Tracer’ designs first and presented them to me,” Mr. Taylor said. “I did the dance around them. This was not always the way it worked.”

The set piece remained in Mr. Taylor’s private collection until 2014, when it was sold at auction to benefit the newly started Paul Taylor American Modern Dance initiative. For the coming staging, Ms. Jones arranged for Jeff Crawford, a Charlotte artist, 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. Dance Magazine, in a January 1963 review said, “‘Tracer’ delicately contrasted an archaic movement style with the pulse of a constantly moving wheel.”

Movement authenticity comes from the Taylor 2 dancers’ experience in performing pieces of the same era. Their feedback allowed Ms. Jones to imagine movement and sequencing that they said felt right. Rehearsal work began earlier this year in New York and will be fine-tuned during the Charlotte residency.

“I can’t do this in my head,” Ms. 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.”

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