Highlights of an Emergent Season

Last fall, after we’d been cooped up with our screens for a year and a half, theaters started opening up. I sprang back into theater-going, happy to experience live dance again. There was nothing tentative or just-getting-back-into-it about these ventures, and much to get excited about. As always, this list is limited by what I was able to see. I organized this by categories rather than chronologically. (A short version of it appears in the Berlin-based Tanz magazine Yearbook.)

Premieres

Bill T. Jones’ Deep Blue Sea looms as an epic work. From the solitary figure of an aging man (Jones) in the vast space of the Park Avenue Armory, to the spectacular rendering of an engulfing sea (design by Elizabeth Diller and Peter Nigrini), to the literary references (Martin Luther King and Herman Melville), to the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s intricate groupings, plus about a hundred community participants swarming into the space, this work was overwhelming. It summoned the rage, sadness, and fierce clarity of resisting systemic racism.

For Ballet Hispanico at New York City Center, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa created Doña Perón, a full-length ballet about the short, tumultuous life of the first lady of 1940s Argentina. The corps embodied Evita’s passionate working-class supporters as they powered through striking choreography. The heroine’s most emotional moments tore through the silence between Peter Salem’s musical sections.

Compañía Nacional de Danza, now directed by Joaquin De Luz, received a warm welcome at the Joyce Theater. The company brought Johan Inger’s visually stunning Carmen, a tale about innocence vs. violence told from a child’s point of view. Dark, lurking (human) shadows crept around the doomed characters, suggesting that violence comes from within as well as from without.

Dance Theatre of Harlem brought an extended version of Balamouk, a rousing celebration, to City Center. The combination of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s choreography, the Klezmatics’ infectious beat, and Mark Zappone’s colorful non-binary costumes make for a festive piece. It felt like a village parade that everyone wanted to join.

DTH’s Balamouk, ph Paula Lobo

 

In Cave, Hofesh Schechter’s new work for the Martha Graham Dance Company, also at City Center, the dancers threw themselves into wild club dancing. Their tribal, pulsating movements trod the line between joy and despair. The “creative producer” of this work was Daniil Simkin, a principal with both Staatsballett Berlin and American Ballet Theatre; he joined in their ecstatic gyrations, throwing in a few multiple pirouettes. (Good news: Cave will return to City Center for Fall for Dance.)

Hofesh Shechter’s Cave, ph Chris Jones

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, also at City Center, had to shut down mid-season due to Covid. Luckily, they had already presented a program of works by artistic director Robert Battle—and it revealed how masterfully his choreography balances restraint and explosiveness. I was so taken with this program that I wrote about it here.

Cloud Study, ph Steven Pisano

On a more intimate scale came Irish Modern Dance Theatre’s witty duet Cloud Study, choreographed by company director John Scott as part of La Mama Moves. Effervescent but infused with an ominous sense of danger, it seemed to be about searching and finding something different than what was expected. Both physical and metaphysical, it was danced and spoken by New Yorker Jamie Scott and Nigerian-Irish Mufutau Yusuf, two terrific contemporary dancers with a wondrous, subtle, spontaneous rapport.

 

 

From London, Candoco Dance Company brought their version of Trisha Brown’s masterful Set and Reset and Jeanine Durning’s improvisational Last Shelter to Brooklyn Academy of Music. Both pieces benefitted from the mix of differently abled bodies. Last Shelter sees the dancers applying Durning’s method of “nonstopping” to tasks like placing and replacing tables and chairs. A quality of rhythmic alertness made the choreography (improvising?) constantly engaging.

A jolt of astonishing body-slamming came from Abby Z and the New Utility to New York Live Arts. In Abby Zbikowski’s Radioactive Practice, six dancers thudded to the floor, sprang upward with no preparation, or whacked an arm to the ground, over and over. Like hard-driving athletes, they grunted and groaned with exertion. But this was no game. They seemed to be telling us that this kind of violence is what it will take to survive in these times.

At Jacob’s Pillow’s 90th-anniversary gala, we were treated to a kind of fantasy piece with two airborne figures from Kinetic Light. In There, Found, Here by Alice Sheppard in collaboration we Laurel Lawson, the two rose up high, somersaulted in the air, and swung across the upper space holding hands—all in wheelchairs. With gleaming lights in the darkness, the duet could have been titled Alice and Laurel in the Sky with Diamonds.

Plot Point, ph Angela Sterling

Pacific Northwest Ballet brought a refreshing program of contemporary ballet to Lincoln Center, sponsored by the Joyce. Crystal Pite’s Plot Point, with its faux plot (a street brawl? a murder? an adulterous affair? all of the above?) and creepy music from the movie Psycho, was spooky fun. Each character had a double, so the whole mimed drama was played out with simultaneous two-ness: human vs. robotic, real vs. unreal.

 

Calvin Royal III in Single Eye, ph Marty Sohl

American Ballet Theatre premiered Single Eye, by Alonzo King (of LINES Ballet), at the Metropolitan Opera House. King’s sinuous style looked great on these dancers, pulling them into new territory: less frontal, more dimensional, more entwined with each other. Special mention: In a sublime oneness of dancer and choreography, Calvin Royal III held me rapt in his lithe, torqueing solo.

 

 

 

For the chamber company New York Theatre Ballet, Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer created a world of impressionist paintings come to life. Based on the famous French painter, Toulouse’s Dream was a dance-and-video mix in which Diana Byer, founder of the company, played the painter as though a Diaghilev type character. She wielded a wand like a paintbrush, activating all sorts of magical images.

Joshua Culbreath, ph Steven Pisano

Rennie Harris Puremovement’s LIFTED transformed the stage of the Joyce into a space of the Black church: a community of song and dance, love and forgiveness. The use of stopped action and backward action was arresting, so to speak. The choir (Alonzo Chadwick & Friends) filled the space with soaring voices. Special mention: Joshua Culbreath sped through astonishing break-dance spins and pretzel twists that were more than just tricks. His moves expressed the despair of his character, a lost orphan who wanted to be found. Sometimes an amazing head spin would end with a sudden splat on the back. For the audience, awe intermingled with sorrow.

Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet finally came to New York, performing at City Center. The setting was a dark, abandoned factory, represented by a huge grey wall that mysteriously disappeared and reappeared. The love duets were inventive, the ruling class costumes were outrageous, and the Wilis wielded long, threatening sticks. Special mention: Company director Tamara Rojo as a vulnerable Giselle, and then as a Wili, hovering on pointe, seemingly about to levitate into a spirit world.

Even before Liz Lerman’s Wicked Bodies started, we were all part of it. We were invited to write our own spells and post on an altar on the grounds of Jacob’s Pillow; we were asked what we were each the witch “of.” Lerman and her team created an environment complete with claps of thunder, a smoky stage for casting spells, and verbal explanations, e.g. why witches are associated with broomsticks. But it was the scene where King James tortures a woman to elicit a confession that stays in my mind. Each of the eight witch-dancers was totally individual, but most haunting of all was the dreamlike figure of the 80-something Martha Wittman wafting through the film (projection design by  Olivia Sebesky); you could imagine her possessing the qualities that got women into trouble: wise, weary, and wielding magic.

Wicked Bodies ph Jamie Kraus

At Japan Society, Yoshiko Chuma, impish yet masterful, led us through a sixties-style happening during the exhibit of Kazuko Miyamoto’s celestial sculptures. In Tipping Utopia Toward Kazuko Miyamoto, she communed with the art work, some of it made of thousands of strings. Clusters of people parted as Chuma glided, strode, or stomped through three galleries. The musicians, never in the same gallery at the same time, were double bassist Robert Black, violinist Jason Kao Hwang, and trombonist Christopher McIntyre. Chuma defiantly made mischief by pulling the double bass away from Black or sitting on the video monitor to cover the image of herself dancing almost 40 years ago.

Christopher Williams reimagined Les Sylphides as a queer reverie, and it was every bit as sensitive to Chopin as Fokine was in 1907. Special mention: In the role of the poet/dreamer, the vibrant Mac Twining twisted mid-leap and entwined lovingly with the sylphaderos.

 

Music at New York City Ballet

Two peak moments at New York City Ballet came from the music: The first was during the Stravinsky Festival when the orchestra rose up on a platform above the pit so we were almost face-to-face with the musicians. Andrew Litton conducted the Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra, which has four parts: a fanfare-like march, a bird-chirping waltz, a giddy polka, and a loping gallop. This special occasion made one realize how rarely we see the people who make the music.

The second moment came with Justin Peck’s new Partita, with music by Caroline Shaw for Roomful of Teeth, who sang live. Verbal fragments burst into other-worldly chanting, and other sounds, including something I can only call a steam engine of exhales, whizzed by. I’d never heard anything like this as accompaniment for a ballet, and it seemed to bring Justin Peck into fresh rhythmic territory.

Site-Specific

Lisa Giobbi in Herstory of the Universe

Richard Move’s Herstory of the Universe at Governors’ Island portrayed, with a wild imagination, six goddesses from different eras in sites all over the island. It culminated with aerial dancer Lisa Giobbi, as Greek tree nymph Hamadryad, plunging between branches at Picnic Point.

Trisha Brown Dance Company at Rockaway Beach

The “In Plain Site” series of early Trisha Brown works came to Beach Sessions at Rockaway Beach, attracting a growing crowd of beach-goers. As I was standing on the shore line with the water lapping around my ankles, and watching the softly gestural Group Primary Accumulation, I felt a double dose of blissful sensuality.

 

Broadway, Roaring Back to Life

Some of the new musicals like Paradise Square, MJ the Musical, The Music Man, and for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf were bursting with dance. For dance history fans, Paradise Square’s depiction of the cross section of Irish and Africanist dance in the Five Points Neighborhood hit the spot. Choreography by Bill T. Jones with Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus showed the gradual integration of Africanist dance forms with Irish stepping into what evolved into tap dance. Special mentions: Jared Grimes in Funny Girl, infusing astonishing steps with high-wattage energy; A. J. Shively in Paradise Square, buoyant and unstoppable as the Irish step dancer.

NYCB Divas as Curators

Tiler Peck’s program at City Center included an exhilarating in-person version of William Forsythe’s Barre Project, Blake Works II, the astounding physicality of Alonzo King’s duet Swift Arrow, and a sculptural group work by Peck herself. The evening was topped off by Time Spell, a giddy collaboration with tapper Michelle Dorrance and L.A. dancer Jillian Meyers, utilizing a pool of diverse dancers. Ballet and tap merged when Peck and Dorrance danced the same complex rhythms on a small, miked platform. Their high spirits made it sheer fun for the audience.

In “Dichotomous Being,” Taylor Stanley (who recently changed their pronouns) showed the deepening of a performer’s artistry. In a solo from Balanchine’s 1957 Square Dance, they were pristine in placement and feathery in the lightness of port de bras. The commission for Jodi Melnick, These Five, allowed subtle emotional connections to emerge through a sense of touch. Toward the end, Taylor faced the audience and gesticulated in some kind of hieroglyphics, as though daring us to read their inner life. The program concluded with Shamel Pitts’ Redness, a solo for Stanley of alternating explosiveness and soft openness. Special mention: Ashton Edwards in Andrea Miller’s Mango (a renamed section of her sky to hold for NYCB). With a delicate upper body and strong pointework, they had total abandon in the role that was originally Sara Mearns’. With their beguiling non-binary physicality, Edwards made Mango into quite a different romance.

Ashton Edwards held by Taylor Stanley in Mango, ph Jamie Kraus

Collectivity in Pandemic Times

Necessity is the mother of cooperation, and more groups are sharing resources now. Last summer, five major NYC companies— New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Ballet Hispanico—came together to meet, give support, and produce the BAAND Together series outdoors at Lincoln Center. This summer, they went a step farther and commissioned a piece that members of all five companies danced. That piece was the snazzy, jazzy One for All, to music by Funky Lowlives/Dizzy Gillespie, choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who devised the chic non-binary costumes herself.

One for All ph Erin Baiano

Revivals — Gems of Dance History

Taylor Stanley in Mourner’s Bench ph Danica Paulos

In his program at the Pillow, Taylor Stanley gave a stirring rendition of Talley Beatty’s Mourner’s Bench (1948). In the opening move they seemed to melt upward. The dance was spare and taut, typical of the days of early modern dance when every movement was essential to the core idea. Not a single move was extraneous, all communicating so clearly the state of the performer. On the day I saw it, we were inside the Perles Studio, and just when Stanley was reaching out, thunder rocked the studio. Cosmic.

The Limón Dance Company performed Air for the G String (1928) by Doris Humphrey, restaged by Gail Corbin, at the Joyce. It’s a cool, stately dance, performed to cool, stately Bach music. But the saturated reddish environment (lighting reconstruction by Al Crawford) gave it a feeling of molten copper. Five women wearing long, draped gowns, glided in elegant groupings, sometimes opening like a flower.

Paul Taylor Dance Company went minimal with a selection of early works at the Joyce. In Events II (1957), two women just stand, takes steps, or squat, to the sound of the wind. A gentle breeze rippled through their dresses slightly. Perhaps one woman was waiting by a lamp post, perhaps the other was looking into a puddle. A poetic everyday-ness, performed by Eran Bugge and Jada Pearlman.

Dance (1979) by Lucinda Childs, with music by Philip Glass and film by Sol Lewitt, at the Joyce, proved once again that human bodies creating line, energy, and momentum can rise to the level of transcendence.

Not a choreographic gem, but a ritual gem: At Jacob’s Pillow’s 90th anniversary gala, people who’ve made the Pillow what it is, lined up onstage in a sort of parade of dance history. It started with Carmen de Lavallade, who first danced there in 1953, and Deborah Jowitt, who danced there in 1954. Many others were represented (Graham, Taylor, Cunningham, Pilobolus, etc), but those two great women were there in-person for us to show our gratitude.

 

Progress

Two strong women will soon be leading two of our greatest ballet companies. In the fall, Tamara Rojo, straight from her ten years at English National Ballet, takes the reins of San Francisco Ballet, replacing Helgi Tomasson after his thirty-seven years as director. Susan Jaffe, after leading Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre for two years, will become artistic director of ABT, which enjoyed thirty years with Kevin McKenzie at the helm. For Jaffe it will be a homecoming, as she was a principal dancer at ABT for two decades. Both Rojo and Jaffe have proven themselves as world class ballerinas as well as adventurous leaders. In these achievements, they match Wendy Whelan, who has been associate artistic director of New York City Ballet since 2019. Change is in the air.

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Jewish Dance Scholarship Has Arrived

The book cover features Suzanne Miller in “Needle and Thread,” reflecting dance as memorial, Ph Daniel Paquet.

The far-reaching Oxford Handbook of Jewishness and Dance is both a culmination of decades of scholarship and a new look into the intersection of dance and Jewishness. No longer an obscure, occasional practice, Jewish dance scholarship has arrived. It has been accumulating for years, with Judith Brin Ingber, to whom the book is dedicated, leading the way. Researchers like Dina Roginsky, Henia Rottenberg, and Nina Spiegel have carried the torch. Young scholars like Hannah Kosstrin and Rebecca Rossen have recently given us provocative books and essays, laying the foundation for this new phase of investigation.

This anthology of thirty essays, published by Oxford University Press, was sparked by a stimulating conference held at Arizona State University in 2018. Titled “Jews and Jewishness in the Dance World” and organized by Naomi Jackson, it attracted hundreds of dance artists and educators from all over the world. It was a warm gathering—emotional at times—crammed with talks, demonstrations, and workshops. At the end of three days, we were treated to an evening of performance of inspiring works by Sara Pearson, Ephrat Asherie, Adam McKinney, Jesse Zaritt, Nicole Bindler, Maggie Waller, and Hadar Ahuvia. David Dorfman and Dan Froot topped it off with a rollicking ride, complete with sly Yiddishisms and dancing for all. (Full disclosure: I co-curated the concert with Liz Lerman, who was a co-organizer of the whole conference with Jackson.) Happily, the companion website connects to resources like video clips, so I’ll be giving specific links along the way.

