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Clicking On to Future at UCLA

March 09, 1997|Lewis Segal | Lewis Segal is The Times' dance critic

Funded with $3.9 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts, a new, bicoastal, four-year multidisciplinary project is addressing the ways media technologies can safeguard dance's past achievements and expand its potential audience.

Named after one of the most basic computer commands, Save As: Dance is a project shared by the 4-year-old National Initiative to Preserve American Dance, based at the Kennedy Center in Washington, and the newly formed UCLA Dance/Media Project, part of that campus' Department of World Arts and Cultures.

Judy Mitoma, chair and professor of the UCLA department, says that "the challenge of this project involves turning technology to our benefit, introducing dance to new audiences, educating new students, making the next generation of dancers more intelligent and capitalizing on this moment in history.

"It's a given in dance that there's nothing like being at a live performance," she says. But while the same truism exists for music events, "we are able to use recordings to appreciate and understand music more. The recording industry for music empowers us to do that. We therefore have to ask ourselves why the home video market is not really successful when it comes to dance.

"My answer is we're not doing a good job of [dance for camera]. We need to be more serious, intelligent and boldly engaged in a research and development sense, and that's what I'm hoping we can do in this project over the next few years."

To kick off the Dance/Media Project, Mitoma is creating a volunteer 15- to 25-person dance think tank that will meet for the first time in a three-day retreat during the first week of May, and once a year after that, to define the specific goals of the project.

Among the 15 confirmed participants: Barbara Horgan, executor of the Balanchine Trust; Don Mischer, a veteran television producer-director; Sali Ann Kriegsman, formerly the director of the dance program at the National Endowment for the Arts; Peter Sellars, stage, opera and festival director; Madelaine Nichols, director-curator of the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library; and Ken Brecher, director of the Sundance Institute.

Mitoma says this leadership group will include not only dance company directors primarily interested in the preservation of specific theater choreographies, but also ethnographers intent on documenting all the preparatory activities (including training methods) that result in a performance--plus those intent on making dance-for-camera more creative than merely a transcription of a stage event.

In 1998, a Save As: Dance media fellowship program begins: 10 weeks of hands-on training in filmmaking and videography for a new slate of six dance professionals and two UCLA graduate students each year through 2000. Afterward, those project fellows will be encouraged to apply for research-and-development field money from the National Initiative to Preserve American Dance for independent work of their choosing, Mitoma says. And she also has what she calls "a secret dream" about the process:

"When these videographers are doing small projects here in this city," she says, "dance in L.A. will be stimulated in a way that it's never been before. That's another subversive strategy of mine. . . ."

Finally, a three-day international conference on dance documentation and a related dance film and video festival will bring more than 150 dance and media specialists to UCLA in the fall of 1999 to evaluate the project's achievements and expand its goals into the next century.

If some of those goals sound much wider and more ambitious than mere documentation and preservation, Mitoma admits she is more interested in what she calls "a proactive advocacy stance. Documentation and preservation may be an outcome but not a goal in and of itself. How many millions of hours of dance are sitting on shelves right now? People are documenting their dances all right, but I think that often they don't even look at them."

"We need to learn how to transfer or translate the power of one medium, in this case dance, into another--film, television, video, interactive technologies--without diminishing that power. To help the discipline of dance be better, smarter, more resourceful and actually more inspired about itself."

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