Attitudes

The classic Italian definition of opera is dramma per musica. What then is the equivalent for dance theater, opera’s wayward theater sister? Play without words perhaps, which was the apt title of one of Matthew Bourne’s highly regarded pieces of self-styled dance theater. Or how about Adventures in Motion Pictures, which was the name of Matthew Bourne’s first company? No, I don’t think so. In contrast to Bourne’s work, dance has to be danced—really danced, imaginatively danced, with genuine choreographic invention.

 

For many years Bourne has prospered in a style of dance theater that might well be called “Bourne again” ballet. It is theatrical dancing for audiences who have very little interest in such. It has been claimed that he is opening up the dance world to many people who would never otherwise have gone to a dance performance. But do these people then go on to buy tickets for Dance Theater Workshop, Merce Cunningham, or New York City Ballet? I don’t think so.

 

It was following a burgeoning reputation in Britain—notably with a cheerfully irreverent Nutcracker, which was good but neither so good nor so cheerfully irreverent as the Mark Morris version, and a tediously cheeky Highland Fling, a clumsy rereading of Bournonville’s La Sylphide—when Bourne hit the big time in 1995 with Swan Lake. He radically rethought his version, giving it a counterculture, high-concept gloss, while matching his new story with the old and with Tchaikovsky’s score, showing an adroitness merging on magic.

 

Most significant (perhaps cygnificant) was his kinetic imagery for his new and dangerous creatures, the male swans. Tutus and pointe shoes were out. First London’s West End, then Broadway, and then the rest of the world succumbed to this new-look Swan Lake, especially when the principal role was danced—in a triumph of casting—by a former Royal Ballet star, the extraordinary Adam Cooper. After this we all waited eagerly to see what would come next. And what came next was a disappointment.

 

Two years after that blockbuster Swan Lake came Bourne’s version of Prokofiev’s Cinderella, set in the London blitz of World War II, which had Cooper as a shot-down Royal Air Force pilot, and Cooper’s wife, Sarah Wildor, in the title role. Premiered in Los Angeles, muddled and confusing, it never made its hoped-for trip to Broadway, although it later had a successful London run. Bourne’s next two pieces revealed his predilection for film noir—The Car Man, a weird and homoerotic mix of James M. Cain and Bizet—and his London-acclaimed, edgily textured but less than inventive Play Without Words, a struck-dumb homage to Joseph Losey’s movie The Servant.

 

Last December in London Bourne offered Edward Scissorhands, yet another of his efforts to make dance-drama with theatrical bricks but no choreographic straw. As ever his concept—particularly in that Swan Lake, which was the foundation of his career—is fine. But with no steps worth mentioning he builds ladders to nowhere. Here in this adaptation of Tim Burton’s fabulous cult movie, Bourne neatly caught the atmosphere of suburban America, but the Gothic charm of the hero (of course, he didn’t have the movie’s Johnny Depp) was nowhere, and without inventive dancing it seemed just another play without words, more inarticulate than most. Lez Brotherston, Bourne’s usual decorative collaborator, provided sets and costumes satirically on target, which I could hardly say for the young dancer, Sam Archer, playing the eponymous, hand-challenged hero.

 

To some extent Bourne may be said to be following a certain strain of British dance drama, ranging from Ninette de Valois’ 1931 Satan-dominated Job to Robert Helpmann’s 1944 Miracle in the Gorbals, a parable (yes, without words!) of Christ returning to a Glasgow slum. But de Valois and Helpmann hardly pointed an artistically profitable path for dance. For all this—dare I call it decadence?—both choreographers, like Bourne, had theatricality oozing out of their ears. And in de Valois’ The Rake’s Progress, Helpmann’s Hamlet, and Bourne’s weird and wonderful Swan Lake, that sheer theatricality carries the day. But whatever virtues they possess as theater pieces, they lack the choreography to be true dance dramas.