The scope and depth of this 737-page tome are invigorating, evoking pride, joy, sorrow, outrage and all kinds of mixed emotions. Kudos to the editors—Naomi Jackson, Rebecca Pappas, and Toni Shapiro-Phim—for stretching us in many directions. The contributions of young dance-makers like Hadar Ahuvia, Jesse Zarrit, Adam McKinney, and Yahuda Hyman are each brilliant in articulating a broken-ness that needed to be repaired… internal tikkun olam that engages with the world through art. What you won’t find is a lot of coverage of Israel’s flagship company, Batsheva Dance Company, or the development of Israeli folk dance. The reason, as explained in the Introduction, is that these areas are amply covered elsewhere. So when these topics appear in this volume, it is usually through the lens of a critique.

Although it’s clear from the choice of the word “Jewishness” rather than “Judaism” that the thrust is toward a cultural rather than religious definition, a few chapters do swing toward religion. Examples are Jill Gellerman’s essay on inclusiveness in Hasidic dance, Efrat Nehama’s “My Body Is My Torah,” and Talia Perlshtein, Reuven Tabull, and Rachel Sagee’s chapter on dance in the religious sector of Israel.

First-Person stories

I tend to gravitate to personal stories, so I will touch on six inspiring tales, told with complexity and intensity. Four of them are by young firebrands, and two are by respected elders Judith Chazin-Bennahum and Ze’eva Cohen. They have all found ways of integrating their passion for dance with their Jewish heritage. They’ve reimagined their identities to arrive at who they have become and are becoming.

Hadar Ahuvia, who grew up in Israel and the U. S., questions the Zionist legacy in her essay “Joy Vey: Choreographing a Radical Diasporic Israeliness.” When she learned about the Nakba (the Palestinian word for the disaster of the birth of Israel and expulsion of Palestinians), it shattered the anchor of Zionism as a “grounding force.” She wrestled with her old beliefs, utilizing Israeli folk dance—her attachment to, and yet interrogation of—to embrace multiple identities. She articulates her inner, political struggle in the bracing solo Joy Vey, with a bit of guidance from Jeanine Durning’s method of Unstopping. In it she skims the earth with folk dances learned as a child, while hearing an incantatory voice (her own on recording) in a litany imagining another reality. (“And maybe they never fled because they were never there, Maybe we didn’t shoot at them as they left to make sure they never returned.”) I add here that her performance of an excerpt of Joy Vey was a powerful, mesmerizing contribution to the final concert of the conference.

Adam McKinney in “HaMapah,” 2010, Ph Lafotgrapheuse.

For Adam McKinney, being Jewish is only part of a difficult yet sometimes joyful multiple identity. His writing in “HaMapah/The Map: Navigating Intersections” reveals a sweetness and vulnerability, and yet a determination to uncover his tangled roots. As he plays with words, he answers to “boychick” in the Yiddish sense, but also claims his feminine side in the “chick” portion. When tracing his family history, some of it violent, he calls himself “GayBlackNativeJewish.” He doesn’t want his multiple identities to be wedged into “otherness.”  You can see his powerful, soulful dancing and storytelling in these clips.

Jesse Zaritt in “send off, “ph Grant Halverson.

Jesse Zaritt, who teaches at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, wrote about how being gay was definitely outside his Jewish upbringing. A sharp, painful clarity on his outsider-ness informs his essay send off, which is about his piece of the same title. Send off harks back to ancient biblical stories with a stinging sarcasm. After an immersive journey in dance, Zaritt has arrived at a place that is somewhat of a tortured elegy but also fluidly himself:

In send off my whole body at once reaches forward  toward a fantasy of queer potentiality and backward toward an imaginary erotics of ancient Jewish embodiment …I am a man who is still a boy… I am the caretaker betraying and betrayed by those he loves. I am the divine feminine…And I am an animal about to die. In collapsing four unruly beings into one, I find myself uncomfortably, impossibly, in a willful, passive, wise, and wild body. I am trying to create a new being made of the parts these four characters have played.

If you want to catch an excerpt of Jesse Zaritt’s send off, accompanied by Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin’s hilariously sarcastic yet powerful dialog riffing off of Abraham’s willingness to murder his own son, click here.

Dege Feder in “Jalo,” 2017, Ph Inbal Cohen Hamo.

Dege Feder, an Ethiopian Jew, came to Jerusalem from her small village in northern Ethiopia, where she herded goats at age 6. She would sing while minding the goats, but music and dance as performance were nonexistent. At 8, she walked barefoot to Jerusalem, with a group of people who sometimes left her behind. (The Ethiopian government would punish anyone caught trying to emigrate with prison or death, so refugees could only walk at night. The courage of this child is staggering.). When she arrived in Jerusalem, she eventually taught dance to the Ethiopian community. At the University of Haifa, she encountered Ruth Eshel, the Israeli dance maven who engaged with Ethiopian communities with the notion of dance as a cultural bridge. Feder joined Eshel’s Eskesta Dance Theater, which centered on the percussive Ethiopian shoulder dance called eskesta—first as a drummer and then as a dancer. The company broke up and then resumed under the name Beta Dance Troupe. Feder became its soloist, and then, in 2013, its director. This enchanting music video, titled Amaweren’ya (2017). shows her singing (sheer charisma), dancing that crazy shoulder dance (parts of the upper body jutting in different directions), and activating a multi-generational community.

 

Stories of Two of Our Elders

Chazin-Bennahum in “Clarissa,” choreography by Thomas Andrew, Santa Fe Opera, 1961, Ph Tom Webb.

For Judith Chazin-Bennahum, dance was so central to her early life that it crowded out Judaism. But in her mini-memoir, “The Nearness of Judaism,” she takes us through her transformation from a ballet girl to a dance historian, increasing her commitment to Jewishness along the way. While performing with the early Joffrey company and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, she took note of Jewish dance artists  like Melissa Hayden, Bruce Marks, Doris Rudko, Pearl Lang, and Judith Dunn. Eventually, as expressed in her final sub-section, “My Body and Soul Merge,” she finds a way to balance dance with family and Judaism. She writes of the common ground she found in ballet and the Torah:

I loved the sense of inevitability, that one thing followed another and that movements needed to be accomplished the same way pretty much all the time, only better. Dancing in tune with others was thrilling, and keeping together reassuring. I found out later that the rigor of studying the Torah required a similar obsession with learning, with knowing what came next, with a joy in the ritual of habit.

Today Bennahum is a foremost dance scholar who has written books on pivotal Jewish figures, namely René Blum and Ida Rubinstein.

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Ze’eva Cohen, a harbinger of the current trend in cultural identity dances, grew up as a Yemenite Jew in British Mandate Palestine, later to become Israel. Her story is a must-read for anyone interested in the connection between Israeli and American dance. Her insights about Gertrud Kraus (lots of improvisation), Sara Levi-Tanai (channeling her Yemenite heritage into Inbal Dance Theater), and Margalit Oved (muse of Levi-Tanai and star of Inbal) are compelling. Not to mention her work with Anna Sokolow, who brought Cohen to Juilliard. Cohen’s breakthrough at Juilliard was dancing in Doris Humphrey’s rippling Ritmo Jondo. (I saw her perform in this work in the 1960s and have never forgotten her light-giving, sensual magnetism.) As a solo performer touring with her own rep, she crossed many cultural barriers. While being true to her Middle Eastern heritage, she also found “otherness” within herself as a performer working with contemporary choreographers like Rudy Perez, Viola Farber, and James Waring. When Cohen started to choreograph, she unconsciously circled back to her Yemenite background. (At the conference, Ze’eva gave a workshop in which she taught the deceptively simple Yemenite step that appears in Israeli folk dance.)

Ze’eva Cohen as Rebecca in “Mothers of Israel” by Margalit Oved, 1979, Pd John Lindquist © Harvard Theatre Collection.

Cohen points out that Inbal, the first internationally touring dance company of Israel, was populated with Yemenite immigrants who were perceived to be “authentic,” meaning close to biblical times, but not “professional” modern dancers. When, years later, she commissioned Oved to choreograph Mothers of Israel for her, she felt that “I became my grandmothers.” You can see a number of clips of Mothers of Israel and Ze’eva’s own choreography here. (There is more about the remarkable, captivating singer/dancer/storyteller Margalit Oved in Nina S. Spiegel’s chapter, “Mapping a Mizrahi Presence in Israeli Concert Dance.”)

The Ever-Present Holocaust

The Holocaust is addressed with all the weightiness needed. One of the most intense personal connections with Holocaust history is related in Yehuda Hyman’s “Dancing on Smoke: A Dance Action in Germany.” Hyman visited a reflecting pool in Freiburg designed as a commemoration of a synagogue that had been burned to the ground during Kristallnacht in 1938. When he saw the casual, party atmosphere of people around the pool—and no visible plaque to mark the atrocity—he became upset. Not speaking German, he felt an absolute necessity to take physical action. He stepped into the pool with his challis and yarmulka, took out his tallis and recited a prayer. He walked, he moved, he screamed. As he recalls,

My body is summoning up a story about the destruction that lies below me…I start to…embody what I am discovering in the pool and executing every Jewish gesture I know. So I’m doing ‘The Wise Jew,’ I’m doing ‘The Happy Jew,’ I’m doing ‘The Sad Jew’ and then…the traumatized displaced Jew whose body is in shock and can’t move at all.

Hyman’s action became known as “Jew in the Pool.” He reprised it a year later, this time dancing for three days in the pool. It inspired a vigil, some protests, and finally, the installment of signs showing the burnt synagogue and pictograms forbidding certain actions. This did not entirely stop the disrespectful behavior. But for Hyman, he’d been through something: “For me the pool represents the body of the Jewish people and the act of defaming that body feels like a violation of my body…I danced on tragedy, beauty, and community.”

Yehuda Hyman, in commemorative pool in Freiburg, 2018, Ph Thomas Kunz.

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Marion Kant brings up Primo Levi’s statement, “There is Auschwitz and so there cannot be God.” His follow-up question is the title of her essay, “Then in What Sense Are You a Jewish Artist?” Levi’s answer is, “The racial laws and concentration camp stamped me the way you stamp a steel plate… They made me Jewish.” Kant goes into the history of German culture in which she mentions that the plot of Giselle (1841) draws on a narrative by the Jewish Heinrich Heine as “a tale of the Jewish struggle for emancipation.” There’s lots more complex history, which I don’t entirely grasp. But I did pick up one surprising point: Based on Heine and the integration of Jews at the loftiest levels of German culture, Kant contends that ballet in the 19th century was more open to Jewishness than German Modern Dance in the 20th century (e.g. Laban, Wigman), which tended to be nationalistic. She concludes that a sense of responsibility is necessary to reach “the emancipation of all humanity.”

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Laure Guilbert studied the rare incidents of dancing amidst the hell of the death camps. In “The Micro-Gestures of Survival: Searching for the Lost Traces,” she retains an elegant balance between theory (e.g. Kafka, Bettelheim, Adorno, Deleuze) and encompassing the enormity of evil and suffering. The prisoners were considered “mere shadows without names or faces,” and yet a few of them managed to reclaim their souls through some kind of dance. She tells of the harrowing bravery of Tajana Barbakoff, Yehudit Arnon, Helen Lewis, and Catherina Frank. Dance played a role in the imagination that kept their minds alive, and sometimes dancing for SS officers kept them physically alive. Guilbert calls these moments of dance “the final act of life amidst their own death sentence. In a larger sense, they also embody and condense the final gasp of German-Jewish and Eastern European Yiddish cultures.”

She also calls them “a testament to the human impulse to save humanity even in the very moment of its radical destruction.” The inner life, amidst the hunger and humiliation, can be preserved in memory or movement. Hella Tarnow, trained in Indonesian dance, used the sense of touch to bring back physical sensation to prisoners. Miraculously, Helen Lewis was able to forget the freezing cold, the pain, and the hunger when her fellow campmates asked her to dance to Delibes music. Although these brief moments could not put a dent in the infernal Nazi machine, they are “the very ethical and poetic support structure, that makes survival possible in those places.”

Yehudit Arnon, an Auschwitz survivor included in Guilbert’s account of prisoners’ bravery, became one of the giants of Israeli dance. Gdalit Neuman, in “From Victimized to Victorious,” studies Arnon’s project in Budapest right after the War, when Arnon worked with young women to strengthen their bodies and spirits, thus changing the gender balance. Arnon went on to establish the International Dance Village at Kibbutz Ga’aton and the award-winning Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company. (If you want to know more about the seminal Arnon, see Judith Brin Ingber’s entry on her in Jewish Women’s Archive.)

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Rebecca Rossen focuses on The Ivye Project (1994), the magical, site-specific work that Tamar Rogoff created in a forest in Belarus. When Rogoff first visited Ivye, she learned that twenty-nine members of her father’s family perished in the massacre of May 12, 1942. To mourn them, she has to know them, and to know them, she has to spend time there. She gathered more than a hundred people—very few of them Jewish for the simple reason that most Jews had been murdered—to take part in a time-travel work that depicted Jewish shtetl life in Belarus while also marking the Nazi massacre. Scenes included a seder, a man putting his daughter to bed, a couple feeding each other, a game of cards, and a Sabbath celebration with live music by Frank London and the Klezmatics. Luckily, the companion website gives glimpses of The Ivye Project that allow you to feel you’re in the forest experiencing Rogoff’s wondrous version of Jewish life at the time.

“The Ivye Project,” with David Rogow as the Rabbi, Ivye, 1994, Ph Aaron Paley.

Rossen discusses the after-effects on the town and the performers, some of whom were children of survivors. She quotes the cast historian saying,

People needed to see that Jews used to live in Ivye. That there were artisans, tailors, shoemakers, that there were also lazy bones and there were saints. All of us were involved, we didn’t act in the performance, we lived it.

There was a realization that what was lost was not only 2,524 lives, but a whole way of life. As Rossen’s writes, “The Ivye Project resurrected a suppressed Jewish history and invited a diverse group of people to witness and actively participate in reviving and narrating it.”

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Anna Halprin in “My Grandfather Dances,” NYC, 1999, Ph Julie Lemberger.

Naturally, the Holocaust crops up in many other places, for example, in the interview with Anna Halprin by Ninotchka Bennahum. (Ninotchka is the daughter of Judith Chazin-Bennahum.) A dance pioneer who claimed her Jewishness both as religion and as moral philosophy, Halprin says that her early solo The Prophetess (1947), about a powerful woman judge in the bible who protects her people, was also meant as “a way of fighting back against the Nazis.” Halprin is represented on the companion website by her poignant/funny solo My Grandfather Dances (2003) and her landmark performance piece, Parades and Changes (1965). (These works are discussed in the interview’s prelude, which is based on Bennahum’s research for Radical Bodies, an exhibit and book that Ninotchka and I were, along with Bruce Robertson, co-curators on.)

Others who wrote about Holocaust-related projects include Rebecca Pappas, Alexx Shilling, and Suzanne Miller.

Tying Modernism to Jewishness

Douglas Rosenberg offers an art-historical underpinning to Jewishness in modernism in his essay “It Was There All Along: Theorizing a Jewish Narrative of Dance and (Post-)Modernism.” He frames it as a ghost history, saying that the recognition of Jewishness in dance means it’s no longer veiled. He sees Jewish identity as familiar, historical, and tribal. One of the principles is tikkun olam (repairing the world), a value that runs throughout this book. Rosenberg makes a connection between Dada, Susan Sontag, Clement Greenberg, and “hidden Jews” of the Avant-garde.” Referring to Tristen Tzara, born Samuel Rosenstock, and Man Ray, born Emmanuel Radnitzky, he invokes other Jewish artists, like Mark Rothko and Allen Kaprow, to draw parallels. In terms of dance, he talks about the contribution of Jewish women to modernism, invoking Meredith Monk, Sally Banes, Liz Lerman, and Sally Gross, to whom this landmark essay is dedicated. He refers to all these artists as examples of “the ecosystem of Jewishness that traverses modernism.” He compares Sally Gross, one of the Judson Dance Theater experimenters who is not often mentioned, to painter Mark Rothko in creating a “sacred Jewish space.”

