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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Books: Dance in the Twentieth Century


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No, I haven't read all 743 pages yet, nor studied the additional 150 pages of footnotes/index/etc. after that... (and I'm afraid it will be months of prying rare spare minutes free to do that)... but paging through it, the photos are wonderful... and some of you might be as delighted as I to find it new at Amazon for $35 rather than $50.

 

You might expect it to be mostly about ballet as Nancy Reynolds is Director of Research for the Balanchine Foundation and has written several other ballet books including the coveted "Repertory in Review", which, unfortunately, can't be had for $35... but the title is derived from Cunningham quoting Einstein, and there are some wonderful photos from modern dance and pre-modern dance and post-modern dance...

 

I love the Ruth St. Denis photo on page 22 [Greek Veil Plastique, 1920]... it really captures the St. Denis mystique and helps me understand how her rather simple choreography might have come to life on stage.

 

My book tends to fall open on a Humphrey/Weidman photo "Wages of Sin" from Flickers... a view of Humphrey that we don't usually see depicted in the survey of dance history books... fascinating...

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Thank you for posting this, Amy. I've been meaning to. It's a truly mammoth book, and I agree with you about the photos. It's all of dance, mostly American (i.e., New York), but more than a nod to other cities and countries as well.

 

It's the obvious Super Christmas Gift for a dance fan -- more than a coffee table book, at that length and weight, but the kind of book you can flip through and admire the gorgeous photos, and read a bit here and there. Or tackle the whole century from the beginning!

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  • 3 weeks later...
One of the guiding principles of ''No Fixed Points'' is stated up front: ''We have taken innovative choreography as the force that guides our tale.'' Although the authors don't ignore the role of performers in the history of 20th-century dance, for me there is an overemphasis on the choreographer. The most famous and influential ballet dancer of all time, Anna Pavlova, may have been retrogressive in her tastes, but it can be argued that she had more immediate impact on the world than any choreographer has ever had; she got it to look at ballet. The same is true of Nijinsky and Nureyev.

 

Here is all the authors have to say about one larger-than-life ballerina: ''John Martin wrote that Maya Plisetskaya 'drenched the stage with movement.' Many considered her the most individual major classical dancer of the century.'' This, as opposed to the more than a full page devoted to Kenneth King, ''who is identified with the second wave of postmodern experimentation at Judson Church beginning in 1966.'' In case you've never heard of King, his ''M-o-o-n-b-r-a-i-nwithSuperLecture'' included ''a film of a flower growing out of a dead rat and a snake devouring another rat. Disguised as a grubby old man, King played with a cloth rat stuffed with balloons and hung a collection of unusual props, as well as his own leg, on a clothesline.'' The authors' approach is comparable to the auteur theory of film. And, yes -- Griffith and Ozu transcend their actors. But didn't Garbo and Valentino transcend their directors?

- Robert Gottlieb in the New York Times, 12/7/03

'No Fixed Points': The Story of Dance

 

I don't know... in 2075, who will be deemed more significant, the author or a long dead interpreter? We tend to think of Beethoven as more significant than the musicians who played his work... but then there was no way of recording the interpretation back then... Still, from history's vantage point (and this is after all a history), I believe the choreography will prove more lasting than any one particular interpretation (Even if I do wish I was there at the premiere of Afternoon of a Faun and Rite of Spring).

 

But then again, I've heard of Kennith King. I think it's possible the Judson Church movement had more influence on the direction of dance than Maya Plisetskaya's beautiful dancing. Is the avant garde always considered insignificant compared to boxoffice blockbusters? I think the avant garde is sort of like the navigator of a ship while the box office stars are it's payload. Didn't Baryshnikov recently present a Judson Church program?

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Pavlova was a choreographer, too, and as pointed out, her work was retro, even for the nineteen 'teens. But it is correct to identify her as probably the single individual to bring ballet to places where it had never been seen before, or so long ago that it had been forgotten.

 

Kenneth King and the rest of the Judson Churchers may be more like Jean Borlin in the 1920s. Interesting to see at the time, but the choreography has faded from memory, and only the concept continues on.