 

So whither Matthew Bourne? Well, he’s crazily successful and is touring his Swan Lake in the U.S. this month and possibly Scissorhands next year. Yet this critic admires him more for his work in musical theater. His choreography for the musicals Oliver! (1994), My Fair Lady, and South Pacific (both for Britain’s Royal National Theatre in 2002) was excellent, but even this was transcended by his musical Mary Poppins—due on Broadway next season—which he co-choreographed with Stephen Frears and co-directed with Richard Eyre. It’s superb work. So Bourne is probably not going to be the next Jerome Robbins in the dance world, but he could well be the next Bob Fosse or Michael Bennett in the somewhat parallel universe of the Broadway musical.

 

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the New York Post.

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Attitudes

We seem to be in the middle of a serious debate on whether New York is (or is still) the center of the dance world. Wow! Big stuff! Big argument! But, as first pointed out in these pages by editor Wendy Perron (“Curtain Up,” December 2005), in these days of globalization, one wonders whether such a proposition means very much and whether it’s readily demonstrable. New York, or rather the United States (as a London import of more than 40 years standing, I have always noticed that we New Yorkers tend to confuse the two), can with some justification claim to have invented modern dance and, more definitively, postmodern dance.

 

Early in the 20th century the influence of Isadora Duncan was one of the crucial elements in the development of theatrical dancing. It was not so much her dancing or choreography that eventually proved so significant—even if its influence on the likes of Michel Fokine, the Russian choreographic trailblazer, is not to be sniffed at—but more the force of her personality and, most of all, simply the impact of her example. True, not many dancers embraced a Greek revival or ran around in artfully swirling, near-transparent draperies. Despite her many pupils and disciples, she was essentially one of a kind. She still demonstrated that there could be new ways to dance apart from classical ballet or folk dance, and she also extended the range of music suitable for choreographic expression, using even a Beethoven symphony. Dance was never the same after Isadora.

 

Among the Europeans themselves, the French music teacher François Delsarte had started his explorations into body movement (even before Isadora erupted on the scene), extended by the Swiss Émile Jaques-Dalcroze. The seminal Hungarian Rudolf von Laban taught Kurt Jooss and Mary Wigman, the latter also studying under Jaques-Dalcroze. Modern dance soon found fruitful soil in German expressionism before it was decreed decadent by the Nazis. But it was in the United States that modern dance put down its lasting roots, with Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis and their Denishawn Studio encouraging such dancers as Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, plus, it should be noted, an assist from an immigrant pupil of Wigman, Hanya Holm.

 

By 1950 no one could dispute the supremacy of America in the field of modern dance. This supremacy was based on the Graham/Humphrey axis, but also on the major influence of Holm and, around this time, the West Coast school of Lester Horton. During the 1960s the avant-garde activities of the Judson Dance Theater in Greenwich Village gave birth to what came be known as postmodern dance. Now added to all this was the growing prestige of American classical dance, led by George Balanchine, founder in 1933 of the School of American Ballet. Slowly his company, New York City Ballet, became recognized as the most creative classical company in the world. Taken in conjunction with the sometimes fluctuating fortunes of the other New York-based classical company, American Ballet Theatre, New York was virtually at the top of the world scene in classical ballet in addition to its unquestioned position in modern and postmodern dance.

 

So what happened? Is New York still indisputably king of the hill? Put briefly, no. The center of any art form moves around from country to country, capital to capital. Not long ago New York, apart from dance, also had bragging rights in the visual arts. Again, no longer. As I implied at the opening, globalization, helped by the web, has ironed out many national distinctions.

 

Dance as an art form is nowhere in the world at the peak of popularity it achieved in the 1970s. The creative center in classical ballet is at present in limbo. While technique has risen, creativity has slipped. Where, today, are the likes of Balanchine, Ashton, Robbins, and Tudor? Ballet is almost in the holding position of today’s opera. The United States is doing as well as anyone and better than most. New York is still the only city to have two major ballet companies, and across the nation there are more classical companies than in any other country.