And More

There isn’t space here for everything. But I want to mention the chapter on Felix Fibich (by Naomi Jackson, Joel Gereboff, and Steve Lee Weintraub), the early modernist who defined the Jewish soul as marked by both joy and sadness, thus creating a torque in the body. And Dana Shalen’s chapter on Arkadi Zaides, the radical Belarus-born choreographer who brought Israelis and Arabs together. In his tremulous quartet, Quiet, two Israeli and two Arab men broke cultural barriers by tenderly or violently touching each other. (When I saw this in Tel Aviv, a lightbulb shattered above their heads; although it wasn’t intended, it was a perfect metaphor for shattering cultural taboos.) An innovative workshop dreamt up by Victoria Marks and Hannah Schwadron led to their essay “I, You, We: Dancing Interconnectedness and Jewish Betweens.” Miriam Roskin Berger, Marsha Perlmutter Kalina, Johanna Climenko, and Joanna Gewertz Harris write about the Jewish roots of dance therapy. There are more stories about various aspects of Israeli dance by Melissa Melpignano, Dina Roginsky, and Joshua Schmidt, and a politicized view of Ohad Naharin’s Gaga practice by Meghan Quinlan. And interesting entries by Philip Szporer, K. Meira Goldberg, Liora Bing-Heidecker, Christi Jay Wells, Avia Moore, and Eileen Levinson. So sorry to lump all these chapters in one paragraph.

In the book’s conclusion, Kosstrin cherishes every contribution (as do I) but also nudges us toward confronting gnarly dilemmas. She suggests a more feminist language and a less European (Ashkenazy) lens through which to investigate the interconnectedness of Jewishness and dance. For non-Ashkenazy lineage, she gives the example of the hand mudras used by both Margalit Oved and her son Barak Marshall. These gestures migrated from Yemen to Israel to the States. She advocates scholars “grappling with the entangled aesthetics and politics embedded” in choreography. She wants us to notice “the tension between Jewishness and Israeliness” (which, I would say, is more keenly felt by the younger generation). And she situates Jewish dance scholarship in the context of other cultural dance studies: Black dance studies, Latinx, South Asian, native and queer dance studies. Kosstrin ends with a series of questions. For example, when talking about the aggression of Israel’s government toward Arab communities, “How do we engage in dance in ways that show empathy and vigilance?” Nu…what could be more Jewish than asking questions?

It takes time to absorb the diverse and deep views in the Handbook. Time to sort through the chapters, return to some of them, make connections. Time to allow oneself to evolve, to gain or lose or reclaim different aspects of the intersection of Jewishness and dance. Spirituality and art. Culture and choreography. History and the contemporary world. What it means to be a Jew, to be a Jewish dancer, and how that changes at different times of one’s life (as anti-Semitism continues to rise and fall). A final note: “Handbook” is a misnomer. This book is a treasury of gems of courage, creativity, storytelling, and research. L’chaim.

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Resources for Archiving & Researching

Compiled by Wendy Perron and Norton Owen (in process)
NOTE: If you would like to add a resource or make a correction, please comment in the space below.

Creating Your Own Archive
Dance/USA’s Archiving & Preservation Affinity Group
ChromaDiverse – Judy Tyrus’s organization for archival management for the
performing arts
 
Jacob’s Pillow Archives and info
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive (including Playlists and Themes|Essays)
Jacob’s Pillow Archives
PillowVoices podcast

Library Archives
New York Public Library  Jerome Robbins Dance Division
Jerome Robbins Dance Division’s Oral History Project
San Francisco Museum of Performance + Design holds collections of Bay Area artists like Anna Halprin
Dance Treasures A-Z, Dance Heritage Coalition at Library of Congress Web Archives
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Getty Research Institute has collections of Yvonne Rainer and Simone Fortil
Many libraries have finding aids for specific collections, for example, NYU has this site for the Wendy Perron Papers of the SoHo Weekly News 1975-78

Other Institutional Archives
BAM Hamm archive
ADF Archive
Bennington College Digital Repository Home includes photos of
the Bennington School of the Dance
Juilliard Digital Resources (Key in dance)
American Tap Dance Foundation

Examples of Company Archives
Martha Graham at the Library of Congress
Urban Bush Women Legacy Timeline
Merce Cunningham chronology of choreography
Merce Cunningham Archives and Selected Readings
Alvin Ailey timeline
Katherine Dunham Timeline
Eiko & Koma timeline
Nikolais/Louis Archives
Trisha Brown repertory
Archives of José Limón (must request access)
New York City Ballet Repertory

Historical Archives
Michel Fokine—Fokine Estate Archive
George Blanchine Catalogue

Culturally Specific Archives
MoBBallet – Theresa Ruth Howard’s website, Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet
History Makers, long interviews with Black artists
Jewish Women Archives has entries on Anna Sokolow, Pearl Lang, Sophie Maslow etc.
University of Michigan’s Chinese Dance Collection
Final Bow for Yellow Face

Innovative approaches to archiving
David Gordon’s Archiveography

For the avant-garde of all genres: UbuWeb

Publications no longer publishing in print
BalletReview
Contact Quarterly
SoHo Weekly News, SoHo Memory Project

Databases
Alexander Street, a ProQuest database, has more than 1200 videos and all of Dance Magazine digitized. Can get a free trial here or access through a college or university.

Photographers’ Websites in Dance
Stephanie Berger
Christopher Duggan
Rose Eichenbaum
Lois Greenfield Lois Greenfield:
Matthew Karas
Kyle Froman Photography

The New York Times, just key in name or title

Unsung Heroes of Dance History on this site

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Notable Dance Books of 2021  

The pandemic has been good for dance books. Many are being published, and we’ve had more time to read them. I tend to gravitate toward stories by or about dancers (as opposed to how-to manuals, technique methodology, or theoretical treatises), so this list is obviously subjective. By chance, this year unleashed a profusion of memoirs about Balanchine and New York City Ballet. This ever-present magnet in our field is counter-balanced by stories about major Black ballet dancers.

Note that Florida University Press, which happens to have five (!) books on this list, offers a holiday discount code of XM21.

To my list of notables, I’ve added three more categories: Books Received or Announced, New Editions of Existing Books, and Children’s Books.

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Notable Books:

Dancing Past the Light: The Life of Tanaquil LeClercq
By Orel Protopopescu
University Press of Florida

She was beautiful, smart, witty, dedicated, and one of the best ballerinas of her time. She was a muse and wife to Balanchine while also being cherished by Jerome Robbins. And then tragedy: At just 28 years old, she was struck down by polio and never walked again. But here’s what is equally awesome as her talent: She lived past that moment with style and resilience.

Writer and poet Orel Protopopescu tells this story in a way that allows you to feel “Tanny’s” stellar qualities, as both a dancer and a person, from the age of 11. She had studied with Mikhail Mordkin and, on advice from Balanchine, also went to the Katherine Dunham School (directed by Syvilla Fort). Along with Black dancer Betty Nichols, she performed with Merce Cunningham’s when they happened to be gallivanting in Paris at the same time. Beguiled by her dreamlike style, Balanchine made La Valse on her and Jerome Robbins made Afternoon of a Faun on her. And there were many more roles. She delivered them all with aplomb, or with sass, with melancholia—whatever was needed. She did get nervous before performances; whenever she had to dance Swan Lake, she would throw up.

LeClercq was as mystified as anyone at Balanchine’s inventiveness. Living with him at home and dancing in the studio with him, she saw his choreography pour forth with no apparent planning except listening to the music.

In 1956, on their way to a European tour while the polio epidemic still raged, all the City Ballet dancers lined up to get their polio vaccine. Tanny grew impatient and ditched the line. That tour turned out to be particularly exhausting. In Copenhagen, she came down with polio and had to be put in an iron lung. Balanchine—and the whole company— was devastated.  He stopped choreographing for a year, devoting himself to her care. With great optimism, he devised exercises to stretch and activate her lifeless legs. His remedies never worked, but they gave him material for his groundbreaking 1957 ballet Agon.

Her letters to friends before, during, and after treatment reveal a quicksilver mind and playful intellect. She joked about the silver lining of her catastrophe: She never had to dance Swan Lake again.

When Balanchine’s obsession with Suzanne Farrell became painfully, publicly clear, LeClercq broke off their marriage. That was a rocky time. But she eventually regained her equanimity—and her witty self. Finding new outlets for her creativity in the 1960s, she produced two books: Mourka: The Autobiography of a Cat, filled with her own photographs; and The Ballet Cook Book, a collection of recipes from many other dancers. She later spent eight years teaching at Dance Theatre of Harlem, valiantly directing from her wheelchair.

Balanchine and Le Clercq remained devoted to each other till the end. In his will, he left her more ballets than anyone else.

 

Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, a Celebration, a Movement
By Judy Tyrus and Paul Novosel
Kensington Publishing Corp, Dafina Imprint

The glory of DTH, as told by former company dancer Judy Tyrus and archivist Paul Novosel, stretches over 304 pages and more than fifty years. This book illuminates the mission of Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook to prove that Blacks could master ballet—and to bring beauty to theaters all over the world. A bounty of luscious photographs celebrates the technical, dramatic, and artistic abilities of the dancers up and down the decades. From Arthur Mitchell’s days as a star of New York City Ballet to opening a school in Harlem, to DTH’s rise on the world’s stages, to the revolutionary decision to dress the dancers in flesh-toned tights and pointe shoes, to premieres that stretch the repertoire and the dancers’ abilities, we get the inside story. Punctuating this saga are lists of what was happening in Black cultural life at the time.

This book includes a welcome section on DTH co-founder Karel Shook, who had danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and taught at Katherine Dunham’s school. Shook was the first person who saw a future for Mitchell as a ballet dancer.

We get photographic glimpses of dancers Stephanie Dabney, Lorraine Graves, Virginia Johnson, Andrea Long, Alicia Graf Mack, Ashley Murphy, Laveen Naidu, Carolene Rocher, Eddie Shellman, Ingrid Silva, Ramon Thielen, Donald Williams; choreography by John Butler, Glen Tetley, Geoffrey Holder, Valerie Bettis and John Taras; and luminaries like Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Marian Anderson, and of course, Mitchell s good friend, Cicely Tyson.

DTH has been called “a miracle,” and this book reveals the elements that made up that continuing-but-changing miracle. It includes the 2004–2012 hiatus due to financial issues, and the changing of the guards with Mitchell’s successor: the former DTH ballerina Virginia Johnson.

Although I wish there were an index, this book is a gift for ballet lovers, and is essential to understanding the ongoing issue of Blacks in ballet.

 

Onstage With Martha Graham
By Stuart Hodes
University Press of Florida

This high-spirited memoir was so much fun—and so essential to our understanding of Martha Graham— that I couldn’t resist writing about it when it came out in April. See 13 “Gems from Stuart Hodes’ New Book on Martha Graham.”

 

 

 

Dancing with the Revolution: Power, Politics, and Privilege in Cuba
By Elizabeth B. Schwall
University of North Carolina Press

Alicia Alonso reigned as the queen of ballet in Cuba for decades, and Elizabeth Schwall helps us understand how that happened. The ballerina had been a star with (American) Ballet Theatre, and her husband Fernando, who had danced with Mikhail Mordkin as well as with Ballet Theatre, oversaw ballet training throughout the island of Cuba. Together they created Ballet Alicia Alonso, which became Ballet Nacional de Cuba when Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Fernando’s brother Alberto set up his own company in opposition.

But Cuban dance is more than just the Alonsos. Troupes like Ballet Teatro de la Habana and Danza Abierta and their relationship to political actions are also discussed.

Schwall doesn’t shy away from contradictions. While ballet in Cuba is an art form of the people—famously, the cab drivers know who’s starring in Swan Lake on any given night—dancers of darker hues are not welcomed into ballet. While Castro’s position was anti-racist, the white supremacy of ballet was as ingrained in Cuba as it was in Europe and the U. S.  So, as Schwall points out, ballet in Cuba fostered elitism and populism simultaneously. Modern dance there is more racially diverse. But the folkloric companies, mainly black, face racism from white choreographers. Also, the male dancers were expected to be hyper-masculine. All these complexities fuel an ongoing debate about which form fulfills the revolutionary ideal best.

Schwall argues that, whatever the government edicts at the time, dance artists themselves have created the multi-faceted field in Cuba, that dance itself has the power to transgress.

 

Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy
By Misty Copeland
Aladdin Books, Simon & Schuster

Although this book is aimed at ages 10 and up, it would be inspiring for any dancer. Each of the twenty-seven women named on the cover have blazed a path as a Black dancer in a white form. Copeland gives each one of them a full page of love and respect. The names are alphabetical, but it’s fitting that the list starts with Lauren Anderson, whose image on the cover of Dance Magazine in 1999 gave the young Misty Copeland hope. As Copeland writes in the introduction, this is not a comprehensive list, but a group of ballerinas she has felt a personal connection to. Also in the introduction she brings up the issue of colorism, admitting her own privilege in being bi-racial and light-skinned.

When she writes about her fellow luminaries—Aesha Ash, Virginia Johnson, Ebony Williams, Andrea Long-Naidu, Ashley Murphy-Wilson, Alicia Graf Mack, Tai Jimenez, and many more—she waxes eloquent about their unique qualities and the obstacles they overcame. A special place is reserved for Raven Wilkinson, who broke the color barrier back in the 1940s and, decades later, mentored Misty. The younger dancer’s connection to Wilkinson, both personal and historical, provides one of the most powerful moments: “Raven is my angel, and her wings help me take flight every day and on every stage.”

 

Balanchine’s Apprentice: From Hollywood to New York and Back
By John Clifford
University Press of Florida

This book starts off with sheer exuberance, deepens as it goes, and on the last page, articulates a beautiful devotion. John Clifford, a dancer with a rambunctious flair, reveals a whole other funnier, raunchier side of his mentor than is usually presented. Balanchine, who seemed bemused by this impulsive, extroverted, Hollywood kid, took him under his wing at New York City Ballet. In this memoir, Clifford is plenty plucky about his own abilities, but he’s even more colorful when writing about other dancers. He reports that he’s fast at picking up steps, and Balanchine liked that, but Suzanne Farrell is even faster. Apparently she could replicate the tiniest detail and inflection. “It was uncanny how she could do that,” he writes, “as if they shared the same brain.”

Clifford, who was a member of NYCB from 1966 to 1974, soaked up everything he could as a dancer and choreographer. He ultimately made eight ballets for City Ballet, and about twenty for other companies. In 1974, with Mr. B’s blessing, he left City Ballet to start the Los Angeles Ballet. His company, very active but often in financial peril, lasted for ten years. But Clifford keeps the focus here on Balanchine.

During Clifford’s spirited account of his apprenticeship, we get vivid descriptions of Anton Dolin, Maya Plisetskaya, Allegra Kent, Edward Villella, Peter Martins, Merrill Ashley, and Gelsey Kirkland (No, Mr. B did not give her amphetamines.) He tells us what Balanchine meant when he said “Don’t put your heels down,” and why the master approved of Clifford’s impulse to “entertain.” Clifford’s devotion to Balanchine is boundless, and the ways that Balanchine treats him like a son are quite moving.

 

Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet
By Martha Ullman West
University Press of Florida

This double biography focuses on two feisty dancers who helped build ballet in America: Todd Bolender, who danced and choreographed for many companies, and Janet Reed, who preceded Maria Tallchief as the darling of New York City Ballet. By all accounts they were both irresistible and very funny — onstage and off—and had a delicious camaraderie. Close friends for fifty-eight years, the two were also close with legendary figures like Jerome Robbins, Tanaquil Le Clercq, and Melissa Hayden.

Based on massive research, Martha Ullman West chronicles the endless rehearsals and freelance stints. She delves into the making of iconic ballets like Robbins’ Fancy Free and Balanchine’s Agon. But she also gives accounts of lesser known ballets like Balanchine’s Renard and Bolender’s Mandarin and Still Point.

