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Pointes of View

From the classics to the avant-garde in modern dance.

Feb 13, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 21 • By JUDITH GELERNTER
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Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance

by Lynn Garafola

Wesleyan, 445 pp., $27.95

A LEGACY PART IN A computer is outmoded and wants to be replaced because it prevents the system from running at peak efficiency. A legacy characteristic in the arts is almost the opposite: It has resisted replacement, and stands to raise the artwork above the tides of taste to the timelessness of the classic. Recognizing legacy strains serves to deepen understanding of the arts, and reading Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance could help. It reprints some 20 years of research essays and book and performance reviews written by one of the country's foremost dance historians.

Lynn Garafola's dissertation on Diaghilev's Ballets Russes was published in 1989, and the same year won the De la Torre Bueno Prize, awarded annually for a distinguished original work of dance scholarship. Her career has included lecturing and curating exhibitions. She co-curated America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures, the exhibition that was up last summer at the Vincent Astor Gallery of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. She is an editor of Dance Magazine and professor in the department of dance at Barnard College/Columbia University.

Legacies demonstrates strong writing and scholarship. Savor vivid metaphors, such as "pointes of iron" to describe the strong toes of virtuosic Balanchine ballerinas, "mechanical centipede" to describe a group of dancers in a stylized rond de jambe from a low bend, or even "human padding" to describe too many dancers on stage at once. Garafola's command of the field is demonstrated not only in main arguments but even in background asides. An essay on the Kirov, for example, includes an explanation of the ballet blanc more useful than the entry on the same topic found in the Oxford Dictionary of Dance. The text's citation of primary as well as secondary sources in endnotes following research essays provides scholarly trappings only recently assumed in the young field of dance history.

Legacies divides thematically into The Ballet Russes and Beyond (Part 1), Reconfiguring the Sexes (Part 2), Dance in New York (Part 3), and Staging the Past (Part 4). Given that component essays were taken from other publications, it is not surprising that the connection of each essay with its parent part, and with the others, is loose. More surprising is that the illustrations also are largely independent of the essays. The preface calls the illustrations a scrapbook, some of which relate to essays and others of which were selected just because the author likes them. The loose association among components gives the reader freedom to flip through photos and essays of interest without missing key story threads.

Why not let this review suggest those essays most arresting from the standpoint of dance history? Start with "The Diaries of Marius Petipa," published as an introduction to Garafola's translation of the diaries. One of this choreographer's achievements is that works such as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Giselle remain in repertory today. The essay remarks on what can be found in the diaries as to the dating and evolution of certain Petipa ballets, the backstage politics that attended their production, and the audience reaction.

The extravagance of ballet in the 19th century was curtailed in the next, and some ideas behind the new look are discussed in "Design and the Idea of the Modern in Early Twentieth-Century Ballet." Many works performed by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes retained the classical movement vocabulary, but broke with musical, choreographic, and scenic conventions. Avant-garde choreographers in the decades that followed moved further from plot and toward pure abstraction.

Aesthetics is affected by danseur and danseuse roles, body types, costumes, partnering, and technique, as well as ideas, and these are the subject of Part 2, Reconfiguring the Sexes. In "Choreography by Nijinska," Garafola remarks on how Nijinska's stylized classical technique made the traditional seem unfamiliar. Part 4, on Staging the Past, considers the related question of how aesthetics weather over time. Here we find a description of Nijinska's revived Le Train Bleu, which is in the Oakland Ballet's current repertory. The work was reconstructed from the memories of four of the ballet's principal dancers, Diaghilev's notes in the score, the staging directions of librettist Jean Cocteau, and numerous photographs.

The essay raises a question often repeated by performance scholars: What makes a performance authentic? Whereas today authenticity is equated with photocopy sameness, Garafola explains, artists of the stature of Petipa and Balanchine freely cut, added, and altered the choreography. The identity of an early ballet derived less from the choreography than from the libretto, and later, from its musical score.