 

In modern dance and its offshoots, possibly Europe at the moment is more creative, more with the pulse of things. Certainly in France, comparatively massive state subsidies help, especially in helping the adventurous. Our dance—classical and modern—goes cap in hand to patrons and sponsors, with creativity usually playing second fiddle to fund-raising. Even so, I suggest that New York is home to more modern dance companies and schools than any other city on our deflated globe, while no European troupe enjoys the universal prestige of a Merce Cunningham or Paul Taylor company.

 

So are we still dance’s No. 1? If we are not, we can always say: Been there, done that!

 

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the New York Post.

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Attitudes

Fernando Bujones, dancer, 1955–2005. It was a short life and, in some ways, a life not completely fulfilled, for he died still a man of promise. Bujones’ story mingled the good luck that jump-started his career with the ill fortune that cast a pall over his later years as a dancer, leaving unfinished the final chapters of his career as a company director and choreographer.

 

Born in Miami of Cuban parents, his family moved back to Havana when Fernando was young. After a few years they returned in 1967 to New York. Although coached and taught all his life by his older cousin, Zeida Cecilia Mendez, the young Fernando studied at the School of American Ballet under André Eglevsky and, later, Stanley Williams. It was Eglevsky who first mentioned Fernando to me as a fantastic talent, and it was for the Eglevsky Ballet in 1970 that he made his professional debut, partnering Gelsey Kirkland. He made a striking impression in 1972 at the annual School of American Ballet workshop performance, dancing James in La Sylphide, coached by Williams. But instead of joining New York City Ballet as expected, he went to American Ballet Theatre.

 

From there on his career seemed set. Although entering ABT in the corps de ballet, he very soon became a soloist. In 1974 he won the Gold Medal at the International Competition in Varna, Bulgaria, and that same year he was, at 19, appointed ABT’s youngest ever principal. It was also the year that another brilliant young man, the 26-year-old Mikhail Baryshnikov, defected from the Soviet Union in a maelstrom of publicity, and soon after joined ABT. Their two careers became set on an unnecessary and unfortunate collision course.

 

Probably that course was partly mapped out by Bujones’ own, unfortunate but widely quoted remark, not long after the Russian’s arrival: “Baryshnikov has the publicity, I have the talent.” Not precisely. Baryshnikov left ABT in 1978 to join City Ballet, but returned two years later as artistic director. In the winter of 1985, feeling underused to the point of neglect, Bujones refused a direct order to open an important Metropolitan Opera House season in Romeo and Juliet, leaving Baryshnikov little option but to fire him.

 

It was sad. There were rights—and wrongs—on both sides. Baryshnikov, not perhaps the most adept man at administration, had handled the politically inept Bujones with insufficient concern for ABT’s ultimate good, let alone Bujones’ own career. After leaving ABT Bujones guested around the world with enormous but fleeting success. He enjoyed an ongoing relationship with the Boston Ballet, and, following Baryshnikov’s second departure from ABT in 1989, he occasionally appeared with ABT. Appropriately, it was with that company, as Albrecht in Giselle in 1995, that he gave his final performance—still virtually at his best at the age of 40.

 

As a dancer he might be compared with Erik Bruhn, for Bujones shared with the great Dane a stylistic and technical purity. They were both dancers of calibrated nuance, a virtually complete absence of mannerism, and with their particularized schooling distilled to its essence. Yet they both maintained that special individual dance profile essential to the great dancer, classical or modern, male or female. Bujones had truly remarkable elevation and beautifully finished beats, which made possible a high and perfect series of entrechats six or a succession of double cabrioles that effortlessly cleaved the air, soaring across the stage with eagle authority.

 

His acting was more a matter of image than detail. He was masterly as Albrecht in Giselle and James in La Sylphide, a tad less effective in more generic roles. Yet he used histrionic detail to the most telling effect—such as his tortured backward glance as the Lover in Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas, or the way, as Romeo, he lightly kissed the dropped rose before returning it to the flirtatious Rosaline in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Although he danced in many ballets by Ashton (he was wonderful as Colas in La Fille Mal Gardée and the lead skater in Les Patineurs), Balanchine (notably Theme and Variations), and Tudor, it is one of ballet’s tiny tragedies that, despite small works by Tharp and Béjart, he never had a role created for him by a major choreographer.