Bolender choreographed for Katherine Dunham, Jerome Robbins’ Ballets USA, the Joffrey Ballet, and countless other groups, often while dancing for either Balanchine or Robbins. His choreography, influenced by Austrucktanz leader Mary Wigman, spanned modern dance and ballet, and American and European ballet. His last long-term position was artistic director of Kansas City Ballet from 1981 to 1995.

A strong coach as well as performer—Doris Hering described her as having a sense of “the serious salted with the ridiculous”—Reed helped seed dance companies in other cities including Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. Lincoln Kirstein felt that Reed was so lively that she attracted better known dancers like Nora Kaye and Diana Adams to NYC Ballet, where she served as ballet master in the 1960s.

The surprising moments include Bolender being almost knocked unconscious onstage by a super energized 17-year-old named Jacques d’Amboise, and Bolender’s admission that he never understood Balanchine’s counting system. Pleasant revelations include that Balanchine’s process was more collaborative than is usually described. An unpleasant one was that Lincoln Kirstein, whose dream of NYCB made it happen, habitually denigrated female choreographers.

Gratitude to Martha Ullman West for showing that dance artists who are not superstars have contributed mightily to the forging of ballet in America.

 

Swan Dive: The Making of a Rogue Ballerina
By Georgina Pazcoguin
Henry Holt and Company

Georgina Pazcoguin’s transformation from an introverted trainee to a fearlessly frank soloist at New York City Ballet makes this book a page-turner. With a swag you can’t miss, she describes her passion for dance, her chutzpah in confrontational talks, and her defiance of what she calls “ballet toxicity.” She’s shocked by her first “fat talk” when her boss, Peter Martins, tells her that her thighs are too heavy—oh, and he also questions her commitment because she asked for a day off to attend her brother’s wedding.

She never gets to play the Swan Queen, or even Sugar Plum, but she does get plum roles on Broadway in On the Town and Cats. She also starred in iconic Broadway numbers with American Dance Machine of the 21st Century: She performed a nude duet from Oh! Calcutta! by Margo Sappington and worked with Chita Rivera on the Jack Cole number “Beale Street Blues.”

Pazcoguin weighs the differences between Broadway and ballet: For musicals, you have to audition for every role, whereas a ballet company gives you security. But in a company you are dependent on one boss who can play games and be abusive. NYCB has changed leadership since Martins stepped down under a cloud of allegations, and Pazcoguin expresses hope that the NYCB dancers will now be treated with respect.

The most hilarious moment was the time in Nutcracker when the toy soldier doll didn’t show up, and Robbie La Fosse as Drosselmeyer had to improvise up a storm. Her description of his spontaneous eruption is so full of life that you feel like you are there, with the dancers backstage, gobsmacked by La Fosse’s brilliant improvisation that saves the day.

 

A Body in Fukushima
By Eiko Otake and William Johnston
Wesleyan University Press

This beautiful/tragic book moved me so much that I wrote about it here when it first came out.

 

 

 

Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life
By Gavin Larsen
University Press of Florida

For readers who are curious about the training and the day-to-day life of a ballet dancer, this book has a lovely lilt to it. Gavin Larsen, who trained at the School of American Ballet, spent seven years at Pacific Northwest Ballet before she found a harmonious home at Oregon Ballet Theatre. From the beginning of her training to her farewell performance, she describes her experiences with sensitivity and profuse detail.

Her range of emotions is wide. Slogging through a single Nutcracker season, she hits a low as a “crumpled mess of tears in my dressing room.” Then later, in the Sugar Plum pas de deux, “suddenly at the height of the lift and on that one magnificent note, everything was crystal clear: this is the apex of life. This is the happiest a person on earth can be. This is perfection.” (The pairing of ballet with “perfection” has become so automatic that I confess I almost lopped off that part of the quote.)

The chapter on “Tumey” is bracingly real. Antonia Tumkovsky, who taught at SAB for decades, deploys the old-school style of correction by humiliation. Like all of the chapters on training, Larsen refers to herself in the third person, but it’s clearly she who falls into disfavor. For one moment, she loses her concentration, sending Mme Tumkovsky into a fury. The girl is now “the One Who Had Lapsed,” and Tumey continues tormenting her until the end of class. But how the Lapser keeps her cool is impressive. And maybe Tumkovsky is not just being petulant but is testing to see if Larsen can match her fury with her own. Larsen rises to the occasion.

 

Center Center: A Funny, Sexy, Sad Almost-memoir of a Boy in Ballet
By James Whiteside
Viking

This funny, sexy, sad almost-memoir starts with James Whiteside’s mother, a strong woman who let little James be whoever he wanted to be. Family, friends and hard work are what this story is all about. Whiteside becomes painfully torn when he’s about to go onstage as the Prince in The Sleeping Beauty and he’s just received a text saying his mother is dying. He describes his unbearably conflicting emotions poignantly and powerfully.

The exhilaration of dressing in drag and other antics with friends are liberating. Meanwhile Whiteside struggles to attain the perfect boy ballet body, and his goal is to get past that obsession to work on his technique. But don’t expect any details about his ten years with Boston Ballet or his nine years with American Ballet Theatre. Center Center is mainly about claiming the right to flamboyance and feeling centered in your chosen way to express yourself.

 

Dance Spreads Its Wings: Israeli Concert Dance 1920–2010
By Ruth Eshel
DeGruyter

Batsheva Dance Company is the tip of the iceberg in this dance-rich country. Former dancer/choreographer and critic Ruth Eshel unfolds a wealth of dance going back to before Israel was even a country. She follows pioneers like Gertrud Kraus, who fled Austria at the peak of her dance career and started Israel Ballet Theatre; Sara Levi-Tanai and her sublime muse, Margalit Oved, of Inbal Dance Theater; Bethsabée de Rothschild, who started both Batsheva and Bat-dor Companies; and Tamra-Ramla Dance Theater (co-founded by Zvi Gotheiner). Eshel ties each new wave of creativity to political developments. Americans who came to nurture the Israeli dance scene included Jerome Robbins, Anna Sokolow, Talley Beatty, and later Lisa Nelson and Simone Forti. Chapter headings like “Israeli Expressionist Dance Meets American Dance” and “To Dance in Holy Jerusalem and Socialist Haifa” reflect investigations into ongoing questions.

Eshel highlights independent choreographers like Yasmeen Godder, Arkadi Zaides, Roy Assaf, Hillel Kogan, and Sharon Eyal. It’s illuminating to read about the evolution of major companies like Rami Be’er and the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak, and Noa Wertheim and Adi Sha’al of Vertigo. And of course, Ohad Naharin and Batsheva Dance Company. Eshel also touches on community efforts to bring Arabs and Israelis together in Haifa and the international dance festivals in Ramallah. She herself met the influx of Ethiopian Jews with dance workshops and helped them develop their choreographic voices based on their folk dances. Whether you read this 500-page volume from start to finish or keep it on your shelf for reference, you are sure to get a sense of the global dance activity in Israel over the years.

 

Physical Listening: A Dancer’s Interspecies Journey
By JoAnna Mendl Shaw
Arnica Press

As educators, we know that listening is crucial, and that listening leads to imagining. JoAnna Mendl Shaw has extended and developed these intuitive knowings into her multi-faceted practice of physical listening.

A child of Jewish refugees, Mendl Shaw learned to ski at 3 years old. It was exhilarating, and she excelled. “The mountain,” she writes, “was where my physical intelligence flourished.” Although she wasn’t immediately thrilled by dance classes, she grew to love them.

The book gives a detailed account of her life’s work as a dancer, educator, Laban Movement Analyst, and mastermind of mixing species in performance. With great lucidity, she explains how each phase led to the next in her creative life. Thus we hear about the doodle game she played with her father, her resolve to make dances that leave a visual tracing, and origami folding for Zoom workshops.

An invitation from Mount Holyoke College to make a site-specific piece unleashed Mendl Shaw’s equestrian imagination. She started working with horses and never looked back. Although, in these performances each horse is controlled by a professional rider, the dancers concentrate on a dialogue, “giving and taking leadership” with the horses. In one episode, a horse nestles close to a dancer’s shoulder, and Mendl Shaw imagines the animal is whispering to the dancer.

Within each chapter are sections on practical thinking, poetic sensing, and scores. The scores—for example, an obstacle course, a blind learning score, a folding score, walking score, touch and weight sensing—are a valuable resource for anyone teaching dance composition or improvisation.

This book is a testament to what you can do when you break through the conventions of performing. It’s also a compendium of ways to engage in a life-art-reflection process.

— + —

Before we move on to the other categories, I want to register an objection to a trend I’m seeing. Three of the ballet books above represent the dancers with drawings instead of photographs. Maybe it’s my background in journalism, or my respect for photographers, but I feel this choice does not do the dancers justice. If I’m curious about a dancer, I want to see what kind of spirit that person brings to their dancing. I want to see the artistry created by that dancer onstage, or in the studio. So, to my eye, Center Center, Being a Ballerina, and Black Ballerinas would be more exciting if they were illustrated with photographs rather than drawings.

— + —

Books Received or Announced:

Baring Unbearable Sensualities: Hip Hop Dance, Bodies, Race, and Power
By Rosemarie A. Roberts
Wesleyan University Press
Co-director of the Cultural Traditions Program at Jacob’s Pillow, Rosemarie Roberts asks the question, “Can a body be both singular and collective at the same time?” While dipping into Katherine Dunham’s 2002 interview at the Pillow, the author also interviews dance artists Rennie Harris, Mr. Wiggles, and Moncell Durden as well as scholars like Thomas DeFrantz, Ananya Chatterjea, and Brenda Dixon Gottschild. 

It Could Lead to Dancing: Mixed-Sex Dancing and Jewish Modernity
By Sonia Gollance
Stanford University Press
Even though it was forbidden for Jewish men and women to dance together in 19th-century Europe, people still danced. Sonia Gollance traces social dancing in taverns, ballrooms, weddings and dance halls and the shift in sexual mores as the waves of immigrants came to these shores. The appendix defines about forty genres of social and folk dances from bolero to Charleston to the Hora, to the Kazatsky to Mambo, the German Cotillon to polonaise, the mazurka to the merengue.

Tandem Dances: Choreographing Immersive Performance
By Julia Ritter
Oxford University Press
A scholarly treatment of immersive dance including Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More and Third Rail Project’s Then She Fell.

My West Side Story, a Memoir
By George Chakiris with Lindsay Harrison
Lyons Press
The brooding sensuality and sexy dancing of George Chakiris’ Bernardo was felt all over the world. Here the charismatic dancer/actor tells us about his career leading up to and away from his Oscar-winning swirl as Bernardo.

Love Dances: Loss and Mourning in Intercultural Collaboration
By SanSan Kwan
Oxford University Press
SanSan Kwan, a dancer/scholar at UC Berkeley, focuses on duets that bridge East and West sensibilities.

The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet
Edited by Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel and Jill Nunes Jensen
Oxford University Press
This massive collection includes essays by Kyle Bukhari on Twyla Tharp, Anna Seidel on Hans Van Manen, Ann Nugent on William Forsythe, Laura Cappelle on Jean-Christophe Maillot, Tanya Wideman-Davis on Dance Theatre of Harlem, Apollinaire Scherr on Alexei Ratmansky, Gia Kourlas on Mark Morris, and lots more—over 1,000 pages worth.

The Ballerina Mindset: How to Protect Your Mental Health While Striving for Excellence
By Megan Fairchild
Penguin Random House
From this sparkling New York City Ballet principal dancer’s Instagram page: “It’s part self-help, part autobiographical, and I’m super excited to share the nuggets of wisdom that I have learned throughout my career. One of them being: DO NOT READ YOUR REVIEWS.”

Funding Bodies: Five Decades of Dance Making at the National Endowment for the Arts
By Sarah Wilbur
Wesleyan University Press
This is a behind-the-scenes look at how the National Endowment for the Arts, established in 1965, has affected dance communities across the country. 

Renegades: Digital Dance Cultures from Dubsmash to TikTok
By Trevor Boffone
Oxford University Press
This book is about the interplay of social media and hip hop. Chapter headings include “Gone Viral: Creating an Identity as a Hip Hop Artist” and “When Karen Slides Into Your DMs: Race, Language, and Dubsmash.”

The Oxford Handbook of Jewishness and Dance
Edited by Naomi M. Jackson, Rebecca Pappas, and Toni Shapiro-Phim
Oxford University Press
This anthology overflows with subjects that interest me, but it comes too late for me to give it the attention it deserves. With contributions from foremost dance scholars Naomi Jackson, Marion Kant, Hannah Schwadron, Douglas Rosenberg, Hannah Kosstrin, Rebecca Rossen, and Laure Guilbert, and dance artists Liz Lerman, Ze’eva Cohen, Victoria Marks, Hadar Ahuvia, and Jesse Zaritt, this volume broadcasts that Jewish dance scholarship is here in a big way. I look forward to diving into this book and writing something about it in the near future. (Disclosure: the book is based on a conference at Arizona State University that I participated in as a curator and learner.)

Memories of Rudolf Nureyev
By Nancy Sifton
Arnica Press
A collection that draws from more than a thousand performances of the superstar Soviet defector attended by traveler/archivist Nancy Sifton. The memories included transcriptions of many interviews.

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New Editions of Existing Books:

No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century
By Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick
Yale University Press first published in 2003, now in paperback
A thorough, masterful history of twentieth-century concert dance, this 900-page volume covers a vast stretch of American and European dance from minstrelsy and vaudeville on up through current choreographers. An invaluable resource.

Moving Through Conflict: Dance and Politics in Israel
Edited by Dina Roginsky and Henia Rottenberg
Routledge, first published 2020, now in paperback
The nine chapters include Henia Rottenberg on “artistic activism” in the works of Rami Be’er and Arkadi Zaides and Naomi Jackson’s analysis of maverick dance artist Jesse Zaritt’s work. An appendix lists many Dabke groups in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority.

This Very Moment: teaching thinking dancing
By Barbara Dilley
Originally published by Naropa University Press in 2015.
Digital edition from Contact Editions
Master teacher-founder of contemplative dance practices and past member of Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Barbara Dilley created this multi-faceted contemplation of her dance experiences. She weaves her influences— John Cage, Yvonne Rainer, Tibetan Buddhism, and the anarchism of Grand Union—into her unique approach to teaching at Naropa University. A poetic collage of observations and practices.

— + —

 Children’s books:

My Story, My Dance: Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey
By Lesa Cline-Ransome
Foreword by Robert Battle
Simon & Schuster
or through Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

My Daddy Can Fly
By Thomas Forster with American Ballet Theatre
Penguin Random House

Grand Jeté and Me
By Allegra Kent
HarperCollins

— + —

— + — + —

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Resisting Forgetfulness Via Eiko

It’s a strange, unsettling thing, but disaster can be visually beautiful. In a monumental new book called A Body in Fukushima, Eiko Otake is photographed in Fukushima, the site of the 2011 tsunami-prompted nuclear meltdown, by William Johnston. These images of a lone figure in irradiated danger zones are imbued with an elegiac quality. Containing 160 color photos, the book traces the long-term collaboration between Eiko, the dancer of Eiko & Koma fame, and Johnston, the photographer who teaches history at Wesleyan. From 2014 to 2019, the two made five trips to Japan, visiting a total of 26 once-populated places in and around Fukushima, some of which are now ghost towns. I am writing now, during the week of commemorating the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to say why this book haunts me.

In these photographs in the evacuation zone, Eiko’s body absorbs the desolation of these places. One can read sadness, fear, loneliness, courage, protectiveness, resistance, or resignation in her face and body.

Eiko in Yamadahama Seawall, all photos by William Johnston

Visually, she is inseparable from the landscape. She blends in with the rocks at Yamadahama. She clutches her waist amidst big plastic bags full of radioactive debris in Namie Town. She kneels, perhaps in prayer, on Shinmaiko Beach. She stands huddled against the wind in front of a shuttered Yamaha store in Namie Town. Among the tangled wires of Tomioka Sanitation Plant, she grabs her red silk cloth (re-sewn by her mother and herself each time it rips from her dancing). She reaches upward for a hanging bell rope at Shiogama Shrine. Each scene opens a window into the possibility of story.

