Gemze de Lappe intently stared at the dancers, critiquing them during a dress rehearsal of the ballet “The Four Marys” at Southern Methodist University.
“It’s too fast,” the 80-year-old retired Broadway performer said, shaking her head with the crisp impatience of a seasoned and opinionated dancer. She whispered the criticism to Glory van Scott, who also sat watching the ballet, which hasn’t been performed in the United States since the early 1970s.
Both women were entitled to their nitpicking observations. When choreographer Agnes de Mille crafted the ballet more than 40 years ago, she used De Lappe as her principal dancer in the formative process. And Van Scott was an original cast member in the 1965 debut of the piece.
The duo flew from New York to Dallas to assist in restaging the work for recent performances as part of a program focused on preserving the choreography, emotion and music of ballets. Unlike scripts for plays or scores for symphonies, ballets have no physical record for choreography.
“This is a relatively new concern for the dance world,” said rehearsal director Shelley Berg, SMU’s associate professor of dance. “Coming into the 21st century and losing many of the choreographers -- the great geniuses of the 20th century -- made it more apparent to us that we must conserve our heritage and do everything in our power to pass that legacy on to the next generation.”
The project, financed through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, will attempt to preserve all aspects of a ballet.
“The Four Marys” tells the story of a young black slave who is executed for drowning her baby, who was conceived during an affair with a white man. It was selected because of its rarity and social-political importance, having been choreographed at the height of the civil rights struggle.
Performances were videotaped from a variety of angles, the videos including interviews with De Lappe and Van Scott to record the emotions and history behind the dance moves. De Mille died in 1993.
The university also is producing a paper record of the ballet using Labanotation, a rare and complicated system of drawing each motion using lines, symbols and other figures.
Before now, the only physical evidence of “The Four Marys” was a grainy, soundless film from the 1970s, and De Lappe and Van Scott are among a handful of performers who can pass down the details necessary to authentically restage the work.
“The movement and the acting is so vital to it, and that’s not being taught in most schools nowadays,” De Lappe said. “Unless you perform these things, there’s no way for dancers to acquire this knowledge.”
Barbara Drazin, project director for the Washington-based Dance Heritage Coalition, said preserving such history is essential to the arts. Her group was founded in 1992 in “an attempt to bring dance preservation people together to figure out what could be done to move the field forward,” Drazin said.
Along with SMU, other schools awarded grants to restage rare ballets include Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts and Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
“It was something that hadn’t been done before, except on an individual basis,” Drazin said. “There’s lots of enthusiasm now.”
Van Scott, now an author, performer and Fordham University professor, said her role in the Southern Methodist ballet’s restaging “was a lot of work, but it paid off, and it was important to be done.”
“You’d have to remember the fine-tunes,” she said. “You have muscle memory. You start to do a movement, and you know. The music tells you.”
SMU sophomore Ana Flenoy, 19, said she and other performers felt honored to study under De Lappe and Van Scott.
“You can just see their faces light up on certain parts,” Flenoy said. “It was very clear that they had an attachment to the piece.”
But nostalgia was not the overarching emotion stressed by either Van Scott or De Lappe, who has worked for years to save De Mille’s work. Instead, it was obligation, a sense of mission to ensure that the works of master choreographers do not vanish, and to secure a promising future for dance.
Preservation and restagings “create artists capable of doing these great works -- not just doing the motions of the steps,” De Lappe said.