BOOK REVIEW: DANCE IN AMERICA

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Someone you know wants to give you a book. Maybe it’s a late holiday gift, or an early birthday present. Maybe it’s your mother, or a long-term friend. This is the book you want them to give you.

“Dance in America” is a fantastic collection of writings about dance as it’s been practiced in the US from pre-colonial times to the moment of publication (2018). It’s part of the Library of America collection, which includes anthologies on a myriad of topics, but it doesn’t feel like it’s part of a series.  Instead, it’s a highly-refined accumulation of dance writing. As someone who has worked to translate a kinetic experience into prose for many years, I’m always aware of how hard that task is – the authors in this collection approach their topic from many different points of view, but they share a clarity of description and analysis, contrasted by their highly personal writing styles. This anthology is a dance education all on its own, but it doesn’t read like a textbook.

The old stereotype, that dancers don’t know how to talk (or write, for that matter), is pretty much exploded here. There are plenty of artists speaking about their own work, and occasionally about their colleagues. George Balanchine puts his finger on a fundamental truth about the artform when he says “the public wants new things, even if it does not know what they are,” and Mikhail Baryshnikov gives his opinion about Balanchine’s “new things” in his own appreciation of the choreographer. Paul Taylor is both descriptive, in his observation of Merce Cunningham’s choreography (“Presumably, the dances were not about anything, and as performers, we were to execute rather than interpret”) and sly when talking about his own choreography (“I was taking a stand for brainlessness and physical fluff”).

For those of us that spend most of our time considering dance in a concert setting, there are wonderful reminders that movement pervades all parts of our lives. In some cases, an insider perspective is the only record we have of a dance practice. Black Elk’s description of the sacred dances of the Oglala Dakota came from his role as a religious leader in his community, while George Catlin’s discussion of the Mandan tribe of the upper Missouri was from an outsider’s point of view, but today they both help us understand a dance culture we are in danger of losing altogether. George Washington Cable describes the grand social dances of Congo Square in 1886, while Carl Van Vechten talks about the evolution of the Lindy Hop in 1930. 

There are the authors you would expect in an overview of American dance writing – plenty of Arlene Croce, Lincoln Kirstein, and Alastair Macaulay. Then there are a good number of people you may have never heard of: Christopher Caines appreciation of Antony Tudor is an evocative look at a choreographer quickly becoming unseen; H.T. Parker wrote about the arts in Boston at the early part of the 20th century, including incisive descriptions of Isadora Duncan and Anna Pavlova; while Megan Pugh examines what makes dancing American at the beginning of the 21st century.

And there are some authors you probably would never think had written anything about dance at all.  W.H. Auden talks about Nutcracker, John Updike profiles Gene Kelly, and Ralph Waldo Emerson discusses the moral quality of the Romantic Era ballerina Fanny Elssler.

One of the reasons that this book does not have the “good for you” flavor of a textbook is its organization. Instead of using a chronological structure, or some kind of thematic device, it relies on the alphabet, sorting the essays by author. From “A” (Joan Acocella, Jack Anderson, and Auden) to “W” (Edmund Wilson), the alphabet makes fascinating neighbors out of some writers who otherwise would likely never have shared the same space. Charles Dickens, whose vivid description of an evening in the Five Points neighborhood watching Black dancers, thrilled by their skills and disgusted by their ghastly living conditions, is framed by the lucid and evocative prose of Edwin Denby and Emily Dickinson’s intoxicating poem “I cannot dance upon my toes.”  Some of the connections are absolutely right – Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston sit next to each other, and Deborah Jowitt follows Jill Johnston in the table of contents, just as she followed her as the chief dance critic for the Village Voice.

At just over 650 pages, it’s hard to complain about what might be missing from “Dance in America,” but it would have been nice to see something substantial from John Martin, who was the critic for the New York Times during the early days of American modern dance. (The NYT still holds copyright for that material). Likewise it would be wonderful to read more from the back issues of Dance Magazine, which made a significant effort to cover dance outside of New York, especially during the burgeoning of the dance boom in the 1970s. And as someone who grew up on the west coast, it was frustrating not to see that part of the dance world represented.    

Despite those empty spots, the biggest treat is the love and exasperation that these writers have for the art form. Taylor quotes an early (and painful) review by Martin on a mixed bill program: “something against every taste.”  After years of writing about Cunningham’s work, Marcia Siegel observes that “he gave hundreds of interviews, answering questions graciously, and dodging them adroitly.” And Agnes deMille, who was both a writer and a choreographer, insisted that “dancing is an honorable profession,” at a time when that was still in question.

The sweetest observation, though, is probably from David Vaughan, talking about taking class from Anatole Obukhov. “I always hoped he knew how much I wanted to be as good as he wanted us to be.”

Dance in America, A Reader’s Anthology
Mindy Aloff, editor
Library of America 2018

One comment

  1. Left a sweet taste in ‘mouth’ – “David Vaughan, talking about taking class from Anatole Obukhov. “I always hoped he knew how much I wanted to be as good as he wanted us to be.””

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