At Shiogama Shrine

The book also contains essays by Eiko that are eloquent, pained, and brilliant in their determination to understand suffering. In a piece called “Movement,” she connects body movement to the movement of a virus to political movements like Black Lives Matter. She’s a thinker/writer/artist who has been studying atomic bomb literature for twenty years.

In Hittachi Benten

The gravitational pull Eiko feels toward Fukushima is explained in a letter to her deceased friend, Kyoko Hayashi, a survivor of the Nagasaki bombing and author of From Trinity to Trinity (translated by Eiko). There is some part of Eiko that seeks to be in sisterhood with Hayashi, to understand what it feels like to be a hibakusha, a survivor of the nuclear holocaust. In Eiko’s dancing for Johnston’s camera, she wants her body to know and remember, and to share that knowing with us.

The aim here is to resist forgetfulness — and you see that in Eiko’s body. You see how her body is weighed down with remembering. In these god-forsaken locations, she exudes a fully alive response to place. And yet, as Eiko said in the recent Poetics of Aging panel, “Part of my work is preparing to die, or at least practicing to die . . . improvising.”

In the “Afterword,” Eiko compares the disaster of the current pandemic to the disaster of Fukushima: “A nuclear plant or a great city—everything humans make is breakable. We are breakable. All are fragile. We know this now more clearly than ever.”

When I used the word “monumental” earlier, I meant it in several ways: A Body in Fukushima, published by Wesleyan University Press, is artistically, emotionally, historically, globally, environmentally huge. It is monumental not only for positing grieving as a source of art, but also for recognizing the colossal recklessness of human civilization. This beautiful book, which is available at an affordable price due to funding from the Duke Foundation, is a warning.

Shinmaiko Beach

Note: To mark the anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945), Eiko performs a site-specific work, They did not hesitate, in association with the Art Institute of Chicago, on Aug. 7.

 

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Golden Advice for Dance Writers

Like many of you, I’m taking the time at home to burrow into boxes of old stuff to see what I can get rid of. One of the treasures I found was a set of handwritten corrections on my first wobbly attempts at writing. In 1971, I was taking a weekly workshop in dance criticism led by two formidable women: Deborah Jowitt and Marcia B. Siegel. At that time Deborah was a dancer/choreographer as well as the dance critic for The Village Voice. Marcia has written for many publications, including the Boston Phoenix for sixteen years. Currently, Deborah has a regular “DanceBeat” on ArtsJournal.com, and Marcia posts on the ArtsFuse.org. Both are brilliant writers, and I’m always interested in what they have to say and how they say it.

Deborah Jowitt c. 1972

Those six-week workshops were given under the auspices of Dance Theater Workshop (which morphed into New York Live Arts in 2011). A small group of us gathered either in Deborah’s living room in Greenwich Village or Rosalind Newman’s loft in Tribeca. Sitting on the floor, we read our reviews aloud and responded to each other’s offerings.

At the time, my main effort was choreography, but I liked the workshop so much that I took three cycles of it. I’ve said that the workshop appealed to me because I just wanted to keep talking about dance. But upon discovering these old papers, I see another reason I kept signing up for the course: I was serious about writing.

In addition to correcting the usual errors like redundancies and verb tenses gone awry, Deborah and Marcia challenged us to be tough on ourselves. Their critiques, sometimes accompanied by biting humor, strengthened my perceptions as well as my prose. They taught me to hear the writing.

Marcia Siegel by Nat Tileston, 1970s

Keep in mind, this was decades before YouTube. Dance reviews were pretty much the only tracings of a performance available to the public at large.

In this entry, I am extending my hand to the past, in gratitude to Deborah and Marcia, while also extending a hand toward future dance writers. According to my colleague Siobhan Burke, who teaches at Barnard, more students than ever before have signed up for her annual course in dance criticism. So, despite the recent evaporation of live performance, maybe this is a good time to help cultivate a new generation of dance critics.

Below are examples from six of my attempts from 1971–72. I tried to give just enough of my own words for you to see the point of my teachers’ comments. I also tried to retain the casual—yet very different from each other—styles of their corrections.

¶¶¶

  • The performance: Two choreographers at the Cunningham Studio, Oct. 1, 1971.

What I wrote: “…along with an expanded sense of space and time.”
Deborah: “a little confusing if you don’t plan to say how they did this pretty soon.”

What I wrote: “After a while of this…”
Deborah: “No! Maybe, After doing this for a while.”

What I wrote: “This led to the poignant question, ‘Do you sense me?’ ”
Deborah: “How is this poignant?”

What I wrote: “The dancer doesn’t use his own impetus.”
Deborah: “What gives this impression? In other words, what do you mean by impetus?”

What I wrote: “…this adds to the effect of cerebralism.”
Deborah: “Do you mean cerebralism? Or just cool, detached, etc?”

What I wrote: “…was presented…were done…was…was…”
Deborah: “Too many blah verbs.”
Marcia’s final comment: “You can make everything stronger by using more specific words & tightening up the conversational diffuseness, e.g. ‘showed the smoothness and casualness with which she moves’ could be ‘moving smoothly and casually.’ Also you may find that consciously pulling it together will sharpen your perceptions. Once you condense or delete “a film…that took a little too long,” you’ll start thinking about what to really say about the film, why it took too long. . . . Especially pay attention to verbs—use descriptive, specific ones instead of plain ones like go, do (I won’t embarrass you by underlining the do’s, but . . .) or the auxiliaries—is, was, etc. This will improve your writing enormously. . . . I find you usually describe things accurately but sometimes miss the point. Try to think beyond the dance’s physicality to its shape or sensibility. Also consider the dynamic qualities more—the best line in your piece is about the Cunningham quality of ‘fast, disconnected movements and unexpected calms.’  These kinds of words carry their own emotional weight & if they’re accurately and carefully chosen can convey the atmosphere of the dance better than how many steps to the right etc.”

  • The Performance: Ritual Acrobats of Persia at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Nov. 9–14, 1971 (I wrote this one in my messy penmanship.)

What I wrote: a section on the dancers’ spectacular feats and the audience reactions.
Deborah: “These two paragraphs cut into the middle of another kind of thinking. Surely the paragraph that begins ‘All the group’ and the one that begins ‘A point of interest, for me’ belong together. With a little reworking, they might fit.”

What I wrote: “group unison”
Deborah: “redundant”
Marcia’s final comment: “You saw all the right things but didn’t dig into why they made you react. I think you can avoid some of the rather choppy feeling your writing has by combining ideas. Take the essential facts of this sentence ‘older but more sprightly’ and put them in the next sentence. Also putting two slightly different ideas in one sentence will help you vary your sentence structure, using subordinate clauses (although, however, since, while etc) and other constructions. . . . Pay more attention to the sound of your writing. It gets monotonous, just like music, when every phrase is built the same way, gives the same kind of information, has the same mood. . . . Did you get The Elements of Style?” [the classic book about writing by Strunk and White]
Deborah’s final comment: “I like your observation about the ways the different men execute the various stunts. You saw some things clearly and wrote vigorously about them. . . . The organization of the review is pretty dreadful. A lot of skipping around etc. . . .By the way, you’ve got a splendid catchy lead if you had used it as such: ‘Are they dancers? Soldiers? Circus entertainers? Or monks?’ Then you can explain why you wonder, What makes them a little like all of these and yet not wholly like any of them? And you’re off and running with your remarks about the walk, the few spectacular tricks, the daily chore-look, etc. . . WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR TYPEWRITER? UGH!”

  • The performance: A single dancer/choreographer “with friends,” Cunningham Studio, Nov. 19–20, 1971.

What I wrote: “Beautiful dancers don’t necessarily make beautiful dances.”
Marcia: “This would be a good lead for the article you wrote. (Perhaps better than your nice metaphor, since the metaphor is only true partly, i.e. she’s not always enigmatic.)”

What I wrote: “…the sweeping backbends are breath-taking…M is divinely ordained to dance…”
Marcia: “This borders on fan-mag style, but you are specific enough to get away with it.”

What I wrote: “Unfortunately, the exquisiteness of her dancing does not conceal the mediocrity of her choreography.”
Marcia: “Brutally abrupt shift!”

What I wrote: “The bulk of the dance…”
Marcia: “Awkward, sounds like something to do with digestion.”

What I wrote: “Miss M and two cohorts”
Marcia: “Has a slightly different connotation than you mean—more conspiratorial.”
Marcia’s final comment: “As I said in class, the first two graphs is the strongest writing I’ve seen you do. It happens because you really have empathized and have contributed your feelings to the event without obliterating the event. Do it more!”

  • The performance: Three Choreographers at Cunningham Studio, April 30, 1972.

What I wrote: “…was a treat for all of us who have admired…”
Marcia: “In-group sounding”

What I wrote: “It also includes some unnecessary running around:”
Deborah: “to whom?”

What I wrote: “…being punctuated with smiles of guileless guile.”
Deborah: “Agnew-esque” [Spiro Agnew, vice president at the time, had a penchant for derogatory alliteration; he later resigned because of corruption.]

What I wrote: “Pure movement invention need not be bolstered by props and lighting.”
Deborah: “Last sentence sounds sort of preachy.”
Marcia’s final comment: “This article presented a real problem — you might have solved it better by not trying to tell what the choreographers are like as dancers, since none of them danced here. Or set up the structure so that you described each dance first & then made some comment on its relation to the choreographer’s own movement style. . . . I feel it was an interesting concert but I wouldn’t have cared about the stuff you spent the most time describing: how the performer & choreographers look & move. It’s a useful observation and sometimes unusually good but doesn’t tell me what I want to know about 3 first choreographies.”

  • The performance: Two choreographers, Minor Latham Playhouse, Dance Uptown, May 12, 1972.

What I wrote: “…walking hurriedly…”
Marcia: “Opportunity to use one terrific verb: rushing? zooming? sprinting?”

What I wrote: “…they seem to get caught up in a whirlwind without changing their steps.”
Marcia: “What make you feel this? acceleration? intensity? space?”

What I wrote: “…renew fully my usually tenuous faith in humanity.”
Marcia: “Theme of this article? Then you don’t need to state it, just make the article illustrate it.”
Deborah’s final comment: “Beginning (1st first para) excellent. I like description of how they look. Captured feel of the dance.”

What I wrote: “…renew fully my usually tenuous faith in humanity.”
Deborah’s additional final comment: “Stop THESE PRISSY ENDINGS.”
Marcia’s final comment: “Wendy, I really feel like you’re making progress, slow but sure. Please pay more attention to your writing persona. Who are you talking to? yourself? me and Debby? an anonymous reader? the class? Decide, then tell everything that person needs to know. It’s a kind of performance if you like, it has to begin & end, give a complete account of itself. Put the first person singular in place of all the “we” and “you” etc. Say more about how they moved than what they looked like. Be aware that we readers need some continuity — if dance doesn’t have a plot or music etc, what is the structure? The dynamic form? Here you seem to skip around, picking out phrases or images to talk about — are they random choices? Because the dance is random? Why did you happen to think of them? Are they the most important things?”

• The performance: A composer and dancer at The Kitchen, Broadway Central Hotel, May 19, 1972.

What I wrote: “…proved to be equally at home…”
Marcia: “cliché”

What I wrote: “The novelty of the loveliness of her dancing…”
Marcia: “wordy construction”

What I wrote: “It seems unfortunate that so little of this long and dancey dance sticks in my memory. Choreographers must learn not to flood their audiences. If S had edited out parts of the dance, I’m sure the remaining segments would have remembered themselves to me more vividly.”
Deborah: “Ugh! Double ugh. You’ve made your point. Find an ending that doesn’t sound like advice from Your Dance Doctor.”
Deborah’s final comment: “I like the whole review for its reflective, friendly tone, but feel the need for just a few more specific details.”
Marcia’s final comment: “Now that you know something about form, maybe we better start working on syntax. You need to write more tightly, less discursively. Avoid weak verbs — get more directly at the action, e.g. ‘she walks’ is better than ‘it is to walk.’ But ‘she paces,’ ‘she stalks,’ ‘she staggers,’ ‘she marches’ are better than ‘she walks.’ . . . ‘Another was when’ is almost never O.K. . . .I like this best in the beginning when you describe qualities. Later you talk a lot about positions & floor patters & I don’t get any feeling what the dancer was doing.”

  • The performance: A dancer/choreographer whose work I had danced in, May 24, 1972 (Woe is me, cuz this is also handwritten.)

What I wrote: “F is on a things trip.”
Marcia: “good lead”

What I wrote: “One man combs a woman’s breast as though scooping the last of some soup into his spoon.”
Deborah: “very neat”

What I wrote: “I remember the opening of the piece.”
Deborah: “clumsy”

What I wrote: “strange”
Deborah: “If it’s all that strange, tell us about it.”

What I wrote: “…escapes my memory.”
Deborah: “a cliché”

What I wrote: “I felt that too often, an intriguing image like that one was dropped instead of being allowed to evolve.”
Deborah: “roundabout language”

What I wrote: “She marvels at assorted items in her basket and then sings a wilted rendition of ‘Lavender Blues’ to a plastic rose.”
Marcia: “nice”
Deborah: “Your last para, on p. 1, which summed up your opinion, might be better as a close — perhaps with a less equivocal last sentence. Beware of passive verbs. They’re weak. ‘Man holds rope’ better than ‘rope is held.’ Review unbalanced — like dance. What else happened, what did group do? Incomplete article. . . . WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR TYPEWRITER?”
Marcia’s final comment: “This is better— yr getting a sense of the color & sound of words! I don’t feel a whole evening, if that’s what it was. The things you choose as unifying factors are fine, but you should also look for what the choreographer thought was keeping it together, and tell us that, even if briefly . . .(Some of the ways you describe the pc. & especially F seem inconsistent with what I know about her style. Could the ‘serenity,’ ‘liquid flowing’ and ‘resilience’ be things you feel because you like her? You have to be very sure of these things when writing about a close friend or colleague.)”

¶¶¶

I realize that I am still learning these lessons. Marcia and Deborah sit on my shoulder, compelling me to pay close attention to my choices. I’ve brought them with me as I edited other writers’ work at Dance Magazine, and now as a teacher, correcting papers.

Marcia and Deborah, Bournonville Festival, Copenhagen, 2005

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Notable Dance Books of 2020

It’s been a good year for dance history. Most of these books explore the past, deepening and broadening what we know and how we know it. Each is interesting in a different way. In cases where I didn’t have much to say, I’ve still tried to give a sense of the scope.

This was a big year for me because my own book was published, which you will see if you get to the end of this list.

Dance We Do: A Poet Explores Black Dance
By Ntozake Shange
Foreword by Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Beacon Press

The secret life of the famous playwright Ntozake Shange (1948–2018) was her dance life. When her dance play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (1976) exploded on Broadway in 1976, it was gritty, witty, and playful. The characters expressed themselves through both words and dance—with the help of choreographer Dianne McIntyre. Shange coined the term choreopoem to describe her equal passions for literature and dance.

As Alexis Pauline Gumbs explains in the foreword, Shange was working on this book while she was trying to recover from two strokes and a degenerative nerve disease. She had explored Black dance, not only as an element in her own productions, but by studying and performing with Dianne McIntyre and Halifu Osumare. As McIntyre says in these pages, Shange was at home in dance class. “In my dreams I can dance,” Shange wrote, even as her body was deteriorating. “Every night I fly.”

When auditioning for McIntyre’s Sounds in Motion in the 1970s, the young, dance-loving poet was asked to improvise for 32 counts. “I was scared to death because that was a long time. But I said, ‘Well hell, I am here.’ And we began. I danced my heart out.” Shange landed an internship with McIntyre—and friendship for life.

Shange tells a funny story about the time when, dressed as a bag lady for a performance choreographed by Osumare, she planned to make her entrance from outside the theater. Her guise was so convincing that an usher barred her from the building and threatened to call the police.