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Well, I do rather thinks thats the point... the influence... whereas did Pavlova's choreography leave much influence? I remember de Mille saying she was most impressed by Pavlova's bows.

 

The problem with Judson is that there wasn't one single choreographer pushing a unified idea... it was more of a group movement... and so even though one can single out this choreographer or that, it's not like having Fokine or Duncan spreading his influence... and considering the size of the relative venues (how many seats do you think Judson Church sat?), the influence was surprising. Kind of like Louis Horst's influence, somehow... in himself, he never reached Martha Graham's fame, and the average ticketmaster patron has never heard of him... but I don't think his influece should be discounted for that reason.

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Amy, I do see your point, and congratulations to you for sticking to your guns, but I don't think Gottlieb is objecting to the emphasis on choreographers per se – he's just pointing out that the emphasis is skewed. Whether Pavlova, for example, made dances herself isn't relevant so much as the fact that she defined "ballet" for thousands, maybe millions. Even today her name stands for ballet to people who have never heard of great ballerinas who followed her. And one sentence for Plisetskaya versus an entire page for King does seem a bit out of proportion.

I agree with you absolutely that popularity alone should not be a criterion. A book such as this has to take many factors into consideration, and a group that performed for a few may indeed have more lasting influence than a more popular troupe.

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A spinoff thread seeking input on the characterization of ballet culture has been moved to Cross Talk.

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Guest Nanatchka

Had a young Freddy Ashton not seen Pavolova dancing in the old Opera House in Lima, Peru, he might not ever have been Sir Frederick Ashton, choreographer. Talk about influence! I don't feel myself that Kenneth King is that influential, due to his being largely unreadable--here I think that a certain distance from the post-modern experience on the part of the authors may have led them to lend him an extra-size role (he certainly has some role). To my mind, the person whose influence you cannot over-stress is that of David Gordon. I just got this book. Must go read Merce pages and report back. It's always easiest to assess things from the point in space you yourself occupy.

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I realize this is a bit off topic, but I wanted to register my own sense of Pavolova's tremendous historical influence. Ashton is perhaps the most stunning case, but Robert Helpman in AUSTRALIA was brought to the world of international dance and theater through Pavlova. While hardly as important a choreographer as Ashton he certainly has been a key institional force (performer, director, choreographer) in the history of ballet and theater in Britain and Australia. The Washington School of Ballet (where Amanda Mckerrow, Kevin Mckenzie, and Marianna Tcherkassky, among others, all received part of their training) was founded by a dancer who danced with Pavlova's company. Seeing Pavlova at the age of six also seems to have played a key role in shaping the life choices of Margot Fonteyn. I actually agree that the emphasis should be on choreographers, but there are a tiny handful of transcendent ballet dancers who really impact the art in a way that I suspect can be compared to choreographers. For the nineteenth-century think of Taglioni and Ellsler. Giselle seems to have become a different ballet in Ellsler's hands than it had been before...This needn't lead to a trivialization of dance as an autonomous "art" and one sees similar phenomena in other performing arts as well (David Garrick and Edmund Kean in Shakespeare). I would give Pavlova that kind of credit.

 

However, none of this is directed at the book under discussion which I haven't yet had the good fortune to see. I do think that the way a historian 'tells' a story is very much shaped by what they think their story means. Lincoln Kirstein's histories of ballet tend to be written from the point of view of ballet history's culmination (as he interprets it) in the plotless work of George Balanchine. Someone more interested in institutional histories or changes in technique might spend more time on teachers, etc. etc. In any case, I am definitely looking forward to reading "No Fixed Points."

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Thanks, Mel for moving the 'fascist' thing to cross-talk. I thought this part still belonged under No Fixed Points. It might no longer make sense after the subsequent posts from Drew & Nanatchka, but here it is:

 

Okay, back to the how/what/why of influence... am I alone in thinking there are only a few influential choreographers in ballet and that because of the cultural structure of ballet their influence is stronger within ballet than the influence of the multitude of choreographers in post 1950s modern? Or is influence related to the age of the choreographer... Balanchine's influence on the world around him was less in 1930 than it was in 1970? Did the Judson Church creative circle have more influence on the next generation of modern choreographers than their counterparts in ballet? Because of the quantitative difference in choreographer populations between the two fields, and the difference in the respective cultures, can they even be said to have counterparts in ballet?

