SAN DIEGO — Modern dance pioneers such as Charles Weidman left a legacy of designs that opened up new frontiers in modern movement. But due to the iconoclastic nature of modern dance, less than 10% of their ground-breaking works still survive.
As former Weidman dancer George Willis observed: "Part of the tenets of modern dance is for artists to be themselves--to dance their own pieces. They were never interested in preserving early masterpieces." Martha Graham, who danced with Weidman and Doris Humphrey in the Denishawn troupe at the dawn of her career, filmed her works, Willis said, but "practically nothing of the very productive lives of other artists, like Weidman and Humphrey, remains. Trying to restage (their works) is based on what the dancers who performed them remember, and what we can piece together.
"I think now it's more possible to re-create them" because special grants provide the funding for the painstaking reconstructive work, Willis said, "but you're still not going to see any major landslide efforts by modern dancers to restore lost modern dance works."
But Willis, a professor of dance at San Diego State University as well as a prominent dancer-choreographer in town, and the San Diego Dance Theatre, a company he helped establish back in 1967, are preparing a lost treasure from the Golden Age of modern dance.
"Lynchtown," the 1936 masterwork by Weidman, will be staged at 8 p.m. Sunday at SDSU's Dramatic Arts Theatre. For the 47-year-old Willis, who helped re-create it, the dance is bound to unlock a flood of memories.
"I performed it for three years in Los Angeles when I was a dancer with Weidman's company (during the '60s)," Willis said. "Then he went back to New York, and I decided to stay in Los Angeles. But in 1971, we had him come out to set the piece for the San Diego Dance Theatre, and he gave us permission to use it. Weidman died in 1975, and we haven't performed it in a concert setting since that first staging.
"Dancers and audiences don't have any other opportunities to see things that happened in modern dance 50 years ago. They don't even know what those revolutionaries were trying to do."
What were those free spirits rebelling against?
"American dancers were revolting against things happening in America. There were actually two great revolutions. They were rebelling against ballet, which was in a low state at the time, and they were rebeling against the 'eses.' " These were dances based on Chinese, Japanese, and other ethnic expressions--which were the inspiration for Denishawn's early experiments in the modern dance.
"They were revolutionaries," Willis repeated. "They behaved that way because they felt they had to justify everything they did. They had to prove modern dance does exist. Nobody took that for granted then. Weidman and his contemporaries were more concerned about making dances about men and women--and the human condition--than about dragonflies and nymphs."
"Lynchtown," a dance drama based on the choreographer's childhood experience as an unwitting witness to a lynching, is one of Weidman's most serious and violent dances.
"It was part of a suite of dances on animal instincts in people," Willis explained. "Weidman described his actual experience to me, and it was as if he were watching (the scene) through a deep, dark fog. That's the way it is in the piece. It's very dramatic. There's a lustful excitement about the mob violence.
"It's a relatively short piece, and you never see the lynching. We see the reactions of people, like in a Greek tragedy. Weidman's technique is still very frightening to people today.
"But the violence in 'Lynchtown' is unique. He's really best known for his humorous pieces. Of course, even in those, (the comedy) was to convey content--not just to be funny."
When Weidman discovered Willis as a young man right out of high school, he invited Willis to take a class with the company--although he warned the aspiring dancer: "You understand you'll never be a Jose Limon," who was one of Weidman's most illustrious proteges.
"But that didn't bother me a bit," Willis said, chuckling, "because I didn't know who Jose Limon was anyway."
What Willis did know was that he couldn't get enough of this explosive movement style.
"There's a lot of bouncing in Weidman's work, and he incorporated a lot of the ideas new to modern dance--admitting gravity exists, and doing falls and floor work. I was into athletics and body building, and all that crashing and banging--the strong movements--I loved it. It was wonderful."
Along with the high-voltage ensemble work by Weidman, the San Diego Dance Theatre, now under the direction of Carl Yamamoto, will present four recent works by local choreographers. Patricia Sandback's "Toward Stillness" will feature Yamamoto in a rare solo appearance. Then Yamamoto will be back with a group in his own "Games the Same," and as partner to Heidi Bridges in " . . . And Other Maladies." Willis' "Rito" ("Ritual"), with its brash Brazilian score, is also scheduled.