 

Bujones was a fantastic, unforgettable dancer, and he was also arguably the first of the major Latino dancers to play a key role in American ballet. Indeed, when all is said and done, Bujones deserves the reputation of one of the few truly significant classical male dancers of the past half-century—on a level with Babilée, Bruhn, Villella, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, and Bocca. But although he achieved their degree of artistry, a certain lack of focus on the part of the entrepreneurial, public, and critical spotlights during a major part of his career has meant that he is still not as widely perceived as he deserves to be as an iconic figure of classical ballet.

 

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the New York Post.

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Attitudes

Dance is supposed to keep one young—but centenarians are still comparatively rare in the business, with even the unsinkable Martha Graham making it only to 97. In fact, the only truly celebrated dance centenarian I can think of off-hand is the founder of Britain’s Royal Ballet, Ninette de Valois, who died about five years ago at the healthy age of 102, having by unusual chance lived in three different centuries. This month on the 21st, the Russian Igor Moiseyev, the man who first theatricalized folk dance, joins dance’s exclusive 100-plus club. And what perhaps is most remarkable—for Dame Ninette had long effectively abandoned the institution she once created—is that until recently Moiseyev was still in executive command of his mighty Moiseyev Ensemble, even though he has, for some years, ceased to tour with the troupe.

 

I first met the legendary Moiseyev in Moscow 39 years ago, when he was a comparative stripling of 61 but already firmly established in delicate steel and solid concrete inside the topmost tier of the Kremlin-like infrastructure of Soviet dance. He was by then a law unto his own whim, a national figure to be compared in reputation and stature only with the ballerina Galina Ulanova, and a man who had the ear of the then tsaristically imperious Soviet Minister of Culture, Nina Furtseva, at home and the ear of American impresario Sol Hurok abroad. He was a fascinating man—totally confident of his own achievement as the architect-founder of what was then conceivably Russia’s most beloved arts institution and export. He also proved sharply critical of the rest of the Soviet dance establishment, including the Kirov Ballet, which he seemed to dismiss, and his alma mater, the Bolshoi Ballet, which he seemed to dislike. He viewed dance as essentially a people’s art and his own Moiseyev Ensemble as a people’s company.

 

Born in Kiev, Moiseyev did not see his first ballet until his parents moved to Moscow when he was 13. He was obviously much taken with what he saw, for he promptly started class with Vera Mosolova, one of the private ballet teachers still functioning in those early days of the Soviet Union. Two years later, in 1921, he was taken into the fourth grade of the Bolshoi School, working with Alexander Gorsky and Vasili Tikhomirov, and in 1924 he graduated into the Bolshoi company. His ascent through the Bolshoi ranks was rapid—and soon he was assigned such parts as the slave Ali in Le Corsaire. It was not long before he started choreographing, first in 1930 with The Footballer, a piece much praised for its whimsical humor and featuring himself in the title role. In 1935 he had a huge success with a comic ballet satirizing Western capitalism, Three Fat Men.

 

Despite a certain reputation for disruptive antiestablishment behavior, his career seemed to be on the fast track to becoming the director of the Bolshoi Ballet. However in 1936, his contemporary from Leningrad’s Kirov Ballet, Rostislav Zakharov, was appointed artistic director of the Bolshoi. It was possibly a coincidence, but in the same year, Moiseyev accepted an offer from the newly formed Theater for Folk Art in Moscow to establish the theater’s dance constituent. It was an exquisite case of the right man being in the right place at the right time, and it affected dance history worldwide. Moiseyev basically theatricalized what hitherto had been an amateur form. He was already well traveled in the Soviet Union, and now he went the length and breadth of that far-flung territory to gather dances and dancers to represent the entire Soviet Union. He rehearsed his new troupe for nearly a year before offering the first public performance in Moscow on October 7, 1937.

