“Dance Was Dead” in the 1980s — — Whaaat?!?

Did I read that right? The New York Times’ chief dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, talking about the decade when Balanchine, Tudor and Ashton died, wrote “Dance was dead.” I re-read those three words that appeared in the new online preview called “Dance This Week,” hoping I had mis-read it.

Actually, dance was bursting with life in the ’80s. Performances were bristling with creativity, guts, challenge, inventiveness, and passion. That decade gave us three enduring classics of postmodernism: Trisha Brown’s Set and Reset (1983); Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room (1986); and Bill T. Jones’ D-Man in the Waters (1989). These are momentous works that yield revelations every time we see them, but they came from scrappy environments—the loft spaces, gymnasiums, and churches of downtown Manhattan.

Stephen Petronio and Trisha Brown in Set and Reset, photo © Lois  Greenfield

Stephen Petronio and Trisha Brown in “Set and Reset,” photo © Lois Greenfield

At New York CIty Ballet, Jerome Robbins made the wondrous Glass Pieces in 1983 plus a bunch of other ballets that are still in the rep. He took a collection of his Broadway numbers and created Jerome Robbins Broadway, which won a Tony for best musical.

The Joffrey Ballet was mounting works from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Their revival of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring by way of Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer was earthshattering; it triggered much debate.

It was the decade when William Forsythe blossomed in Germany, essentially redefining ballet and spawning scores of young choreographers.

"In the Upper Room" with Pennsylvania Ballet, photo by Candice De Tore

“In the Upper Room” with Pennsylvania Ballet, photo by Candice De Tore

In 1982 Cora Cahan and Eliot Feld established The Joyce Theater, which has presented a different dance company almost every week since then. Brooklyn Academy of Music started its Next Wave Festival, bringing in Pina Bausch regularly since 1984, filling the house with audiences from all walks of life.

The ’80s was when African American dance artists realized they could extend beyond the Ailey mold. People like Bill T. Jones, Ralph Lemon, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Garth Fagan, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Bebe Miller created searing and/or subtle works that sometimes delved into cultural identity.

Other choreographers who emerged in the ’80s were Stephen Petronio, Ohad Naharin, Mark Dendy, Elizabeth Streb, Pat Graney, and Dancenoise. Dancenoise! Their recent reunion show at the Whitney Museum was so brilliantly uproarious that it could make anyone pine for the ’80s. It was a great decade for feisty women choreographers.

Merce Cunningham began experimenting with video in works like Channels/Inserts and Points in Space while continuing to make remarkable works for the stage. (I loved Pictures and Fabrications.)

Cunningham and Trisha Brown toured Europe, stimulating a vibrant scene in several countries. In England Richard Alston and badboy Michael Clark ignited a whole scene; in France Philippe Deconflé and Maguy Marin and many more were blasting forth with their own style of dance-making.

Dance was everywhere. Site-specific performances brought dance to people in parks, on bridges and at Grand Central Station via dance artists like Stephan Koplowitz and Joanna Haigood.

Sure, a lot of great ballet dancers retired. But we continued to swoon over superstars like Gelsey Kirkland, Martine Van Hamel, and Julio Bocca at ABT; Darci Kistler and Kyra Nichols at NYCB. Sylvie Guillem, with her extreme technique, was ascending to a new level of celebrity in Europe. In the Soviet Union, one of the most supreme/serene/sexy ballerinas of all time, Altynai Asylmuratova, was with the Mariinsky and guesting with ABT.

Yes, Balanchine died in 1983, but Miami City Ballet was formed in 1985 with Edward Villella as director, and Helgi Tomasson took over San Francisco Ballet the same year. Francia Russell was setting Balanchine ballets on Pacific Northwest Ballet, as was Arthur Mitchell on Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Yes, Frederick Ashton died in the ’80s, but he hadn’t made anything of note for quite a while. His signature works date from much earlier: Cinderella in 1948, La Fille mal gardee in 1960, The Dream in 1964, Monotones in 1965, and Enigma Variations in 1968. For Tudor too, it had been a long time since he choreographed his most enduring works: Lilac Garden (1936), Pillar of Fire (1937), and The Leaves Are Fading (1975).

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in "D-Man in the Waters," photo by Paul B. Goode

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in “D-Man in the Waters,” photo by Paul B. Goode

The ’80s was the decade that catapulted street dance onto the concert stage. Toni Basil brought Don Campbell’s Lockers and the Electric Bugaloos to The Kitchen, usually reserved for experimental dance and video. And Michael Jackson’s Thriller—hello!—was released in 1983. Everyone wanted to dance like MJ.