 

Paragraph two of the preface says

Theatrical dance is a collaborative endeavor, primarily a combination of music, visual art and movement.  If our book had been written fifty years ago -- or fifty years hence -- singling out choreograhy might well be inappropriate, but at the present moment (the dawn of the twenty-first century), it is not too much to say that the rise of dance as an autonomous art form and of choreography wthin that art form as a means of expression in itself together comprise the defining story of twentieth-century dance.  In the belief that this is so, we have taken innovative choreography as the force that guides our tale.

[typos all mine]

 

Although Kenneth King and Judson may not be names writ large upon the minds of the general dance audience ... the number of modern choreographers who make use "pedestrian movement" and other introductions of Judson are legion, I believe.

 

 

 

The Judsonites rejected codified dance techniques and period symbolism in favor of spontaneity and natural syntaxes; interest in every kind of movementreplaced preconceptions about beauty and grace.  This new clinical approach quickly nullified what Yvonne Rainer called the "preening" look of virtuoso dancing.  Vernacular gesture, presented without falsification, and events in which untrained performers simply exhibited normal behavior, made it clear that any kind of activity could be perceived as dance simply by the viewer's deciding to look at it that way."

[typos all mine]

 

 

Although Plisetskaya may only get one sentence devoted to her, she does get 4 index listings, including a photo...

 

Perhaps what I need are some reading suggestions about the influence of Plisetskaya's philosophy on the art form.

 

It would be very difficult to write a book about theatrical dance in the 20th century and not devote a chapter to post-modern dance and it's "parents" in Judson. And it would be very difficult to write about Judson without giving mention to Kenneth King.

 

Performer advocates, take heart, paragraph in the preface following the one about choreography states:

 

 

But choreography lives only in performance; thus, the outstanding dance interpreters of our time will also appear throught these pages.  The twentieth century did not witness the first dance superstars, but it was the first to have so many.  In addition, the technical level of even the most modest dancer increased beyond recognition as dance came more and more to be seen as a serious artistic endeavor.  Its expressive range grew, and its performers learned to project strain and ugliness and evil in addition to beauty, grace, and goodness.  They also learned that everyday movement could play a role.  It is the dancers who embody the art of danc as fantasy, entertainment, virtuosity, expression, and emotion.  (Indeed, our original title fort his book was "Choreography and Performance in Twentieth-Century Dance.")  We also touch on the impact of visual artists, impressarios, composers, critics, and audiences as well as related cultural educational, and social currents.

[typos mine]

 

 

I like the new title, but wonder how they could have lived up to the original title? It's herculean enough to try to evaluate a century's worth of choreography... how could one write fairly about performances one hadn't seen? and how could one have seen every significant performance?

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By the way, did anyone else blink at the grammatical trompe l'oeil when they read the following sentence in the NYer's "Briefly Noted" review of the book?

 

They highlight the significance of factors as significant as government funding and as small as the depth of Baryshnikov's demi-plie.
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Had a young Freddy Ashton not seen Pavolova dancing in the old Opera House in Lima, Peru, he might not ever have been Sir Frederick Ashton, choreographer. Talk about influence!

Indeed. Some artists, like Pavlova, make their mark as performers, even if they also create the dances they dance. Some are known as choreographers, even if they had a performing career as well (Balanchine, Fokine perhaps, Ashton himself). We've all had moments in the theater where we've known we were really just there for one or the other, the performer or the choreography. The times when it's the absolute right person combined with the absolute right material are all the sweeter for it.

 

(and Nan -- I agree absolutely about David Gordon)

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Well, Gordon's got more references in the index than King's, and Judson talked about quite a bit in Chapter Eleven, "Beyond the Boundries".... I'm afraid I made it sound as if King was singled out, or perhaps Gottlieb did. I still have to read this book, my apologies. Frankly, with it's size and scope, it would encourage an entire semester of study... perhaps that's why when I bought it the "also shopped for" listing at Amazon for it only suggested "Elements of Style" (or was it "The Chicago Manual of Style"...) Someone must be requiring it as a text book (no surprise there!)

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