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.

Some American contributions toward the evolution of the movement art are considered in Part 3. "Dance in the City: Toward an American Dance" discusses what defined American dance in New York City from the 1940s to the '60s. At the beginning of this period, dance was American on account of its music by American composers, and plots concerning American locales and themes. Supposedly, the tie between selected mid century works by Martha Graham and George Balanchine and this country was the vogue for psychology, and choreographers melded psychological themes into masterworks. This interpretation is hard to accept, however, given each of these artists' remarks about their own compositions. Balanchine very likely would have agreed with Martha Graham when she said, "My dancing is just dancing. It is not an attempt to interpret life."

The essay is persuasive in linking the 1960s' freedom of choreographic method, which gave dancers a chance to collaborate with the choreographer in celebration of equality. Freedom fed aesthetics in the next decade, as well, in that specialized stages and training were rejected, and the definition of dance widened to incorporate pedestrian spaces and movements.

A particular contribution of New York City has been its dance companies. Read "American Ballet Theater 2001" and "Dance for a City: Fifty Years of the New York City Ballet" and compare their directors and choice of repertory to understand each company's unique contribution. We are told that the New York City Ballet "raised technique to dizzying heights of virtuosity and defined an American classical style. It has seeded innumerable companies, supplying them not only with distinguished repertory but also with gifted choreographers, and artistic directors. In all but name, only NYCB is the country's national showcase for ballet."

In all her analysis of dancers and choreographers, Garafola recognizes that the art is sustained by a lay audience. She considers herself a populist, and this comes across to advantage in her historical method. Reception history is often difficult to write, if it is possible to write at all, because of the necessity of combing literature horizontally for reactions that might never have been recorded in the first place. Yet reception is valuable for the arts, where tastes change. We sharpen our vision by peering through the lens of historical context. Garafola seeks out this context, and might comment on whether a concert hall was full, for example, or who was in the audience, or what the reaction was to a particular performance.

Reading Legacies could not help but increase your understanding and hence your enjoyment of the movement art. In return, your own role in shaping this art potentially is much greater. Dance is a business, especially in this time of restricted government funding, and it must respond to audiences to stay solvent. Consider your attendance dollars to be your unpublished criticism. Your reaction to a particular performance whether by applause or comments urging friends to attend might affect indirectly choreographers' choices as to performance length, style, and repertory. So when you do attend, you might in some way influence the course of dance history and shape the legacy yourself.

Judith Gelernter, who teaches in the library and information science program at Rutgers, writes frequently about dance.

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