In 1985, tap dancer Gregory Hines hunkered down alongside of Baryshnikov in the blockbuster movie White Nights. Hines was a mentor to child prodigy Savion Glover, who, in 1989 starred in Black and Blue, a kind of precursor to Bring in da Noise Bring in da Funk.

I know that journalists like to make bold statements. But to claim that dance was dead in such a dynamic decade, even as an aside, undermines our understanding of how dance came to be what it is today. Whether one feels enlivened by any particular strain of dance is a personal matter. But dance as an art form is unstoppable. In many parts of the world, it continues to unfold in all its kaleidoscopic beauty and diversity.

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26 thoughts on ““Dance Was Dead” in the 1980s — — Whaaat?!?

  1. A well-stated argument for the incredible vitality of the dance world for those of us witnessing and participating in the the art form in the 80s. For an on-the-ground look at mid-decade 30 years ago I highly recommend a New York Times Dance View piece by Anna Kisselgoff dated March 3, 1985 entitled “Has the Dance Boom Run its Course?”.

  2. Dance in San Francisco, the second largest dance community in the U.S., had more than just activities by the San Francisco Ballet. Lines Contemporary Ballet was formed by Alonzo King; the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, the largest presenter of cultural dance in the U.S.,was formed; Oberlin Dance Collective purchased and renovated the first contemporary dance company-owned performance space in the U.S., created over 25 new works, and toured the U.S., toured 6 countried in Southeast Asia sponsored by the Department of State, performed at the Worlds Fair in Australia, and toured the Soviet Union during the fall of the Berlin Wall; Margaret Jenkins’ Dance Company continued to make over 25 new works, also toured the Soviet Union at the same time as ODC, and merged with ODC’s New Performance Gallery and formed one of the first combined booking companies for contemporary dance in the U.S.; Contraband formed under Sara Shelton Mann’s direction and changed the course of radical queer dance in the U.S.; Joe Goode’s Performance Group began and continues that trajectory of queer dance, locally and nationally; and, finally, Anna Halprin, who taught many of the post-modern dancers mentioned in Wendy’s article, continued her decades-long trajectory of Art/Life works, including the premiere of the Planetary Dance which is now performed all over the world, including versions dedicated to healing people with HIV/AIDS. Yes, dance was alive, and, while Wendy gestures to dance artists working in the continental U.S. in more places than NYC, more than the San Francisco Ballet was happening in the Bay Area.

    1. I appreciate your comment Jeff.

      Unfortunately for us West Coast dancers, New York is all too often seen as the only place important dance is done. There is a parochialism that not only ignores the very vital dance scene in San Francisco but all other nations. For example: it has only been recently that Anna Halprin’s influence has been noted in discussions of Judson Dance Theater, and Mangrove is usually completely ignored when the development of Contact is explored.

      The 80s featured exciting dance coming from Canada, Japan, Indonesia, Germany….. I appreciate that Wendy Perron’s article mentioned William Forsythe but there were other very important artists working outside of the US including Sankai Juku, Pina Bausch, La La La Human Steps.

  3. Saw this linked on Facebook and was chatting about a few things there, but Jeff Friedman’s comments above reminded me that this was also a big decade for dance support organizations and discussions about the fundamental role of dance in the larger arts community. I think Bay Area Dance Coalition was founded earlier, but I didn’t really know much about them until 1983, when a bunch of us in Seattle started the a similar project, (the Northwest Dance Coalition, including a newsletter that I worked on for most of that decade). There were other groups in (off the top of my head) Oregon, Ohio, Florida — we worked on health care access, insurance, legal issues (ASCAP was coming after small studio owners for recorded music royalties), and education, as well as performance-oriented projects.

  4. Very interesting article. I don’t think Dance was Dead in the 80s, but I think it was asleep, especially after the huge Boom and Super Stars in the 60s and 70. But like Sleeping Beauty, it awoke and is living happily ever after.

  5. Bravo Wendy!! Thank you for teaching me so much in this recap! So many wonderful “beginnings” in the 80’s that transformed dance to another level.

  6. Excellent article Wendy, but in the last two articles that I have read of yours about this era you have always left out one very important choreographer of the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s; that person is Viola Farber who ran her company in New York from 1970 to 1981 and then moved it to Angers, France where her influence is still felt. Farber then came back to the USA and revived the dance department at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY until her untimely death in 1998. Her memorial at the Joyce Theater was “standing room only.”

    1. Hi Jeff, Thanks for reminding me. Before she started her company, Viola came to Bennington College to teach in 1967. She as very influential to all of us students in the 70s, and many of us took her classes in NYC too.There was a singularity about her performing and choreography that is hard to forget. She was beloved not only by Merce but by many. Frankly, if I tried to remember all the amazing dance artists of the 80s, I would never have been able to complete this posting.