 

Although Moiseyev never quite gave up on classic ballet (he choreographed a disastrous version of Spartacus for the Bolshoi in 1958, and in 1967 started a short-lived Moiseyev Classical Ensemble), from then on he was devoted to folk dance. The dances at first came from the Soviet Union, but from 1955 onward, as his ensemble embarked more and more on foreign tours profitable both in political propaganda and Western currency, the Moiseyev Ensemble would embrace token ethnic dances from other cultures—even, on occasion, an American square dance.

 

Moiseyev has had many imitators from all over the Soviet Union and its satellites and a few from outside that so-called Iron Curtain. Some national groups, notably I suppose the Georgian State Dance Company, the Ukrainian State Folk Dance Company, Poland’s Mazowsze, and the Ballet Folklorico of Mexico, have almost rivaled the fame and popularity of Moiseyev’s original troupe. But all have followed his vision and copied his formula. Yet it was Moiseyev who first spun a magic proscenium arch around the village square—and no one has ever done it more effectively. Happy Birthday, Igor!

 

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for The New York Post.

 

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Attitudes

After 50 years of writing for Dance Magazine—and many other publications—Clive Barnes died on November 19, 2008. For a full bio of him, go to www.dancemagazine.com. Here we offer Clive a final tribute from some in the dance community who knew him.

 

The arts have lost one of its finest. Gifted with a prodigious memory,  Clive’s love for performing arts and dance in particular graced him with a sharp third eye. He could see the essence of an artist; he believed in the enlightenment that all artists are driven to achieve. Knowing the arts ignite the mind, Clive was among the first to encourage me and Dance Theatre of Harlem to pursue our hopes. Loyal, honest, and a true friend, his words kept us going. DTH salutes Clive Barnes. —Arthur Mitchell

 

He was a great man, a great writer, and a great lover of the arts who will be much missed. —Paul Taylor

None of us would be writing today if Clive had not paved the way by turning previous dance criticism on its head, by attracting a huge readership, and by obliging editors to pay attention in the 1960s to a field they considered the stepchild of the arts. Clive broke rules. It is hard for some of you today to realize his initial impact. But he took American dance out of its modern-dance cults, and he took balletomania out of its ghetto, making dance an art for all. He was not a popularizer: More simply, he conveyed his passion for dance. —Anna Kisselgoff, in her presentation at the Dance Magazine Awards, 2005

Clive Barnes was an exceptional witness to my artistic life who received the different stages of my career with growing enthusiasm. His reviews were not only positive, but they conveyed the elements of a performance so that the public could form their own impressions. He never let himself be influenced by other people’s opinions, and he received the debut of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in the U.S. in an intelligent and generous manner. He was a great professional and an important entertainer in the art of dance. —Alicia Alonso

Clive’s insights into the art of ballet were cherished by generations of dance fans. His enthusiasm for his work was unwavering and his appreciation of the performing arts was beyond compare. The theater and dance worlds were illuminated by his presence. —Kevin McKenzie

We first shook hands at the Crush Bar, in the Royal Opera House, London 1950. In the years after, you would remind me of that. I loved it, that you were nurtured by dance and the theater. Rilke wrote in his poem “Sunset”:

Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colours
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you,
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth…

Someday, in the world on the other side of the grass and at a dance event, we will embrace. —Jacques d’Amboise

 

Clive Barnes always managed to be present at pivotal points in my career. Just having turned 16 a few days earlier, my debut as the Dew Drop fairy in Balanchine’s The Nutcracker was an exciting occasion. One of my sisters and her husband happened to be seated in the first ring. Upon my entrance onstage my brother-in-law took out his camera and enthusiastically began documenting the event. Unbeknownst to him, Clive was witnessing every second in the next seat. On Christmas morning not only did we learn of his bemusement, but so did all of the readers of The New York Post! A few years later, Clive was very disappointed that I was leaving New York City Ballet but supportive of my choice to pursue the classics at The Royal Ballet. Both he and Valerie wished me well, and I will always hold a special place in my heart for both of them. —Alexandra Ansanelli

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Attitudes

Graham—Present Indicative, Future Uncertain

Martha Graham. How do we feel about Martha Graham? And after that, how do we really feel about Martha Graham? Let’s cut away the encrustation of former glories, those heady remembrances of things past, those lip services paid to history’s icons. How about Martha past, present, and—let’s do some clairvoyance—future? Not her influence on others, but her present importance in and of herself.

