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Summer (Dance) reading & writing

Dance is the most ephemeral of the performing arts and writing about dance, as a reporter or a critic in meaningful ways is a precarious journalist venture.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, how does a dance writer report two hours of living, breathing moving pictures in a dance concert with three choreographers presenting different concepts in dance? 

The challenge brings to mind Hans Christian Anderson’s observation “Where words fail, music begins” which definitely applies to dance, since both art forms are languages unto themselves. For dance writers, translating movement into concrete and hopefully interesting text is often insurmountable.

Consider Martha Graham sage words “The body doesn’t lie.” Not to mention her metaphysical pronouncement that “Dance is the hidden language of the soul,” so perhaps beyond the realm of what can be articulated in words. But that doesn’t stop journalists who write about dance from trying to decode what they see and hear. A dancewriter’s checklist would include things like aesthetic intent of the choreographer, the music, the production values, the performances of the dancers- and substantiate the critical points that brings it all together or make it deflate. And usually in under 700 words.

In the 20th century during the heyday of daily American newspapers, dance writers dealt with editors (still) routinely considered the dance a merely decorative art at best and many clueless about the genuine artistic or physical components. Music critics were often dispatched to cover dance, sometimes a sportswriter would have been better suited. Now, with few exception dance as a subject worthy of consistent coverage in any newspapers ‘Arts’ section is to be consistently on the chopping block.

The good news is that there are more outlets online that provide comprehensive coverage, and it’s not a stretch to think that it will ever get better for print publications, including dance niche magazines, which continue to shrink. The bad news is that fees for all arts writers continue to be reduced almost all across the board. Meanwhile, dance writers, cultural archivists and arts journalists continuing to document the art form in all of its manifestations continues no matter how meager the pay. 

Feature stories about dance usually interface with broader cultural resonance and that is fine, but often to the exclusion of other areas of dance, which remains as important from a technical understanding alone, but as an ephemeral art form, a vital record of dance expression over millennia, as important as any of the allied arts. Outside of popular tv dance contests, dance-theater and the world’s most influential choreographers and dancers are virtually invisible to the popular media culture.

Also he movie reviewing with its thumbs up, thumps down mindset has had a dumb-down effect on live performance in general and sad to say that dance magazines in their physical form continue to shrink.  

To write about dance with authority one must have a working knowledge of a schools of dance, both cultural and formal dance disciplines. A partial list would include- the various schools of ballet technique, and no less important, neoclassicism, folkloric, acrobatic, sacred, |social, baroque, ritual, mystical, abstract, classical, postmodern, tribal, fusion, ceremonial, showdance, psychological, comedic, erotic- and any combination of those categories including of course the physics of dance that evokes pure movement of bodies in space without any literal or defining an inherently enigmatic context- (see Cage & Cunningham as a starting point).  

For a business that continues to be in freefall, one positive trend, for the moment at least, is that there are more dance books being published and here is a preview of three this year’s notable titles, starting appropriately enough, with a compendium of the good, the bad and the ugly of more than a century of indigenous dance writing.

Dance in America | Library of America | www.loa.org

With commentary by editor Mindy Aloff and a foreword by Robert Gottlieb | Library of America

Library of America’s ‘Dance In America’ is a fascinating, and an often frustrating anthology of articles, reviews, essays, poems, and bio-history of dance in America. 

Editor Mindy Aloff  contextualizes each entry with bio-history of the writer and subject of the piece.  Aloff teaches dance history and criticism at Barnard College, how difficult it was to chose the pieces to include in the book and admits to giving in to subjectivity.  In his forward to the book, Robert Gottlieb also explains in some cases there also may be difficulty in getting author, publisher, or in the case of deceased authors, estate permissions. Also costs also might be a factor that would prohibit re-publication. 

But even with these disclaimers, this volume covers a lot of ground and many of the entries belong in everyone’s permanent dance–theater-music library. If just for the words of American dance legends Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis & Ted Shawn, Martha Graham, Katherine Dunham, Paul Taylor, Jerome Robbins, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Agnes de Mille, and Russian ex-pat George Balanchine and Ballets Russes/Red Shoes star choreographer Leonide Massine, among many others lesser-known, but equally important dance artists.

Then there are the literary figures who are inspired by the dance- from poet Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harte Crane, Charles Dickens, and 20th century dance enthusiasts from American balladeer/songwriter Johnny Mercer to writers Susan Sontag and John Updike.

 Thumbing through the book, here are a few indelible passages: Stuart Hodes’ essay ‘Onstage with Martha Graham’ takes us through Martha’s rigorous technique class with always started with which always began with Martha cueing the dancers with “And” to execute the rigors of her meticulous methods. Hodes writes “Working with Martha was like going into battle. Physically demanding, emotionally charged and fraught with danger…an adventure of a lifetime.”

African-American Choreographer Katherine Dunham who was also a ethnologist, anthropologist applied to her choreography and ‘physical anthropology’ of dances of Africa, Caribbean and island culture. Dunham was also an international stage star of the American musical theater and social activist who knocked down racial barriers on stage and screen. In her essay “Thesis turned Broadway” she writes of her growing interest “to know not only how people dance but, even more importantly, why they dance as they do.”

Isadora Duncan was the earth mother of dance, embracing classicism as a new form of modernism as the anti-ballet creating modernist movement template by reclaiming pagan classicism and putting it all in perspective by writing “I am asked to speak upon the “Dance of the Future” – yet how is it possible?In fifty years I may have something to say.”

Meanwhile, the clarion voice of Mark Morris has a lot to say in his essay on the relationship of music and dance as vital human ‘ritual’ in a reprint of his commencement speech at the Longy School of Music.

Aloff’s collection is both a survey of dance literature side-by-side with dozens of samples of critical writing over the last century from the leading dance critics including Anna Kisselgoff, Jennifer Dunning, Joan Acocella, Deborah Jowitt, Alastair McCauley. Et, al. and genre defining writers like critic and poet Edwin Denby.      

One of the most interesting, and instructive aspects in this collection is how the same critic, can completely hit a home run in describing a performance but also, completely strike out, by being overly descriptive or not descriptive enough. The challenge remains, if every picture tells a story, then movement onstage can tell a thousand in one night. We can all take a lesson from their journalistic hits and misses. 

 Dance in America is slight on a lot of important aspects of contemporary dance history. Just glancing reference to Lucinda Childs, Anna Sokolow, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, for instance, so one can only hope that there is a follow-up more inclusive volume, to make up for this edition’s slights to giants in the field and a new gen of dance artists that have emerged in this century.

 There are three articles by Arlene Croce, but missing is any commentary about Croce not attending choreographer Jones’ 1994 docudance ‘Still/Here’ in The New Yorker but still reviewing it, because she argued that it was outside her critical reach because Jones cast with people living and dancing with terminal illness, insisting it was “victim art.”  Putting that aside, does include Croce’s seminal piece ‘Dance in Film‘ that is not only engrossing dance history but a masterclass essay in critical analysis.

And there is a huge chunk of missing history with little reference about a generation of gay dancers and choreographers lost during the 80s & 90s to AIDS, many of the artists creating dance while battling the disease. The impact of their work and deaths and the impact on the entire dance world is inestimable and should never be forgotten.   

look for part 2 of this essay later this month- Dancemakers finally explain it all for you –   Three upcoming titles of indelible note are autobiographical books by Jerome Robbins, Mark Morris, and Twyla Tharp.