  7. Damn, I hadnt realised that the entire great dance that I witnessed and loved in the 80’s was zombi dance. So that’ s why dancers were so ethereal in Set and Reset and they didn’ t hurt themselves in Newark, that’ s why they were coming out of nowhere in Upper Room and that’ s why this Sara Rudner kept on dancing for hours. And maybe the figures that I saw making gestures in the windows during a public performance somewhere in Manhattan of then dead choreographer Wendy Perron were ghosts.
    If I remember well this dance critic repeats the pattern of a title by Jill Johnston in the middle of 60’s that Judson theatre was dead, then Meredith Monk made all her work and Trisha and Steve ……..
    Tell him that dance in the 80’s gave at least life for decades to dance in Greece, Wendy we still remember you and your work and many more

  8. An interesting read indeed, and I’d like to point out that not only was Francia Russell staging Balanchine on Pacific Northwest Ballet, she was the co artistic director of PNB with everything that implies, and with Kent Stowell, worked tirelessly to get it established as the major American ballet company that it is today. Also in that period, Todd Bolender was rebuilding Kansas City Ballet, an example of the flowering of non-New York companies in the United States (I refuse to call them regional). These companies gave choreographers, and not just ballet choreographers, new outlets for their work, no small thing. Bebe Miller choreographed on Oregon Ballet Theatre in the early nineties; Donald Byrd on PNB, etc. etc.

  9. The 80s were part of our evolution. We evolved. Post-modern, punk, performance art, Euro-trash, Euro-gems, “pure” dance, dance-less dance–all got their breath and air time. Techniques grew more inclusive. Energy picked up from other forms, rock and roll, art, fused aesthetics allowing for expansion in this time.

  10. Although I applaud Ms. Perron’s defense of the 80’s dance scene that Macaulay, as usual, belittles, it is inexplicable to me that she should make no mention of Paul Taylor who, in the 80’s, created some of his most enduring masterpieces.

    1. I didn’t know Paul’s work well in the ’80s but here’s what Nancy Dalva said on Facebook:
      And “Sunset,” my favorite Paul Taylor, 1983. And “Arden Court,” “Sacre,” “Roses.”

  11. The ’80s saw the rise of street dance. SF Ballet wasn’t the only company that introduced a program to try to recruit break dancers to become classically trained. The popularity of break dance (now hip hop) and capoeira in the ’80s (along with Contact) has led to much of what is now contemporary dance.

    And, while not strictly limited to dance, the rise of interdisciplinary, post-dramatic theatre (George Coates in SF, Robert Wilson and the Wooster Group in NY, a whole bunch of people in Germany and Eastern Europe) was a very exciting aspect of the ’80s that can trace its influences to the explorations of Judson Dance Theater.

  12. Wendy:

    Bravo!!!! So good to be reminded of so many movers and shakers in the 80’s. It is humbling….and love that folks responded with so many other artists! Thanks so much for the mention.

  13. Nice update, Wendy! It was obviously Macaulay’s receptivity that died in the 80s. Curious that he’s kept on writing about dance three decades later for a major metro daily. Guess your response helps to explain how that works.

  14. Right on, Wendy! You shout out to so many wonderful artists whose work propelled the art form forward in that decade. A few others I’d like to add to your list include: Alwin Nikolais, Murray Louis, Molissa Fenley, Carolyn Carlson, and I’m sure I’m leaving out some others…

  15. Great Wendy..Thank you for setting some of this record straight ;-))))

    and YES the late 80s was also when downtown dance organizations started “diversifying” their staff and changing their mission to include more opportunities for artists of color. As the beginning of the “Multiculti” moment in dance, we saw a lot of amazing work by Latino, Asian, Native American, and Black artists, a great opportunity to expand the dance world. Presenters, funding agencies and dance writers were educating themselves to understand the wealth and breath of what “American” dance meant. So yes Judson and all, but there was a huge movement taking place in the 80s when dance artists addressed other things besides abstract movement, and that also shaped a lot of dance making to come..

  16. In the 1980s in San Francisco, we were performing in Lucas Hoving’s final dance company. At Footwork Studio, jazz great Ed Mock was thriving, ODC created their company’s studio and became the fame they are. Rosa Montoya was performing at the Herbst Theater, and Aaron Osborne (Limon Company) was challenging us to be better than ourselves. A thriving, incredible time in San Francisco, 1980-1990.

    1. Thanks so much Katerina. HOw wonderful that you got to dance with Lucas Hoving! I remember the early ODC theater cuz I performed there in the early 80s, and I remember Aaron Osborne’s great dancing too.

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