Shange follows her curiosity by interviewing Black dance artists, including McIntyre, Osumare, Eleo Pomare, and two from the younger generation: Camille A. Brown, who choreographed the last staging of colored girls, and Davalois Fearon, a dance artist who was in Stephen Petronio’s company. In these interviews, I found keys that unlock larger ideas:

Osumare: “I think that as we grow as a society, we have to become more literate in being able to read the body.”

Camille A. Brown: “If I’m eating, we’re all eating. If I get a door open, it’s my responsibility to make it wider.”

Osumare again: “Part of what I’ve been doing all my life is receiving ancestral messages and translating them in my art.”

 

Daniel Lewis: A Life in Choreography and the Art of Dance
By Donna H. Krasnow and Daniel E. Lewis
McFarland

So much of our lives happens by chance. For Daniel Lewis, a dance artist as well as a leader in dance training, it was the War in Vietnam that pushed him toward the Juilliard School. His plan was to become a Broadway dancer, but the draft board had other ideas. One of the accompanists at the Martha Graham school told him he could get a deferment by enrolling at Juilliard. There he met José Limón, who needed a male dancer just then, in 1963. At Juilliard he was taken under the wing of Martha Hill, who groomed him as a future dance educator. She sometimes asked him to fill in for Limón. It was Hill who ultimately recommended Danny to be the dean of dance at New World School of the Arts.
One of the dance world’s sunniest, most generous people, Lewis was also a performer who always revealed the humanity behind the role. A tap dancer as a child, he attended the High School of Performing Arts while also dancing in Yiddish theater. His career ride also included American Dance Festival, staging Limón works, directing his own repertory company, and finally Dean of Dance at the New World School of the Arts.

Limón’s dedication and artistry obviously made an impact on Lewis. The younger dancer was thrilled to perform Iago next to Limón’s Othello in The Moor’s Pavane. Perhaps his hardest role was the slave owner in Limón’s The Legend, about a slave uprising led by Nat Turner in 1830.

The book is chock full of entertaining stories about tours, teaching assignments, re-stagings, with side trips to Anna Sokolow, Paul Taylor, and Donald McKayle. Occasionally, with so many voices—those of Donna Krasnow, Lewis, and a slew of colleagues giving their memories—the narrative gets confusing.

Just as Lewis learned to be a leader from Martha Hill, Robert Battle learned from Lewis. As a student at New World School of the Arts, Battle, now the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, would observe Lewis as director: “Sitting in the office talking with him was like watching a circus act. Danny would be doing multiple things at once—on the phone, solving problems, and making things possible…I call Danny ‘the conductor.’”

 

Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing between Intention and Impact
By Phil Chan with Michele Chase
Yellow Peril Press

Black Lives Matter has been front and center, rightly so. But Asian lives matter too, and it matters how they are portrayed in the dance world. Final Bow for Yellowface is a project co-founded by Phil Chan and New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, as well as the title of the book. Phil Chan exposes the demeaning stereotypes in classical ballet. Exactly why does the choreography for the Chinese dance in Nutcracker call for head-bobbing, finger-pointing and shuffling? What is the historical basis, and how can these stereotypes be changed?

Taking an activist stance, Chan met with Peter Martins, then the ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet, to suggest changes. He convinced Martins to alter certain movements, but he didn’t stop there. He got 31 (and still counting) artistic directors of ballet companies around the world to sign the pledge to eliminate offensive stereotypes of Asians.

With sections titled “Caricature vs. Character” 58 or “Appropriation vs. Appreciation,” Chan provides informed, rich, and nuanced discussions. He asks questions like “Being Asian in America: Do We Belong?” “Who Gets to Decide?” “Did We Do Enough?”

Chan compares old ballets to bonsai trees, saying that in order for them to survive, we “have to give them a little delicate pruning . . . Once we acknowledge this, it becomes a little easier to be less precious with how we preserve dance . . . and more willing to take risks.”

 

Martha Graham’s Cold War: The Dance of American Diplomacy
By Victoria Phillips
Oxford University Press

Martha Graham is known as an uncompromising artist, a purist who is sometimes called the Picasso of dance. It was this very individuality that was the selling point for the U. S. State Department to send her abroad. So it’s a bit jarring to see her positioned as a creator of propaganda herself in the title. I find myself half-wishing the title were Martha Graham: A Pawn in the Cold War.

That said, this book thrusts the choreographer onto a larger world stage. Phillips helps us see how the idea of American originality is constructed and marketed. The vacillations of Graham’s career were controlled not only by the quality of her company’s performances and the response of the audience, but also by the dance panel advising the State Department on whom to send where. Along the way we learn that Eleanor Roosevelt’s favoring of Graham did not hurt her, that the Israeli audience responded well to Appalachian Spring because of its “pioneering spirit,” and that Graham cited the eroticism of her 1962 Phaedra to claim relevance well past her heyday.

Issues broached: Was Graham’s work too esoteric? Could people in poor countries enjoy it? When touring Europe, how did her rivalry with Germany’s Mary Wigman play out? How did Martha’s drinking affect her performances?

The revelations of dance history abound. For one, the narrative that modern dance was born in America only emerged after World War II. Between the world wars, it was accepted that Germany (home of Laban, Wigman, Kreutzberg) was the birthplace of modern dance. It was only after Hitler destroyed the arts in German that the idea emerged, via Margaret Lloyd’s 1949 Borzoi Book of Modern Dance, that modern dance originated in the U.S. with Graham. Another revelation is that it was Michio Ito, that shadowy figure who chose to be deported rather than confined to an internment camp, who introduced Graham to her most constant collaborator, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. A third revelation is that, as opposed to the understanding that Graham broke completely from the “orientalist” aesthetics of Denishawn, her first State Department tour of the Orient went to the same countries as the famous Denishawn tour of 1925–26 and she posed in front of some of the same landmarks. She soon broke with the coy exotica of St. Denis as she explored the American experience, but that took time.

 

The Fascist Turn in the Dance of Serge Lifar: Interwar French Ballet and the German Occupation
By Mark Franko
Oxford University Press

Whenever the name Serge Lifar comes up, someone always says, “You know he was a Fascist, right?” Now, more than just rumor, we have the proof. Mark Franko has delved into the international archives to paint a complex picture of this mercurial dance artist who collaborated with the Nazis. The surrounding history is fascinating.

Lifar was the last favorite of Diaghilev, cultivated by him to shine as a performing and choreographing star. Cyril Beaumont described his movements as “graceful and lithe like those of a wild animal.” And yet he was also seen as an exemplar of classicism. Lifar’s sensibility was seen to fit “the avant-garde interwar art scene and its queer dimension.” Balanchine’s Apollon Musagète, with Lifar in the lead role when it premiered in 1928, was often called the dawning of neo-classicism.

Because of Lifar connection to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which had wowed the French elite for twenty years ending with Diaghilev’s death in 1929, the French authorities pinned their hopes on Lifar to resuscitate French ballet. He represented a reversal of sorts, in that Marius Petipa had brought ballet from France to Russia in the nineteenth century, making it thrive while ballet in France languished. So the French were eager to reverse the route and invite a Russian to revitalize the French ballet scene at the expense of Russia. Lifar did in fact bring Paris Opera Ballet into the “golden years,” which were also the war years.

In his voluminous writings, Lifar had espoused concepts that align with the Nazis, for instance, that pure classical ballet was fundamentally Aryan (as opposed to swing dance, which was banned). The Vichy government used the Opera (which then was producing more dance than music) as a public display of collaboration with the Nazi regime. In 1940, in the midst of World War II, Lifar personally showed Hitler around the Opera and had the lights turned on. When he was accused of being Jewish, he defended himself by disassociating himself from Jews and going further: “In my book La Danse (1937), I demonstrated that the Jewish culture is incompatible with omni-Aryan culture, that it has followed a distinctly different and destructive pathway while the omni-Aryan spirit symbolizes creation.” Always the opportunist, Lifar knew when white supremacy would come in handy.

After the war, for hazy reasons, Lifar was not penalized for collaborating with the Nazis as much as other public figures in France. Different factions of Paris Opera Ballet took different sides. The dancers stuck by him, but the theater electricians, who had been part of the Resistance, refused to work with him. They devised a plan to express their displeasure: In the first performance after the war, when Lifar appeared onstage, they plunged the entire theater into darkness!

There are other fun episodes, like the time Lifar challenged Massine to a duel in Central Park. (Massine declined.)

But this is the part that changed history: The general director of the Paris Opera, Jacques Rouché, had planned to replace Lifar with Balanchine, who was at the time freelancing in movies and musicals in the U.S. But at the last minute, Rouché bowed to pressure and rehired Lifar. This was right before New York City Center offered to make Balanchine and Kirstein’s fledgling group a resident company, thus giving birth to New York City Ballet in 1948. It’s unreal to think how close we came to not having NYCB!

 

Corner
Douglas Dunn, Gibson + Recoder
Photographs by Paula Court, text by Douglas Dunn and Brice Brown, film stills by Gibson + Recoder, Design by Grenfell Press and
MAB Books

Douglas Dunn is an existential figure in post-modern dance. During 46 years of making dances, he has produced events wayyy outside the box. With photographs by Paula Court, this book documents Corner (1972), in which Dunn, dressed in black, creates shapes with a crisp outline against a freestanding white-walled corner. The individual as loner, as object, as part of the architecture, as a visitor from another planet.

But that’s only half the book. The other half, if you turn the book over and start from the flip side, shows images of these same positions, now burnished bronze, obliterating the contrast of the original photos. Like a ghost crawling among the pages, the hazy figures disperse into the grainy background. This haunting effect, taking minimalism into a dream world, is accomplished by visual artists Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder.

Included also is an essay by Dunn about the time he made Corner. His prose, like his dancing, is eloquent yet at times blunt. He aims “to emphasize the artificiality of delivering the body as art.” The surprise is that the further artificiality of the visual treatment brings these images into primal, almost animalistic territory.

 

The Legat Legacy
Ed. Mindy Aloff
Introduction by Robert Greskovic
Illustrations: Caricatures by Nicolas Legat
University Press of Florida

Master teacher and choreographer Nicolas Legat (1869–1937) was the link between Petipa and many of the Russians whose names we know; Pavlova, Fokine, Massine, Nijinsky, and Balanchine had all been his students. This book, which comprises Legat’s memoirs; testimonials from dancers like André Eglevsky, Alexandra Danilova, and Alicia Markova; and detailed lesson plans, brings the early twentieth-century Russian ballet alive for us.
Petipa is a giant in our eyes, but in Legat’s eyes, Christian Johanssen, was equally huge. Legat regarded these two men as deities. His writings show us that Russian ballet was an international blend, with influences from the French Petipa, the Swedish Johanssen (a disciple of Bournonville), and the Italian Cecchetti, who excelled in training for multiple pirouettes.

It was from Johanssen that Legat learned to be an exacting, demanding, and inventive teacher. Like Johanssen, he gave new combinations every class and tailored his corrections to individual bodies. He also learned to come five minutes early and water the floor himself before class. (In later years, a student or underling did the watering—with a garden-type watering can—the purpose being to provide friction, the result being constantly splintering wood planks.)

From Petipa, Legat learned about choreographing—but only for women. Apparently Petipa’s movement imagination did not extend to men. But Johanssen’s did. So Legat learned from him, although he felt Johanssen’s forte was in teaching rather than creating ballets.

Although Legat was sometimes open to new styles—for instance, he inserted a tap dance into Fairy Doll in 1903—he opposed the reforms of Fokine. While Fokine pushed for the story of a ballet to be danced rather than indicated through mime, Legat loved passing down Petipa’s pantomime passages to his students. These differences led to open conflicts between Legat and Fokine.

So many of the great Russian dancers—Pavlova, Karsavina, Massine—trusted Legat that Diaghilev hired him as ballet master for the Ballets Russes in 1925. But conflicts ensued, so Legat left to teach in Paris and then re-settled in London.

As Robert Greskovic writes in the introduction, Legat’s contribution as a teacher outweighed his output as a choreographer. None of his ballets since Fairy Doll in 1903, which he co-choreographed with his younger brother, has endured. In any case, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in Russian-style ballet training.

 

Futures of Dance Studies
Edited by Susan Manning, Janice Ross, and Rebecca Schneider
The University of Wisconsin Press

This book comprises 28 essays on a wide variety of subjects. It puts its faith in younger dance scholars to sustain the field of dance studies. The articles are divided into sub-sections: Archives, Desires, Sites, Politics, Economics, Virtuosities, and Circulations. I will summarize only two essays: the first, by Joanna Dee Das, in the Archives section; and the second, by Clare Croft, under Desires.

In “Dancing Dahomey at the World’s Fair: Revising the Archive of African Dance,” Joanna Dee Das makes the case that the exposition of the Dahomey Village (Dahomey is now the Republic of Benin) in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair spurred the later popularity of African dance in the U. S. The early Vaudeville team of George Walker and Bert Williams, also performing at the fair, watched the West African dancers and borrowed from them when they created In Dahomey, the 1902 hit that turned the Cakewalk into a national craze. It was also the inspiration for a Dahomean number in Ziegfeld’s groundbreaking 1927 musical Showboat. Bert Williams, the soulful blackface performer, was an inspiration to the first superstar tapper, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

The World’s Fair was steeped in white supremacy, so it’s not surprising that journalists called the Dahomean dancers “savage,” describing them as both lazy and aggressive, “grinning” while swinging weapons. Dee Das looks to the 1930s films of Melville Herskovits for a more accurate version of the Dahomeans’ dances. She identifies a long-held duality: “The tension between black performance as object of an oppressive white gaze and black performance as a means of liberation.”

In “Lesbian Echoes in Activism and Writing: Jill Johnston’s Interventions,” Clare Croft applies a scholarly lens to Johnston’s wild ride as a dance critic turned lesbian chronicler. Johnston, who died in 2010, actually anticipated the ground-breaking Judson Dance Theater with her own explosive, raunchy, scarily insightful, convention-shattering prose. As Croft writes, “Johnson celebrates messiness, collision, and the dissolving of boundaries,” qualities that later apply to her writing as a lesbian feminist activist as well.

Croft quotes a magnificently prescient gender-diverse, Gertrude Stein–inflected statement by Johnston at the end of a review of a 1968 Lotte Goslar performance: “A queen is a queen is a boy is girl is a ballerina is a boy is a dyke is a fag is a butch is a boy is a girl is just a kinky son of a gun like the rest of us. Hello all you sexes. We’re too good to be true.”

After describing Johnston’s notorious public behavior (including a make-out session captured in the Pennebaker film Town Bloody Hall), Croft concludes the essay with gratitude: “She is here in our history to remind us again and again that there many ways to be a woman. To be a lesbian is to be a woman, with a body, with a mind—loud, brash, funny, and full of desire spilling forth.”

 

Ballet in the Cold War: A Soviet-American Exchange
By Anne Searcy
Oxford University Press

In 1959, the Bolshoi dancers burst onto the stage of the old Metropolitan Opera House, stoking excitement with their heroic leaps and hurling partnering. When they returned in September of 1962, they had two assets that promised to outdo their first triumph: the fierce ballerina Maya Plisetskaya and a new heroic Spartacus. Plisetskaya dazzled with every step, but Leonid Yacobson’s Spartacus—which expressed the Soviet Union’s revolutionary politics in grand manner, one-handed lifts and all—fell flat. Even worse, it was ridiculed. Critics compared it to kitschy Hollywood epics of the 1920s. It was called tasteless by New York critics, a charge that fit America’s disdain for Soviet “backwardness” while also marveling at the dancers’ virtuosity.

I was among the many American teenagers chosen to be supers in the production. In fact, author Anne Searcy quotes my blog entry My Spartacus as one of the people saying the ballet “did not cater to good taste.” It was only later, looking back, guessing why the eight scheduled performances were suddenly cut down to less, that I came up with that explanation. I adored the Khachaturian music, and being onstage with Plisetskaya, Rhyzhenko, and Vasiliev, was a thrill. Actually, I think the lore and lure of the Bolshoi was untouched by the charge of bad taste. Americans from Sascha Radetsky and Gabe Stone Shayer have studied there, and of course there was David Hallberg’s stint as a principle in the Bolshoi Ballet.

