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SIGHT LINES,Arlene Croce. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. 364 pp. $19.95.
DANCE WRITINGS, Edwin Denby, edited by Robert Cornfield and William MacKay. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986. xi + 608 pp. $18.95.
THE TAIL OF THE DRAGON: NEW DANCE, 1976-1982, Marcia B. Siegel. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1991. xvi + 204 pp., photographs. $14.95 (paper).
Dance critics provide uniquely valuable documentation of the history of this elusive art form, a service no less important since the advent of videotape, film, and notations. But criticism is not a neutral description of events. Critics make choices about which works to describe and discuss and the properties on which they focus. Thus the weight given to their assessments must take into account the situation and perspective of the writer.
Arlene Croce, Edwin Denby, and Marcia B. Siegel rank among the most insightful, articulate recorders of dance history. In these most recent collections of their criticism, each documents a period of dance history for future generations by capturing in words events and experiences lost in time. Or do they?
Postmodern philosophers and literary theorists in the past two decades have sensitized us to the complications in the search for historical and critical accuracy. (1) Can dance criticism ever "objectively" describe the work? Is there one "correct" description and interpretation of a work? If not, are there limits on the range of acceptable interpretations? Does description necessarily reflect the theoretical, cultural, and personal biases of the critic? Do commentaries upon commentaries only further cloud "the work" as it was perceived by audiences at the time? Can we, today, ever really understand the work as it existed at a moment in time years ago, perceived by observers with different expectations and experiences? Can or should criticism have the status of a work of art itself?
Much of the recent philosophical wrangling has been over the status of literary criticism, where the original work of art and the criticism of that work both employ the verbal medium. In dance, works and criticism of works use different media and thus seem less like competitors than complementary partners in the development of the art form. Dance criticism plays a special role in recording an event now past and in offering and justifying critical assessments. Criticism also provides an historical and social context both of the art form and of the particular work in relation to the broader cultural context.
Dance criticism is often enjoyed by the reader who never has and never will personally experience the work as an audience member. This interest in criticism of a work, sans an experience of the work itself, is the subject of outrage and controversy in literary circles, yet in dance it is an obvious necessity. To be sure, dance criticism could not exist without dances and performances of dance upon which to comment. Yet dance criticism stands as a valuable creation, an object of study, in and of itself. The reader experienced in attending dance performances will appreciate and understand dance criticism more because of that first-hand experience. But it is still typically the case that those experiences will not be of the same performances or even the same works discussed by the critic.
Denby saw himself as a poet who wrote dance criticism, and his observations are often framed in terms of the poetic possibilities of dance. His metaphorical use of language thus defied positivistic pressures of his era. He used criticism to function as a teacher -- of audiences, performers, choreographers, and company managers -- bringing to bear his training and performance experience in Europe between the wars. He also saw himself as a participant in a dialogue with the other members of the artworld. He said, in a joyously candid comment in his second review of Graham's Punch and Judy,
I leave you to judge, by comparing your own impressions with mine, whether I get it this time either. (Denby, p. 91)
Denby's greatest output of dance criticism, in sheer volume, came during his stint at the New York Herald Tribune during World War II, when the paper's regular critic (Walter Terry) was drafted. But he hated the pressure of deadlines and preferred longer essays, many written after the war for a variety of publications. Earlier collections of Denby's criticism (Looking at the Dance, 1949, and Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets, 1965) sometimes shortened reviews and arranged them by theme. Editors Cornfield and MacKay have collected for this volume virtually all of Denby's output as a dance critic. By arranging it chronologically, they offer a sense of evolution, both of dance in New York in the 1930s and 40s and of Denby's style as a critic. Denby witnessed the legendary clash in America of modern dance and classical ballet, often playing the mediator and apologist for both traditions. He was especially enamored of choreographers Martha Graham and George Balanchine. The collection contains a special section on Balanchine, with loving assessments spanning the period from 1945 to 1983, the year of Denby's own suicide.
Denby was also enamored of critic Arlene Croce. Although Denby disliked biographies, MacKay has written a new and very welcome 22-page biography of Denby, included in this collection. In it, MacKay recounts Denby's request to visitors to read to him from Croce's New Yorker reviews, when his eyesight was failing. And Croce was a great admirer of Denby. Her most recent collection consists of reviews originally published from 1981 to 1987, along with three "celebrations" -- lengthy profiles of Edward Villella, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Edwin Denby.
