Recording dance has always been contentious. For posterity, most choreographies are now recorded on video, but rarely made commercially available: many argue that dance doesn’t work on video and can only be fully appreciated in live performance. Those creations that are made available to the public are rarely taken from live performance, having usually been tailored in some way to optimise them for camera: one thing that cannot be immortalised on film, however, is the feeling in the auditorium when a dancer truly engages the audience and you can hear a pin drop.
Although musical recordings are more frequent that those of dance, it is difficult too to fully capture the depth and richness of an orchestra. Vinyl recordings give a fuller account, whereas more commonplace digital recordings give a “flattened” version, which diminishes the luxuriance of the original: experiencing the swell of an orchestra is a feeling unlike any other.
The filming of dance has a more recent history than the recording of music. It cannot, to date, adequately display the three-dimensional depth of movement the dance relies on. Take a piece of choreography, anything by Frederick Ashton for example: a reproduced picture on a flat screen is never going to be able to do justice to the original, nuanced torsion of the body. Chemistry is impossible to transfer from stage to celluloid too: in a film, the director will dictate where the audience looks, but on stage, the interplay between the performers must be enough to catch the viewers’ eye. Dance that is choreographed for theatre performance falls short on film as a result.
When specifically created for filming, a piece of choreography can be successful. Abstract dance, which is easier to translate as it’s context is not as important to establish, can be filmed with relative ease. Merce Cunningham’s Beach Birds is an example of non-narrative dance which works on film. So too Balanchine’s Jewels; Paris Opera Ballet made a very credible recording in recent years. Narrative dance is more difficult, as there is usually quite a lot going on and sometimes to focus on the storyline is to miss some beautiful choreography.
Recording dance is important: it is used for learning, research and entertainment and without it we would never be able to appreciate the development of dance as it is today through dancers like Rudolf Nureyev and Alla Sizova (in the attached video). With improved technologies it is giving us flawless reproductions of performances: but until it can convey the spine-tingling energy of a living dancer, it will never replace live theatre.