When I first encountered Graham as a dancer (she was already 60) and the Graham repertoire in 1954, I was overwhelmed. And not simply by what I saw onstage, but also because this was my first encounter with one the legendary figures of 20th-century dance. Of the other such figures—perhaps Isadora Duncan, Michel Fokine, and George Balanchine—only Balanchine I knew well and adored with the messianic fervor of a critic-disciple. And then Graham, during a season in London at the now-lost Saville Theatre. I went every night, enchanted, engrossed, and sometimes bewildered. I look at my own 53-year-old reviews in the London magazine Dance and Dancers (now sadly gone the way of the Saville) and can recapture all of those three occasionally conflicting feelings.

As a dancer, how good could Graham possibly have been in 1954? There has just been issued a remarkably illuminating DVD of the Graham company that includes a couple of performances of Graham’s Appalachian Spring, one from exactly that time—with Stuart Hodes as the Husbandman, Bertram Ross as the Revivalist, and Matt Turney as the Pioneer Woman, and I can hardly recognize the Graham I thought I had seen. This is sometimes the way of video: There is no match for the physicality of the presence, and what we call charisma goes up in smoke. 

Over the years I followed Graham and the company assiduously, and constantly after 1965, when I moved to New York. By this time Graham had become a living legend, not beyond criticism but impervious to it. She was also fashionable—in the worst possible sense of that dubious term—in a way she never had been before. She was staging gala performances where the galas were more significant than the performances, and even the hard-core nucleus of wonderful performers (apart from the still dauntingly theatrical Graham herself, her companies in the ’50s and ’60s were star-shiners) slowly eroded, the dancers sometimes losing interest, sometimes actually fired. 

Yet from the mid-’50s until around the end of ’60s, Graham and her company were among the living treasures of the dance world. As a dancer she herself had already stayed a little too long at the fair. I was one of that generation of dance critics having the rotten task of pointing this out in public. She finally retired as a dancer in 1969. She was 74.

Unlike Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, she never retained her full powers as a choreographer when her dancing first dwindled and was then extinguished. Even before her final retirement from the stage, her works had become rather more distinguished for their titles—Cortege of Eagles, A Time of Snow, etc.—than for their actual choreography. Her last major work was the ambitious, full-evening Clytemnestra in 1958, which was the fulfillment of her fascination with Greek legend. And despite its weak score (by Halim El-Dabh)—Graham’s tin ear for great music and her wish to collaborate with living (but usually mediocre) composers, will always be a drag on her legacy—Clytemnestra was a dramatic panoply of absorbing choreographic depth with brilliance. It gave Martha one last gaudy night in a role that made her the largely static but gloriously theatrical focus of the tragedy. It was great, and it was greatness.

The decline was unmercifully gradual—through to the final years of what I called “Halstonization,” when the fashion designer Halston seemed to become virtually the artistic director of the company. I think two works deserve to survive from the final years: the stylistically cool 1981 Acts of Light and the lightweight 1990 Maple Leaf Rag.

After Graham’s death on April Fool’s Day 1991, there was chaos. Worse—chaos and litigation. The company, litigation seemingly behind it, has made two major efforts to recover. The first under Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin, and the second—after those two appeared to be summarily dismissed by the board—by Janet Eilber, the second manifestation being seen in the modest circumstances of the Joyce Theater last September.  Both regimes gave reason for hope that the classic Graham repertoire eventually might well be maintained as a living force.

