Did I read that right? The New York Times’ chief dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, talking about the decade when Balanchine, Tudor and Ashton died, wrote “Dance was dead.” I re-read those three words that appeared in the new online preview called “Dance This Week,” hoping I had mis-read it.
Actually, dance was bursting with life in the ’80s. Performances were bristling with creativity, guts, challenge, inventiveness, and passion. That decade gave us three enduring classics of postmodernism: Trisha Brown’s Set and Reset (1983); Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room (1986); and Bill T. Jones’ D-Man in the Waters (1989). These are momentous works that yield revelations every time we see them, but they came from scrappy environments—the loft spaces, gymnasiums, and churches of downtown Manhattan.
At New York CIty Ballet, Jerome Robbins made the wondrous Glass Pieces in 1983 plus a bunch of other ballets that are still in the rep. He took a collection of his Broadway numbers and created Jerome Robbins Broadway, which won a Tony for best musical.
The Joffrey Ballet was mounting works from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Their revival of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring by way of Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer was earthshattering; it triggered much debate.
It was the decade when William Forsythe blossomed in Germany, essentially redefining ballet and spawning scores of young choreographers.
In 1982 Cora Cahan and Eliot Feld established The Joyce Theater, which has presented a different dance company almost every week since then. Brooklyn Academy of Music started its Next Wave Festival, bringing in Pina Bausch regularly since 1984, filling the house with audiences from all walks of life.
The ’80s was when African American dance artists realized they could extend beyond the Ailey mold. People like Bill T. Jones, Ralph Lemon, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Garth Fagan, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Bebe Miller created searing and/or subtle works that sometimes delved into cultural identity.
Other choreographers who emerged in the ’80s were Stephen Petronio, Ohad Naharin, Mark Dendy, Elizabeth Streb, Pat Graney, and Dancenoise. Dancenoise! Their recent reunion show at the Whitney Museum was so brilliantly uproarious that it could make anyone pine for the ’80s. It was a great decade for feisty women choreographers.
Merce Cunningham began experimenting with video in works like Channels/Inserts and Points in Space while continuing to make remarkable works for the stage. (I loved Pictures and Fabrications.)
Cunningham and Trisha Brown toured Europe, stimulating a vibrant scene in several countries. In England Richard Alston and badboy Michael Clark ignited a whole scene; in France Philippe Deconflé and Maguy Marin and many more were blasting forth with their own style of dance-making.
Dance was everywhere. Site-specific performances brought dance to people in parks, on bridges and at Grand Central Station via dance artists like Stephan Koplowitz and Joanna Haigood.
Sure, a lot of great ballet dancers retired. But we continued to swoon over superstars like Gelsey Kirkland, Martine Van Hamel, and Julio Bocca at ABT; Darci Kistler and Kyra Nichols at NYCB. Sylvie Guillem, with her extreme technique, was ascending to a new level of celebrity in Europe. In the Soviet Union, one of the most supreme/serene/sexy ballerinas of all time, Altynai Asylmuratova, was with the Mariinsky and guesting with ABT.
Yes, Balanchine died in 1983, but Miami City Ballet was formed in 1985 with Edward Villella as director, and Helgi Tomasson took over San Francisco Ballet the same year. Francia Russell was setting Balanchine ballets on Pacific Northwest Ballet, as was Arthur Mitchell on Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Yes, Frederick Ashton died in the ’80s, but he hadn’t made anything of note for quite a while. His signature works date from much earlier: Cinderella in 1948, La Fille mal gardee in 1960, The Dream in 1964, Monotones in 1965, and Enigma Variations in 1968. For Tudor too, it had been a long time since he choreographed his most enduring works: Lilac Garden (1936), Pillar of Fire (1937), and The Leaves Are Fading (1975).
The ’80s was the decade that catapulted street dance onto the concert stage. Toni Basil brought Don Campbell’s Lockers and the Electric Bugaloos to The Kitchen, usually reserved for experimental dance and video. And Michael Jackson’s Thriller—hello!—was released in 1983. Everyone wanted to dance like MJ.
In 1985, tap dancer Gregory Hines hunkered down alongside of Baryshnikov in the blockbuster movie White Nights. Hines was a mentor to child prodigy Savion Glover, who, in 1989 starred in Black and Blue, a kind of precursor to Bring in da Noise Bring in da Funk.
I know that journalists like to make bold statements. But to claim that dance was dead in such a dynamic decade, even as an aside, undermines our understanding of how dance came to be what it is today. Whether one feels enlivened by any particular strain of dance is a personal matter. But dance as an art form is unstoppable. In many parts of the world, it continues to unfold in all its kaleidoscopic beauty and diversity.