OK, enough of my opinion. Searcy recounts the reverse part of the exchange during the Cold War. When American Ballet Theatre went over in 1960, they defied common sense by including Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid and Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend— both about extremely violent characters (what else makes a ballet American?). These ballets, which violated the alleged idealism of the Communist regime, were not well received.

More successful was New York City Ballet’s tour to the Soviet Union the following month, October 1962, which coincided with the Cuban Missile crisis. Despite the aesthetic differences, Searcy posits that both the Soviet penchant for symphonic ballets and the Balanchine’s neo-classical works embrace the music, and therein lay the common ground. I’m not sure I agree, because the Soviet aesthetic was broader and more literal, and I think they recognized that Balanchine was taking ballet into the future.

 

Finding Balanchine’s Lost Ballets: Exploring the Early Choreography of a Master
By Elizabeth Kattner
University Press of Florida

In 2018, Elizabeth Kattner, an associate professor at Oakland University in Michigan, dared to reconstruct Balanchine’s first group ballet, which he made as a teenager in St. Petersburg. Performed at the Duma Auditorium on the Nevsky Prospect, Funeral March premiered in 1923, the year before Balanchine left the Soviet Union for Europe. At the time he was the head of a group called the Young Ballet.

Influenced by the splendid work that Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer have done to reconstruct Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring and other Diaghilev-era ballets, Kattner restored (she uses the word “envision” rather than reconstruct) Balanchine’s eight-minute Funeral March for Grand Rapids Ballet. She feels that Funeral March foreshadows his later renowned works like Apollo, Prodigal Son and Serenade.

Inhabiting her double identity of dance artist and scholar, Kattner gathered the “remnants,” or traces of the work, and put them together like a puzzle. 46 She concludes that much of Balanchine’s genius was formed early on, in the cauldron of artistic influences of revolutionary Russia. These influences include sculptor Naom Gabo’s cubist ideas (Balanchine intended Funeral March to be seen from all four sides), the constructivist theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, and experimental choreographer Kasyan Goleizovsky, who placed the action on different-leveled platforms.

An additional influence that we rarely hear about was Fokine’s Chopiniana. Balanchine loved the Chopin so much that he would imitate the different roles, so it’s no surprise that he chose the Polish composer’s music for this work.

Although Funeral March is the only ballet Kattner reconstructed, her Appendix lists nine other Balanchine ballets from 1920 to 1924 for which she supplies verbal “remnants.”

 

Catherine Littlefield: A Life in Dance
By Sharon Skeel
Oxford University Press

Before New York City Ballet, before American Ballet Theatre, there was the Catherine Littlefield Ballet Company, later the Philadelphia Ballet. Though it only lasted from 1934 to 1942, it produced the first full-scale Sleeping Beauty in the United States; toured Europe in 1937; and became resident company of the Chicago Civic Opera. Littlefield’s students joined the early groups of both George Balanchine and Mikhail Mordkin, whose company morphed into ABT.

Catherine Littlefield (1905–1951) performed in local musicals, in her own ballets, and in the Ziegfeld Follies, working with choreographers Ned Wayburn and Michel Fokine. (Sounds like Fokine make an Isadora Duncan–type piece with flowing tunics for the Ziegfeld girls.) She studied ballet seriously with Luigi Albertieri, a protégé of Cecchetti. She was friends with Zelda Fitzgerald, supplied numbers for TV shows, and she choreographed Sonja Henie’s ice-skating routines.

Catherine and her sister Dorothie Littlefield met Balanchine at the studio of Lubov Egorova and Olga Preobrajenska in Paris. Both sisters continued a friendship with Balanchine and sent their students to study with him to help him start his company. Among them were Todd Bolender, who later took over Kansas City Ballet, and Barbara Weisberger, who started Pennsylvania Ballet. Another Littlefield dancer, Holly Howard, was considered by some to be Balanchine’s first American muse.

This extensively researched book fills in the knowledge gap about America’s first independent ballet company (i.e. not affiliated with an opera house), which helped lay the groundwork for ballet to flourish in this country.

 

Moving and Being Moved
By Yvonne Rainer
Roma Publications

The last line of Yvonne Rainer’s infamous No manifesto of 1965 is “No to moving or being moved.” In “A Manifesto Reconsidered” (2008), she comments on that line with one word: “Unavoidable.” Thus, in some way, the essays in this collection issue forth from Rainer’s ability to change her mind.

The fluidity of her thinking makes this book stimulating to read. But the book also includes the flip side of that: the constancy of some of her ideas. In “Doing Nothing/Nothin’ Doin’: Revisiting a Minimal Approach to Performance,” she talks about doing nothing as a component in her piece The Concept of Dust or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move? (2015): “My unattainable ideal (but aren’t all ideals unattainable?) of doing nothing is part of a continuum, an ongoing project in part aimed to upset the applecart of expectations of high energy virtuosic dancing . . . but with a twist: the acknowledgment that everyday movement can only be made intelligible dialectically, in relation to what it is not.” To show the “ongoing” aspect, the “revisiting,” she includes a photo of her Terrain (1963) in which William Davis and Steve Paxton are standing around, doing nothing except watching someone else.

With Rainer, every seed of an idea spreads out and deepens as she goes. In “What’s So Funny? Laughter and Anger in the Time of the Assassins” while acknowledging various responses to a particular joke, she realizes, “One person’s funny bone is another’s yawn.” It’s not just laughter she’s interested in, but the cause of it: the absurdity of life—and death. The confounding enormity of her brother’s lifeless body descending into a hole in the ground makes her wonder, “Does one laugh to sidestep grief? Or do I laugh to circumvent my anger at the frustrating dancing around death that pervades our culture?”

For anyone interested in Judson Dance Theater, a highpoint in “What’s So Funny” is her memory of Alex Hay’s absurdist Prairie (1963), which he made in response to Charles Ross’s trapezoidal structure of metal pipes. Hay took two pillows high up on the pipe and tried to fall asleep up there while an audiotape of his own voice asked if he was comfortable.

Moving and Being Moved also contains contributions from three other writers including the late art critic/curator Douglas Crimp. Crimp’s 2012 essay “Pedagogical Vaudevillian” takes an astute look at the sources and issues of Rainer’s choreography over the years.

Rainer not only uses language in all her recent dances but seems to have a compulsion to write about the discoveries during the making of each dance. Lucky for us. These writings are companion pieces to Rainer’s choreography; if you’ve seen any of her works, they give you more to chew on.

 

Fringe: Maria Benitez’s Flamenco Enchantment
By Jaima Chevalier
Atomic City Lights Publishers
On Amazon

Fierce, charismatic Maria Benitez was a force onstage as well as off.  With her Santa Fe–based company, María Benítez Teatro Flamenco, she toured internationally from the ’70s to the ’90s. She was so popular in the Southwest that she held 12-week summer seasons at her own cabaret venue for four decades. She also had eight seasons at The Joyce Theater and choreographed for opera. Of Native American and Puerto Rican heritage, Benitez is one of the few Americans who, after studying in Spain, became a great Flamenco dancer. The Institute for Spanish Arts, which she formed with her husband Cecilio in 1970, kept Hispanic arts alive in Santa Fe for almost five decades.

Fringe is a loving tribute by a lifelong admirer, Jaima Chevalier, written in flowery language that one might call rambling cosmic conjecture. (I wish this book had an index and footnotes to ground the scholarship.) However one learns some basic points, for example that flamenco, like jazz, emerged from a persecuted people and includes improvisation riffing off of a theme.

This lavishly produced book showcases a variety of photographers’ pictures of the great dancer. Ruven Afanador shows Benitez’s drama, glamor, and cheekbones. Beverly Gile focuses her face while she’s performing. Winter Prather shot from the bottom up, emphasizing her statuesque quality. Jack Mitchell, the famed Dance Magazine and celebrity photographer, showed the fierce pride in her arched back. Brian Fishbine caught her in candid moments with musicians and some of the many young dancers who called her Flamenco Madre.

 

Reissues

Yvonne Rainer: Work 1961–1973
Primary Information

Rainer’s writing about the process of making dances has always been galvanizing. I enjoy her conceptual clarity, articulation of ambivalence, and eagerness to experiment. Challenge and defiance are her natural state. The title reminds me that choreographing is not something romantic but is mostly work. Rainer’s witty, blunt prose embraces complexity in a way I find exhilarating. At this point, Work 196-–1973 is kind of a post-modern bible.

 

Conversations with Meredith Monk
New, expanded edition
By Bonnie Marranca
PAJ Publications
Order at Amazon

These interviews reveal the depth and delight of Monk’s boundary-crossing work. “The essence of my philosophy,” says Monk, “is the integration and weaving together of many perceptual forms.” And yet we experience Monk’s performances as more than simply an integration of forms. It’s also a dig down into the unconscious, into dreams and histories. A place where, as Monk says, comedy and tragedy are not opposites, but qualities that infiltrate each other.

Monk says she’s interested in “cycles of time.” Case in point: When she talks about the sick child in Quarry, which is set in World War II, she says, “Her illness becomes a metaphor for the world descending into darkness.” This suddenly seems so apt, with Covid plunging us all into a kind of darkness.

 

Howling Near Heaven: Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance
By Marcia B. Siegel
University Press of Florida

From one of our best dance critics comes this 2006 work, detailing Tharp’s dances from her early rehearsals in the basement of Judson Memorial Church to full seasons on Broadway. Along the way are her landmark ballets for the Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the movie Hair. The title, Howling Near Heaven, hints at the joining of opposites that Tharp was so good at: the primal and the divine co-exist in her best work. Siegel takes us through Tharp’s hunger to experiment, the staggering range of her output, and her goals for each project. She describes some of the dancers’ experiences and the potential obstacles to completing each work. Tharp’s intelligence sparkles on every page, Siegel’s in-depth treatment of one of America’s greatest choreographers is invigorating to read.

 

Other Books

ChoreoGraphics: Six Studies
Photographs and Interviews by Judith Stuart Boroson
Available at Judith Stuart Photography and Outskirts Press
This slim paperback contains interviews with six current choreographers, each talking about a particular work that has been photographed by Judith Stuart Boroson. Alexandra Beller, wanting to leave the familiar postmodern vocabulary behind, watches her toddlers for clues to something more connected to purpose. Janis Brenner works with people in war-torn Sarajevo to mine their family heritage. In her intense Memoirs of a…Unicorn, Marjani Forté-Saunders attempts to connect the vulnerability of Black men to her own body: “I’m wanting to feel a kind of delirium so that the inside eventually comes out.” Colleen Thomas is engaged in process, how she begins and begins again, opening up to new ideas. Nathan Trice has been working a malleable duet form that uses his method of “hand-body listening.” And Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, along with Samantha Speis, created Walking with ’Trane to honor the traditions of exploratory improvisation in jazz music.

Transmissions
By Nick Mauss
Dancing Foxes Press
This is a lavish catalog for a 2018 exhibit at the Whitney Museum that celebrated the intersection of ballet, fashion, and art from the 1930s through the ’50s. With its photographs, flyers and other artifacts, the catalog sets forth a pre-queer, pre-camp sensibility. Painter Paul Cadmus, an associate of Lincoln Kirstein, is one of the central figures as a pre-Stonewall queer artist. The book contains artifacts reflecting work from Bakst and Goncharova to Man Ray, Elie Nadelman, Cadmus, and Pavel Tchelitchew, and glimpses of Ruth Page, Sono Osato, Alicia Markova, and Jacques d’Amboise. Photography was just coming into its own at this time. The homoerotic photos of George Platt Lynes, who was hired by Kirstein to photograph Balanchine’s dancers, seem to foreshadow Mapplethorpe’s sensibility. Carl Van Vechten’s photographic portraits, in their lush beauty with floral backgrounds, include a 1938 diptych of Al Bledger of the American Negro Ballet—one of Van Vechten’s portraits that were sometimes accused of “white naiveté.”

Corporeal Politics: Dancing East Asia
Edited by Katherine Mezur and Emily Wilcox
University of Michigan Press
One of a new spate of books featuring Asian dance scholarship, this anthology contains 16 chapters by different Asian and American dance scholars. Some of the essays focus on historical figures like Michio Ito, Dai Ailian, or Mei Lanfang. Others have great titles like “The Conflicted Monk” and “Cracking History’s Codes in Crocodile Time.” Half the contributors hail from universities in the U.S., the other half from Taiwan, China, Japan, Korea, and Germany.

Moving Bodies, Navigating Conflict: Practicing Bharata Natyam in Colombo, Sri Lanka
By Ahalya Satkunaratnam
Wesleyan University Press
Sri Lanka, called a “hybrid island,” is a mix of religions, races, and languages. The author examines classical Indian dance practice in its capital, Colombo, during the long and violent civil war from 1983 to 2009. Ahalya Satkunaratnam, a dancer herself, traces how women dancers navigate the traumatic conditions of war, including performing bharata natyam on a TV competition show, and ultimately work toward peace.

The Oxford Handbook of Improvisation in Dance
Edited by Vida L. Midgelow
Oxford University Press
With 43 entries by a wide range of improvisers and scholars including Ann Cooper Albright, Kent De Spain, Thomas DeFrantz, Janice Ross, Stephanie Skura, and Sheron Wray.

A Guru’s Journey: Pandit Chitresh Das and Indian Classical Dance in Diaspora
By Sarah Morelli
University of Illinois Press
This comprehensive look at the life of Chitresh Das (1944–2015), possibly the most accomplished Kathak dancer in the U. S., is a testament to his influence. He set up schools across the Bay Area and his followers are legion. The book also gives a welcome history of Indian dance in American since the 1880s, when Nautch dancers were deemed less than satisfactory and were replaced by white dancers willing to show more skin — skin that was bronzed in an attempt to look the part.

Lastly, my own book:
The Grand Union: Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970–1976
By Wendy Perron
Wesleyan University Press
You probably know by now that I wouldn’t write a book unless I absolutely loved the subject matter. So, just the facts: This leaderless improvisation group, which has been called a “miracle” and “collective genius,” included Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn, David Gordon, Nancy Lewis, Lincoln Scott and Becky Arnold. Watching them in the 1970s, and again recently via videotape, I marveled at how they retained their vivid, eccentric selves while meshing with the group—or refusing to mesh. I tried to reflect that mercurial reality—or as Dilley has said, surreal quality—while also giving a sense of the environment that made it possible: SoHo, a fledgling artists’ colony. Many readers (and viewers of my public zooming events) have been able to share my pleasure in Grand Union. And now that we are each reinventing ourselves in the pandemic, this radical concept of complete improvisation within a collective takes on new meaning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nightmares of Our Time

Hutch Hagendorf as a man in a “mirror prison”, all photos by Marcia Davis

OK, enough of hope. If you’re looking for a dance/theater/design performance that reflects the extreme anxiety of our lives right now, tune in to Donald Byrd’s new Lyric Suite. It’s not lyrical at all—unless you think fever dreams that plunge you into the darkest paranoia are lyrical. This series of twelve solos, performed by the twelve dancers of Spectrum Dance Theater, depicts the claustrophobia of confinement, the terror of police brutality, and the fear of an invisible menace. Other issues like homelessness, availability of PPE, news overload, and toxic wildfires are hinted at. Alban Berg’s music of the same title attenuates the strains of string instruments to make us feel like we’re ready to snap. (Additional sound is by Emmanuel Witzthum and Rob Witmer.)

All the episodes come out of the active imagination of Donald Byrd, Spectrum’s artistic director; they arrive to the screen by way of cinematographer Egan Rory Kolb, who also produced the haunting special effects. Not every choreographer is willing to put their most harrowing thoughts into their work. But Byrd is not interested in wrapping his packages up with an optimistic bow. Instead, he and Kolb use movement, objects and the mercurial nature of dreams to delve into the current American psyche.

Akoiya Harris

Of the twelve episodes, I’ll describe three.

Akoiya Harris is hugging a tree, whispering her thankfulness to its bark. Off in the distance a pesky mirage of black wisps advances closer, emitting a shrill chirping sound. Harris climbs up the tree higher and higher as she’s chased by this scampering phantom virus. Though she lifts off the tree in a skyward escape, it does not end well.