But—and here comes the awkward glance at the clairvoyant’s ball—nothing will amount to much in the future unless the company can acquire or encourage its own, new choreographer. Museums and dance companies don’t match up.

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the New York Post.

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Attitudes

The 20th century could—at least in the Western world—be called the Century of the Woman. It was a century of emancipation and universal suffrage, women’s rights, feminism, and, at least on paper, equal opportunity, if not equal wages. But despite any glass ceiling, it was a century of enormous progress for women. This progress was also evident in the arts, particularly dance, which during that very same century happened to be the emergent and rising art form. As Maurice Béjart put it, “In the theater, if the 19th century was the Century of Opera, then the 20th century was the Century of Dance.” During the entire 20th century it was women who were fundamentally the movers and shakers, the pioneers and leaders.

 

 

In modern dance—from Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Mary Wigman, and Ruth St. Denis through to Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Hanya Holm—women not only led the field, they actually planted it. One might point to the likes of Ted Shawn, Harald Kreutzberg, and Charles Weidman, and most certainly in the second generation, to Kurt Jooss, José Limón, and Alwin Nikolais. All had their place as modern dance leaders.

 

Nevertheless, when the dance community thought of modern dance, it thought of Isadora, Miss Ruth, Martha, Wigman (did anyone dare to call her Mary?) and Doris, with the men coming up as the second-violin section.

 

The picture in classical ballet, as far as pioneering went, was much the same. In Russia, Denmark, and France, where ballet was well established and publicly subsidized before the 20th century, men continued to dominate artistically and organizationally. Although even here, largely as a long-lasting afterglow of 19th-century Romanticism, the stage spotlight remained fixed on the ballerina, that almost fetishist figure of male adoration and female emulation, with her toe shoes and magic tutu.

 

In English-speaking nations, a remarkable race of women pioneers came along, the likes of Marie Rambert and Ninette de Valois in Britain; Catherine Littlefield, Lucia Chase, and Dorothy Alexander in the United States; and later Dulcie Howes in South Africa; Gweneth Lloyd, Betty Farrally, and Celia Franca in Canada; and Peggy van Praagh in Australia. Yes, there were men involved as well! The names Lincoln Kirstein, the Christensen Brothers, even the short-reigned Ballet Theatre founder Richard Pleasant and a few others leap to mind. Yet for the most part women continued to rule the roost.

 

That was the 20th century. Fast forward to the 21st. The other day I got a press release from the dance department of Barnard College in New York City announcing a special initiative to assist women dancemakers, with the very clear implication that they were an endangered species. I could scarcely believe it. Why was such a thing necessary? Surely here was a gender battle that was long over, if it had ever even started. So what on earth were Barnard College and its estimable dance department complaining about? And then I thought a little more.

 

OK, Monica Mason and Brigitte Lefevre are doing fine. But had not two other women directors of classical companies, Maina Gielgud, late of both the Australian Ballet and The Royal Danish Ballet, and Anna-Marie Holmes, late of the Boston Ballet, encountered unusual difficulty with heavily male-oriented directorates? And while a woman, determined to test, develop, and ply her craft, can rent a studio and hire some dancers as easily as a man, how many women choreographers in modern dance have really hit the international big time over the past half century? Twyla Tharp, Pina Bausch, Trisha Brown certainly, perhaps Sasha Waltz, and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker; the list is neither enormous nor even indisputable.

 

And after years—about 180 I would guess since Marie Taglioni—in which women have held the commanding balance on the dance stage itself, that balance is beginning to shift. Male dancers are possibly today a bigger performing attraction than women—largely because nowadays more men are attracted to dance as a profession. Moreover (and this is not male chauvinism asserting itself) the male physique, just as in sports, enables men to be quantitatively superior in sheer physical strength. Put simply, they can jump higher, spin faster, etc. Audiences find this exciting. So is there a new and developing gender gap in dance? I’m honestly not sure. But certainly that press release from Barnard gave me more pause for thought than I would have expected.

 

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the New York Post.