Croce's collection allows the criticism to speak for itself, with no attempt to organize the material thematically and no introduction commenting on her work. She does include, however, several tantalizing "postscripts" to particular reviews. Sometimes they report factual challenges to her claims by the artists reviewed. (See, e.g., p. 222, /p. 42 concerning the aesthetic origins of certain Japanese performers.) Other times they report that her advice to a company was not taken! (E.g., in 1987 she reports that American Ballet Theatre had ignored her advice four years earlier for better coaching of Symphonie Concertante, p. 133.)
Like other masters of her craft, Croce uses words to capture a sense of what it was like to be in the audience. She places works within an historical and social context -- their relationship to earlier works in similar genres, the influences of other art forms, the expression of generational attitudes. She is also the most overtly philosophical of critics. She not only offers critical principles. She also explains why those principles are warranted. Denby too sometimes ponders philosophical issues, such as the nature of "meaning in dance" (Denby, pp. 131-2), but most of his philosophical assumptions remain implicit.
Siegel's collection is also organized chronologically, but with an overtly stated historical purpose. The period from 1976-1982, she explains in her own introductory essay, was a period of transition from
. . . the so-called post-modern period that began in the early 1960s and the contemporary period of the late 1980s to early 1990s, which seems so drastically different all of a sudden. (Siegel, p. xi)
That she waited until 1991 to comment on this transitional period reflects the seasoning of a dance historian who understands the importance of distance and perspective. The original criticism documents the works. Her commentary in this brief but immensely valuable introductory essay now uses the criticism as raw material -- her data -- for identifying trends within dance that could not be fully grasped until years later.
Denby's writing is poetic, folksy, romanticized. Croce's is richly textured, technical, sweeping in its scope. Siegel's is spare, like the minimalist dance she so often describes. Yet Siegel's lean prose belies a wealth of insight into the way movement is produced and the way competent observers of dancers are likely to respond. Although she sometimes offers explicit contextual observations -- e.g., comparisons with other choreographers and performers -- she concentrates on producing a verbal record of what a dance looked like and how it felt to experience it.
That historical significance cannot always be recognized until long after the event seems obvious. Who could have known, as Croce observed in 1985, that "Apollo predicted the classical style that he [Balanchine] would develop in America and consolidate in Agon." (Croce, p. 239) But sometimes genius can be recognized almost immediately. Denby, in 1943, characterized Balanchine's Concerto Barocco as a "masterpiece," although it had been created only two years earlier. But, interestingly, the reasons he gave for his assessment were strikingly different from reasons offered half a century later. He was impressed with the "new" Balanchine style -- the dancer's naturalness, the absence of "deformation of gesture," the "unheard of" lifts, the "variety of invention" that also is "unheard of." (Denby, p. 167) Much of his reasoning centered on the novelty of the piece in its immediate context. But novelty is not necessarily valuable over time. Could anyone have known in 1943 that the work also originated timeless vocabularies that were not merely novel, but also a substantial contribution to the genre? It was not until 1948 that Denby could recognize Concerto as an early work in a progression of masterpieces "of the purest classicism whose subjects are their scores." (Denby, p. 523) Yet some of his responses -- e.g., his 1943 characterization of the ballet's "coolness" that leaves the audience "puzzled" (Denby, p. 177) -- anticipated Croce's 1984 observation that Concerto is a masterpiece that is "admired" but not "loved." (Croce, p. 199
The difficulty of using criticism as data for dance history is compounded by the simple fact that a particular critic can only see so much. Croce started watching dance in the 1950s. Thus, although she makes comparisons between Balanchine's La Valse and Cotillon, she admits she has never even seen the later work:
. . . from the way people still talk about this lost ballet of the thirties I recognize it as one of the magically affecting ones. (Croce, p. 200)
How reliable are such doubly filtered records of dance? Croce offers a detailed analysis of Balanchine's Symphonie Concertante based on the reconstruction from notation by ABT in 1983. But she never saw the original, which was given only a few performances in 1945. (Croce, pp. 82-85)
Indeed, the difficulty of documenting dance is the subject of lament by all three critics. Croce notes:
Because we have lost many more significant early works besides Cotillon, we will never know how Balanchine's poetic language came into being. (Croce, p. 201)
Denby said that dance photographs "depress" him:
You don't see the change in the movement, so you don't see the rhythm, which makes dancing. The picture represents a dancer, but it doesn't give the emotion that dancing gives as you watch it. (Denby, p. 89)
Yet (perhaps because the historical record is so spotty), Denby rhapsodized over photographs of Nijinsky, which ". . . have more vitality than the dances they remind us of as we now see them on the stage." (Denby, p. 500) Denby also painfully notes the limitations of films of dance:
The motion picture is the only means of accurately recording dancing, but dance lovers are aware of how rarely it projects anything like the dance quality one knows from the theater. (Denby, p. 135)
Siegel laments ". . . the overwhelming and routine loss of the primary evidence on which history is built." (Siegel, p. ix)
The critics considered here all seem to see themselves as recorders of his- /p. 43 tory, but they often disagree about the other roles of critics. Denby never hesitated to offer advice to all players in the dance world. In a typical comment, he chastised the management of the Ballet Russe for providing insufficient rehearsal time and for destroying the talent of the dancers by overworking them. (Denby, p. 38). Yet, by 1944, Denby seemed uncomfortable casting critics as teachers, saying that their role is merely "to notice, to order, to report. . . to put down a sort of portrait of what went on." (Denby, p. 206)
Siegel's reviews avoid such self-reflective observations on the role of the critic. Her introduction seems to characterize them principally as recorders, as reporters. (Siegel, p. x) She avoids offering advice to anyone except other observers. She points to things in the work, implying that if you try looking at things a certain way, you will like them or at least recognize their value. She functions mainly as a teacher, not a judge. Overt critical assessments are rare and tend toward restraint: certain Cunningham works are "satisfying," for example, while his dancers suffer from "expressionless flaccidity." (Siegel, p. 101)
While Siegel's prose is tight and clean, much of Denby's seems simplistic and naive to today's readers: companies are described as dancing "beautifully" and individual dancers as having "excelled." (Denby, p. 39) Costumes are "good." (Denby, p. 47) His earliest review of Balanchine's Apollon (1938) points out elementary features of the ballet that audiences should consider next time they see it. "Did you see how touching it can be to hold a ballerina's extended foot?" (Denby, p. 46). Five years later, he considers such descriptions to have been an explanation and defense of the choreography, and he is pleased that audiences now recognize the genius of the choreography (Denby, p. 109) By 1945, his review of the work added detail of the scenario and the performances. By then, the literary insights that distinguish his criticism had emerged more clearly, as when he says the work
. . . is about poetry, poetry in the sense of a brilliant, sensuous, daring, and powerful activity of our nature. (Denby, p. 329)
That characterization is quoted in 1983 by Croce in an essay on Denby's special place in dance criticism. (Croce, p. 335) Yet Denby also seems ambivalent (or perhaps just modest?) about such metaphorical flights of literary style. Later in 1945, in another piece on Apollo, he offers sweeping characterizations of the importance of the ballet, then abruptly rejects them all in favor of formal properties of movement and music:
But the immediate excitement of watching does not depend on how you choose to rationalize it. Apollo is beautiful as dancing and gloriously danced. (Denby, p. 335)
Croce never hesitates to offer wide-ranging explanations of the works she considers. In her analysis of Twyla Tharp's The Catherine Wheel (Croce, pp. 7-11), she speculates on Tharp's intentions, makes comparisons with the movies, offers readings of the symbolism, and characterizes audience response. Almost nothing seems off-limits. It must be noted, though, that even Siegel drops her usual restraint in an enthusiastic and lengthy analysis of this work. (Siegel, pp. 157-160)
One frustration in reading Denby's criticism is the frequency with which he delivers critical verdicts without giving us much sense of the characteristics of the work or the performance which led him to his conclusions. Comments abound such as "Eglevsky as Apollo was excellent -- he always was an exceptional dancer and this year he is better than ever." (Denby, p. 109) In what ways was he "excellent," "exceptional," "better"? Denby doesn't say. Some might argue that judgments are all just a matter of subjective taste anyway, so his reasons for these verdicts do not matter. But it is difficult to reconcile such a position with Denby's apparent view that there are right and wrong ways to dance and to choreograph, and thus that there are objective standards by which to assess works and performances.