Michele Dooley, wearing a sleek black suit and high heels, dances around a box in a free-floating, borderless room. On the box is a tally of how many days have passed—could be the number of days of sheltering at home or could be solitary confinement. She eventually crawls inside the box even though it’s much too small for her.

Perhaps the most frightening nightmare is when Mikhail Calliste dances, slow and sinuous, in view of a looming silhouette of a towering policeman in riot gear. The cop suddenly multiplies and his many boots hover over Mikhail, who is now face down on the floor. A sickening thud is heard as one boot stomps on the dancer’s face. In a rare lucid-dreaming moment, Calliste grabs the boot, now detached from the cop, and pounds it while he laughs.

The Spectrum dancers bite into these fantasies without flinching, and the camera work is stunning.  If you have the fortitude to face these fears while seeing a wild imagination at work, you can purchase a three-day pass (part of the company’s digital fall season) at this ticket link to view this weekend’s encore of Lyric Suite, November 20–22.

 

 

 

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Ishmael/Bebe/Ralph

Ishmael, Ralph, Bebe, all photos by Nathan Keay via MCA Chicago

When it was announced that Ishmael Houston-Jones, Ralph Lemon, and Bebe Miller would perform together, it seemed too good to be true. Three of our greatest mischievous/masterful dance artists improvising together!

And it wasn’t true—at least not for New Yorkers. Relations was only true for the lucky people in Chicago. The presenter was MCA Chicago, the curator was Tara Aisha Willis, and the dates were November 2–3, 2018.

Last week Tara organized a virtual watch party of the second performance, and it will now remain posted until July 31. I was thrilled to see the video. There’s a certain feeling of alert anticipation when you watch really good improvisers in live performance. And somehow this video did not seem like a document but seemed alive to me.

Ralph, Bebe, Ishmael

Three is a good number. Three people who are natural leaders agreeing to enter a leaderless arrangement. One is always in Relation to the other Two, as well as being in relation to a slat on the floor, or to a chair, or to a stash of records. I had that anything-can-happen sensation, that sitting-on-the-edge-of-my-seat feeling, while also noticing how centered in their bodies and how conscious of their decisions they seemed. It doesn’t hurt that they are all, bottom line, terrific movers.

Ralph, Bebe, Ishmael

Clear roles emerged over the hour. Bebe was like the center, the mother, the connector—connecting to each of the men and connecting to her dancer self at every moment. Ishmael was the impulsive one, in and out at the same time, expressing his ambivalence in sneaky ways. Ralph was the architect/auteur, contemplating the space, designing the space, turning it into a literary space.

Ishmael, Ralph

I don’t want to say too much about how they interacted, or how they let words slip into their nestlings and challengings, or how they let a diagonal form and then unform, because I hope you’ll see the video for yourself.

What was the genesis of this occasion? Tara asked Ishmael what he would want to do, and he replied that he’d never gotten to dance with Bebe and Ralph. This seems like a modest proposal. But when you think of “Parallels” at Danspace in New York City in 1982, the landmark series of performances that Ishmael curated to challenge the reigning definition of “black dance,” it’s in that vein. “Parallels” was reprised for a tour to Europe in 1987 (which Bebe, Ralph, and Ishmael were part of), and back at Danspace, expanded by a younger generation, in 2012. Here we are in 2020, casting a loving eye on how these three “Parallels” artists have evolved, and how they are existing, existentially, now in their 60s (greater integration of mind and body) and how they intersect as performers.

Ralph downstage, choosing a record to put on the turntable

Although this threesome was called together pointedly as a group of Black dance artists, there was something porous about Relations. Maybe because of their familiarity with each other, we were allowed to see/feel their humanity in poetic, edgy, and witty ways.

I enjoyed the after-talk too. I especially appreciated that Ishmael mentioned those we have lost since the 1982 Parallels. It happens that two of those original artists—Harry Sheppard and Blondell Cummings—were good friends of mine. They had already been dancing downtown for a decade, paving the way for Ishmael to make the breakthrough.

The after-talk

Someone was quoted as saying Relations was like a “Black Grand Union.” Oh good, I didn’t want to be the first to say it! For those of you who don’t know, Grand Union was the legendary, post-Judson, mostly white, improvisation group from 1970 to ’76. I am sure that Ralph, Bebe, and Ishmael weren’t thinking of GU, but I saw some common ground: an anchoring in movement exploration, a certain nuzzling comfort (Grand Union was an unattributed laboratory of Contact Improvisation), patience in allowing things to develop in their own time, being totally themselves yet listening to the others. Being able to surprise each other, goad each other, add a touch of humor or echo to each other.

Naturally I would see them with this lens of Grand Union. For three years, I’ve been immersed in writing a book on this group that will be out in September. I thought of GU as a fluke, only possible because of a specific time and place, unrepeatable. And it was. And this event, Relations, is also unrepeatable. But . . .  I hope they repeat it in NYC some day.

(Adjunct materials for Relations—program notes, Tara’s blog, clips of the after talk, and a booklet of their writings—are here.)

 

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Sally Banes (1950–2020)

Courtesy Wesleyan University Press

The brilliant dance critic and historian Sally Banes, who pioneered a new way to write about dance as a social phenomenon, died on June 14, 2020, in Philadelphia. Her husband, Noel Carroll, said the cause was ovarian cancer.

Banes visited New York in October 1973 with a standard assignment: to write a book on modern dance for Chicago Review Press. Because of her curiosity about choreography, instinct for the experimental, and scintillating prose, she produced, in 1980, one of the most essential dance books of the twentieth century: Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-modern Dance.

Shifting her attention from SoHo to the Bronx, Banes was the first dance critic to write about the exciting new urban form known as break dancing. Her article “To the Beat Y’All: Breaking is Hard to Do,” in the Village Voice in April 1981, introduced break dancing to readers before there was even a name for hip-hop culture. Fascinated by what she saw, she returned to this genre again and again.

Although these were her two favorite subjects—the (largely white) avant-garde and (largely black) urban dance—she investigated many other passions over time. In seven additional books on dance and a myriad of essays, she explored subjects ranging from the influence of black dance on Balanchine, to the drunk dances of Fred Astaire, to the Russianness of Firebird, to the knotty problem of appropriation. She held a string of college teaching-and-research positions and earned several lifetime achievement awards. She’s been a leader in the burgeoning field of dance studies, challenging her peers to rise to her level of intellectual rigor paired with vibrant prose.

Banes grew up in Silver Spring, MD, taking ballet lessons in nearby Washington, DC. She attended the University of Chicago, where she participated as a script writer and performer in a group called The Collective. She graduated in 1972 with an interdisciplinary degree in criticism, art, and theater. The following year she started writing criticism for the Chicago Reader and became its dance editor while also writing book reviews for the Chicago Daily News. During the same period, she founded the Community Discount Players, which she called “a motley collection of performers, dancers, and wizards.” She created performances that were part dance, part theater, part every-day happening. In 1974 she participated in the creation of Meredith Monk’s Chacon at an Oberlin residency. That same year, she was a co-founder of MoMing Dance and Arts Center, which was a collective as well as a presenter. She performed there with New York choreographer Kenneth King. According to dancer Carter Frank, “Without her guiding light and her enthusiasm, MoMing would not have made such a mark in Chicago. It was where I got to see people whom I had only read about in the Village Voice and it was like getting a drink of cool water in the desert.” It was at MoMing, after a 1975 performance of the improvisational group Grand Union, that she met her future husband, philosopher and critic Noel Carroll.

Collaboration with Ellen Mazer: “A Day in the Life of the Mind, Part 2,” 1975, The University of Chicago, ph Frank Gruber

Banes and Carroll moved to New York in 1976. She took class at the schools of Graham and Cunningham and the downtown Construction Company, and workshops with Simone Forti. She performed in Forti’s large improvisatory group work, Planet (1976) at P.S. 1 in Queens. (Forti was a lion, Pooh Kaye a bear, and Banes an elephant.)

The “Concepts in Performance” page of the SoHo Weekly News was the first to review the new boundary-crossing performances that defied the categories of dance, theater, poetry, or visual art—before the term performance art was coined. Banes wrote for this page from 1976 to 1980, becoming editor the last two years. She was given her own column called “Performance” in the Village Voice from 1980 to ’85, where she reviewed major artists like Meredith Monk, Robert Wilson, and Laurie Anderson. She also reviewed singular performers before they became big names like Whoopi Goldberg (“careening from bathos to pathos”), Steve Buscemi (“like a human rubber band”), Eric Bogosian (“a raw, cognitive screech”), and Karen Finley (“this messy scabrous conduct exhilarated us”). These reviews are reprinted in Subversive Expectations: Performance Art and Paratheater in New York 1976–1985 (1998).

Banes adopted, in her own words, a stance of “knowing innocence” and a “sense of wonder.” She wasn’t wowed by mere virtuosity but was attracted to the questions posed by the mind/body of an enquiring artist. Whether she was writing in Dance Magazine or Dance Chronicle, she situated every artist in a social context. Her prose was informal, witty, and spontaneous, and she could paint a picture in words that was as startling as the performers themselves.

Sally wore her socialist feminism on her sleeve; she never tried to be “objective.” Reading her words, you got a strong sense of her presence at the performance. She was in line with the Duchampian idea that each work of art was not complete until the audience experienced it.

For Judson choreographers like David Gordon, Trisha Brown, and Steve Paxton who appeared in Terpsichore, and for break dancers like the Rock Steady crew, she was a staunch advocate. She took her advocacy further when, in 1978, she decided that Yvonne Rainer’s solo Trio A from 1966 had to be preserved. Although most critics were indifferent or worse—Clive Barnes labeled it a “total disaster” in The New York Times—Sally regarded this not-quite-five-minute sequence an exemplar of post-modern dance. Rainer agreed to re-perform it for the camera, even though by then she was a filmmaker who hadn’t danced in years. Originally a trio section of The Mind Is a Muscle, Trio A embodied all of Rainer’s studied defiance: odd, unmusical phrasing; looking away from the audience; eschewing repetitions that would make for a legible structure. Trio A has become a symbol of, or gateway to, postmodern dance—which probably wouldn’t have happened if Sally had not filmed it.

In 1980 Banes earned a PhD from the Department of Graduate Drama at NYU, later named the Department of Performance Studies. In 1983, Banes turned her dissertation on Judson Dance Theater into a book, Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theater 1962–1964, reprinted by Duke University Press in 1993. She framed the unruly Judson collective as democracy itself. This book has been the touchstone—or target—for younger scholars seeking to make their mark in contemporary dance.

In 1983, photo: WP

Making the shift from journalism to academia, she edited the scholarly Dance Research Journal from 1982 to 1988. There was a period of cross-fade when she was writing less journalism and more academic essays. Whether journalistic or academic, Banes’s writing possessed both intellectual heft and sensuous description.

Still invested in the sixties, she took the densest year of Judson, 1963, and expanded her research into the political, social and artistic activity during that time. Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body, published in 1993, describes the intersecting constellations of Andy Warhol, jazz musicians, underground film, avant-garde playwrights, beat poets, and Bread and Puppet Theater.

In Writing Dancing in the Age of Post-Modernism, her 1994 collection, Banes conflates “the avant-garde, the popular, the commercial, and the vernacular.” Her interests range from post-Judson choreographers Bill T. Jones and Molissa Fenley, to emerging Latino choreographers, to, of course, break dancing. In Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage (1998), she brings a feminist angle to women’s roles in the canon of dance from Romantic ballet to recent modern dance.

Sally was a radiant person, bursting with life. Her enthusiasms were contagious and her knowledge was vast. She championed artists from Yvonne Rainer to Urban Bush Women, Merce Cunningham to Tim Miller. She delved into historical pockets that aren’t in “the canon,” like Ballet Suédois of the 1920s and the leftist Workers Dance League in the 1930s. On the advice of dance historian Selma Jeanne Cohen, she started studying Russian and quickly developed an interest in Soviet experimental choreographers of the 1920s.

Banes’ college teaching career began in 1980 at Florida State University. From 1981 to 86 she taught at SUNY Purchase, followed by two years at Wesleyan University, then three at Cornell. In 1991 she became associate professor of dance and theater at University of Wisconsin Madison, and chair of the dance program from 1992 to ’96, when she was named the Marian Hannah Winter Professor of Theater History and Dance Studies.

Lori Brungard, a faculty member in Hunter College’s dance department, studied with Banes at SUNY Purchase in the mid-1980s. “With her big coke-bottle glasses and her lisp and her energy in what she was talking about,” Brungard recalled, “I wouldn’t expect to be engaged by this person but I was. She was like wooo! but still focused. She had this phosphorescence, a glow. Light emanated from her and she induced a light in me.” Brungard felt enriched by what Banes was teaching: “One bridge she made was the connection to the African diaspora. She was excited about Robert Farris Thompson’s ideas and she inspired me to read African Art in Motion after her course was over.”

Banes suffered an incapacitating stroke in 2002. Her last collection, Before, Between, and Beyond: Three Decades of Dance Writing was compiled and edited by her then-assistant Andrea Harris. It has two forewords that sum up Banes’s prodigious output, one by historian Lynn Garafola, and the other by New Yorker critic Joan Acocella.

Garafola: “By the 1990s the hip, young critic of the mid-1970s had become a hip, mature academic. Yet . . . she continues to write in plain English. Her sentences move across the page with energy, and for all her interest in ideas, she still wants the reader . . . to see the movement and experience it imaginatively…More than any other critic or scholar of dance, she belongs to her time, writing with the voice of the Zeitgeist.”

Acocella: “Underneath it all…is an anarchic spirit, walking on the wild side. And joined to it is exactly what one needs with it: scholarship, moderation, wisdom.”

There aren’t many traces of Banes in person on the internet, but Walker Art Center posted this wonderful conversation between her and Yvonne Rainer in 2001. The occasion was Baryshnikov’s PastForward project, which gathered several of the Terpsichore artists together for a tour.

For her naming and framing of new forms, and for the breadth and depth of her writing about dance as part of a complex world, Banes garnered lifetime achievement awards from the Congress on Research in Dance, the Society of Dance History Scholars, and the New York Dance and Performance Awards (the Bessies). When Terpsichore was translated into French by Denise Luccioni, it won the prize for the best dance book of 2003 in France.

Brungard says, “When I read her now, I hear her voice coming through the page, I hear her excitement behind the words. I have that same sense of inspiration I had when she was my teacher. I’m glad her personal voice comes through in her writing because it’s a way that people can have her as a teacher now.”

There is another way her teaching lives on: choreographer Li Chiao-Ping, a protegée of Sally’s at University of Wisconsin, has just been awarded a named professorship and has chosen to be named the Sally Banes Professor of Dance.

Here are a few of the 51 comments from dance scholar Mark Franko’s Facebook page after he announced that Banes was in hospice care:

Millicent Hodson: “Sally was the star journalist of her time in Soho NYC & a generous colleague.”

Dena Davida: “She will be leaving us with an epic body of insightful and radiant texts about our dance world.”

Jennifer Fisher: “Such a beautiful writer, and her work retains relevance over time.”

Donald Byrd: “Sorry to hear this news. I admire her.”

Ginnine Cocuzza: “Bright flame.”

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Disclosure: Sally and I were friends and colleagues. She conferred with me when writing Terpsichore; I invited her to write for SoHo Weekly News when I was editor of its “Concepts in Performance” page. After I handed the editorship of “Concepts” off to her in 1978, she edited my reviews. She wrote about my choreography a couple times, and I invited her to be part of my Bennington College Judson Project while she was writing her dissertation on Judson Dance Theater. I was in her performance piece-in-progress, Sophie Heightens the Contradictions in 1983, in which I played Sophie, a young Communist ballet dancer at the time of the Paris commune. And Sally appeared in a video for my performance Standard Deviation in 1984. I contributed to Reinventing Dance in the 1960s: Everything Was Possible (2003), the collection of personal reminiscences she edited.

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