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Attitudes

What is choreography? Webster—who should have known a bit about definitions—graces his (rather old-fashioned) and  well-thumbed dictionary with three: ballet dancing; the arrangement, especially the written notation, of the movements of a ballet; the art of devising ballets. Not one of them is particularly illuminating, is it? I suppose arranging “the movements of a ballet” is closest to the mark, yet surely no cigar. So what really is choreography?  

I still recall—when I was very young—sitting behind two loud-mouthed matinée ladies fulsomely extolling the skill of the dancers who, they obviously imagined, were not only making up the steps as they went along, but were, very cleverly, avoiding all bumps and collisions in the process. Oh well, perhaps some ballets possibly do look as though the dancers were gallantly improvising. In a few instances it might have worked out better if they had been! Certainly until the century only recently past, choreographers (or “dance arrangers” as Broadway liked to call them) were the lowest artists on any cultural totem pole, regarded rather as stage directors (i.e. fundamentally interpretative artists realizing the imaginative flights of their betters) than fully-fledged creators. By such reasoning a choreographer was on a level with an opera director or a scenic designer rather than an opera composer.

It took the 20th century to find a climate where people were as apt—perhaps more apt—to talk of Balanchine’s Apollo as of Stravinsky’s Apollo, which in itself was an irony. For that ballet’s first choreographer was Adolph Bolm and not Balanchine at all. It was really only during the past 100 years the ordinary choreographer became recognized as an everyday artist, not as a journeyman hack whose work was as disposable as a tissue, or some rare, close-to-unique genius of the stature of Noverre. Even today not too many choreographers are regarded as having achieved the rank of major artists.  
Choreography is one of the most difficult of artistic disciplines—difficult to learn, more difficult to sustain, and most difficult to maintain. Unlike a writer, composer, or painter who can first learn their craft in schools and then polish it in the shabby security of their own attics, choreographers have to fight even for the raw materials—human bodies and studio space—with which to toddle their first childlike steps, and then battle for the public exposure of a dance repertoire. And most choreography—whether it is bad, indifferent, good, or even great—disappears simply from neglect and from that almost indecent public desire that always puts a premium on the new.

Most creative artists chug through their careers on the way to ultimate extinction, whether they are painters or novelists, composers or playwrights, sculptors or poets. But all of these leave something material behind, and the thin possibility of posthumous fame. Choreographers—despite Webster’s confident assertion of “written notation”—usually leave surprisingly little by way of artistic legacy except the muscle memories of dying dancers, the fading memories of former audiences, photographs, and press clips.     

And the gift for choreography—that ability to make dances that express aspects of the human spirit and weave them into a meaningful web of drama, design, or both—is inhumanly rare. And very often it is a gift that the audience—even those  who do not imagine, like my matinée ladies, that they are experiencing some kind of choreographic parthenogenesis—is all too ready to ascribe praise and glory to the dancer rather than the dance. Is it any wonder that so many modern dance choreographers—from Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham onwards—regarded themselves as dancers first and choreographers second? And how many—not, I think, in classical ballet, where the whole performance aesthetic is differently balanced—genuinely did start to choreograph primarily to give themselves something to dance?

For all this what a wonderful thing true choreography is! Think of Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, Robbins’ Fancy Free, or Taylor’s Aureole—exquisite theatrical machines clicking joyously through time and space, giving music a different dimension and offering dancers the chance to be messengers of the heart. You can’t really teach it—and although you can recognize it, often a mile off, you cannot describe it any more than you can evoke that shudder down the neck it can, at least in the sensitively willing, mercilessly provoke. Finally how fragile it is—choreography that is here today usually is gone tomorrow, lost in either the whirligig of fashion or the roulette-wheel of luck. The other day I was thinking of Ashton’s magical wisp of a ballet Madame Chrysanthème, an exquisite piece of theatrical Japonaiserie, as delicate as a consummately crafted ivory fan, but now broken, totally lost in time. Choreography is not a game for the faint of heart.                                 ™

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