Much of Denby's analysis, true to subjectivist ideals, relies on emotional responses -- whether the choreography provided a "thrill" or "awakened some kind of special feeling," whether it left behind a "secret emotion." (Denby, p. 52) But as he matured as a critic, he increasingly attempted to explain such assessments in terms of objective properties, perceivable in the work, though not without some ambivalence. For example, he criticized a work because the "tension remains the same" throughout. (Denby, p. 53) But his discussion of examples of the static nature of the movement was then followed by a self-deprecating observation that his analysis had been mere "schoolmastering." (Denby, p. 54)
There is no such lack of detail in Croce's writing. Whether or not one agrees with her assessments, there is ample description of the work in terms of perceivable properties to justify her verdicts. This enables interested observers to meaningfully debate her assessments today. Siegel also provides ample description of works. Indeed, her characterizations come as close to verbal notation as we are likely to find in any criticism ever written.
Denby's skepticism -- or at least ambivalence -- about the possibility of objective criticism is not articulated in explicit terms, but his subjectivist leanings are dominant. In a 1949 essay, Denby says that
An intelligent reader learns from a critic not what to think about a piece of art but how to think about it; he finds a way he hadn't thought of using. (Denby, p. 536)
This perspective reflects the subjectivism promoted by philosopher Curt J. Ducasse in his 1929 classic, The Philosophy of Art. Although we do not know whether Denby was familiar with this work, Ducasse's notion of the critic as a teacher who leads us to see things differently is perfectly in accord with Denby's.
Croce seems to lean more toward philosopher Susanne K. Langer, whom she sometimes quotes (e.g., Croce, p. 15). Langer's explorations of dance as a symbolic language have been largely discredited by analytic philosophers, because of the vagueness of her notion /p. 44 of "symbol." But Croce relies instead on a more genial notion of symbol as a device for articulating perspectives on dance, as she connects the work of art with symbols from the culture, the dance world, and the history of dance.
Siegel does not cite philosophers or theorists, but she works in a strong contextualist tradition. That is, a work simply cannot be understood or appreciated or evaluated independently of the historical, social, cultural, political, and artistic context within which the choreographer is working.
Siegel avoids naming favorites and it seems ill-advised to call her an apologist for contemporary dance, whatever the label. She seems instead to write for an audience already open-minded toward experimentation in dance, a readership looking only for guidance in better understanding what is happening.
Much of Siegel's writing documents ". . . the gradual erosion of high art across American culture" (Siegel, p. xv), another much-discussed theme in recent postmodern philosophy. While art was traditionally set apart from ordinary life as the so-called "elite object," recent theorists have rejected this bifurcation of high art and popular culture. (2) Denby's elitism is a stunning example of the object of this postmodern ire. He reviewed a variety of entertainments at the World's Fair of 1938, saying that "It isn't art, but it's something pleasant." (Denby, p. 49) Commercial art, he said, is "the rich manure of our intellectual life." (Denby, p. 66) He dutifully reviewed Broadway dances, which ". . . tend to look like a metronomic drill." (Denby, p. 138) Although he found the Ice-Capades "altogether pleasant" (Denby, p. 141), he went to great lengths in 1944 to explain why Sonja Henie's "skating does not suggest anything like real ballet." (Denby, p. 195) And he explained why the appeal of the Rockettes is different from that of the ballet, concluding, with seeming exasperation,
Well, that's why there are several kinds of dance rhythm to suit different types of the human receiving set. (Denby, p. 202)
Yet he also revealed his openness to multi-cultural dimensions. In 1943, he described "African Negro dancing" as "a completely civilized art" (Denby, p. 183) and La Meri's East Indian rendition of Swan Lake "a distinct success." (Denby, p. 200)
Croce too invests time and energy in analyzing popular art forms, especially the movies and Broadway, but without Denby's condescension. Her work on Fred Astaire is legendary and continues in this collection (e.g., Croce, pp. 133-138). But she struggles, with unveiled exasperation, to make sense of contemporary Butoh ("dark soul dance"), politically inspired Japanese dance-mime. (Croce, pp. 222-223)
Though Siegel's collection is not intended as a comprehensive retrospective of the seventies, her anti-elitism is pervasive. She will review just about anything offered by the postmodern or post-postmodern generation of dancers. Implicitly, she seems to subscribe to the postmodern view of art as anything an artist says it is. At the least, she will take a look at it. Her collection gives us a good look too. She includes 38 black-and-white photographs of the works she discusses, as well as a "Selected Filmography" with useful information on where the videos can be obtained or viewed.
Indeed, all three volumes discussed here are worth looking at. They give us a rare opportunity to trace critical perceptions of dance over a remarkable half century. But the precise status of the criticism -- as data about works or only about the mind of the critic -- remains the subject of intriguing controversy.
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