Dancing in the Light

Dance Books That Actually Capture Modern Dance

I do everything I can to avoid dance books, and if someone gives me one, I say, “Thank you,” then promptly shove it to the back of the books-to-read pile that makes my shelf sag. Life is too short, and most dance books are too long and deadly. Books by dance academics, for instance, tend to serve up warmed-over semiotics or so-called political theory, discussing, say, the “the hegemony of plies” or “the creation of false value in heterosexual partnering as exemplified in the work of Balanchine.” Reading such books is like viewing dance from an alien spaceship. Then there are the nonacademic dance books. Even many of the classics of the literature offer hours of fusty or precious reading. They wear me out.

But my dilemma is really deeper. It is this: There is a divide the size of the Grand Canyon between the actuality of dance and what writers say about it. Dance is the only Western art form that remains fundamentally an oral and mimetic tradition, passed on from teacher to student and choreographer to dancer. Actors have their plays. Musicians have their scores. Dancers have each other. The form is essentially premodern, even pre-Guttenberg. Why it is so hard to write about dance with verisimilitude is because it evaporates second by second with almost no record. But — and this is crucial — that evanescence is inseparable from its magic. When I read about the art, I want that magic captured. It rarely is.

Three recent dance books may alter my reading habits. They may even change my mind about the future of dance literature. Their triumph is that each, from radically different vantages, captures dance as dance. They are Arlene Croce’s anthology of reviews, Writing in the Dark, Dancing in the New Yorker, Ralph Lemon’s memoir, Geography, Art/Race/Exile; and editors Jeffrey Escoffier and Matthew Lore’s Mark Morris’ L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, A Celebration, with essays by Joan Acocella, Allistair Macaulay, and Wendy Lesser, along with photos by 17 photographers. They offer hope in a field where, for me, there has been little.

From 1973 to 1998, Arlene Croce was the dance reviewer at the New Yorker, educating thousands of literate readers about dance — particularly ballet and especially the rise and reign of George Balanchine, artistic director of the New York City Ballet. For many of us, Croce and her predecessor, Edwin Denby, remain the king and queen of dance writing. Denby brought his poet’s eye and dancer’s intimate expertise to everything he saw. But for many, it was Croce with her cool philosophical bent, whose criticism was as much an analysis of culture and ideas as it was a record of dance, who really mattered and made dance matter, because she created broad public conversation about the art form. This collection contains 105 reviews first published in the magazine.

A Celebration is a coffee table book with an aesthetic élan and critical acuity rarely associated with the show-pieces piled on granite and glass in living rooms. It truly is a celebration of a dance — almost a memento mori, so lovingly and passionately does it evoke Mark Morris’ landmark 1988 dance/opera, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (The happy, the pensive, and the prudent). Although design credit for the book is inexplicably missing, and the photos are sadly grainy, the book is radiant, like the dance. It makes stunning use of deep Rothko-esque colored plates that mimic the stage production’s scenic design. And there is a lyrical play between the dance photos, William Blake’s engravings, three essays, and the pull-quotes that subtly echo the interplay of voice, text, and movement in the actual dance.

Many claim that L’Allegro is the most ambitious and loving marriage of music (Handel), text (Milton and Jennens), and movement (Morris) in a generation or more. The book lovingly mirrors that marriage. What is more, it makes Morris’ achievement palpable even to the unconverted, those whose lives, like mine, were not forever altered by the dance — as these writers and editors each claim.

Geography is a visually stunning and idiosyncratic record of choreographer Ralph Lemon’s often painful, often lonely odyssey to Haiti and Africa. As a memoir, it serves as a fulcrum between the journey and the full-length dance triptych also called “Geography,” giving readers not only a behind-the-scenes view of the dance but an into-the-soul look at an artist, whose life is inseparable from his work. The pleasure of the book is immediate: On the brilliant lettuce-colored book jacket, there is an enigmatic photo of a small, black-headed female figurine in green grass. The mystery and irony of that object in two distinct fields of green captures wonderfully the moody, witty, oblique interior with its array of dreams, stories, choreographic scores, reproductions of Lemon’s own beautiful pastel drawings (a sink he puked in, a fan that cooled him, his bed in Abidjan) and performance photographs. If one ever thought producing dance was easy, or that the journey to understanding one’s relationship to race, place, body, dance, and self was a straight and simple line, Lemon gives the lie to it.

Each of these books is on its own a work of art that expresses and captures something essential about dance. Croce’s volume, at 7 1/2 inches high and 745 pages long, seems a cross between a prayer book and an Oxford-style reference work. This is apt. With the eye of a Platonist, she is able to assess dance against a realm of ideal forms dance strives to embody. “It is part of Balanchine’s genius to make the extraordinary seem natural,” she writes in an essay “Free and More than Equal” on the groundbreaking role the choreographer gave to women. One could say the same of Croce. The collection, pierced through with vision and distilled by knowledge, creates the same clear pictures the best dance provides. Croce witnessed so much dance during her three decades at the New Yorker that her record is also an important historical reference to a past era.

A Celebration, by contrast, is broad, physically engaging, and Dionysian in spirit, which matches what editors Escoffier and Lore call Morris’ “great big thing of a dance.” And like the dance/opera, the book is easy to enter and can be flipped through or studied, or both. This is as it should be for Morris, whose muse is the music, whose movement makes physical the sound, and for whom ideas are submerged in the sensuality of the dance. Acocella’s essay, “A Silvered World,” opens the book on an airy two-page spread with giant space between lines and is offset by Blake’s engraving of “Wand’ring Moon,” whereas Macaulay’s and Lesser’s essays are tucked into the end of the volume, making bookends of the intellectual material, while the corpus of the book is a vibrant visual and rhythmic exchange.

Geography, the most jagged and fragmentary of the three, is the one most like a dance itself. Reading it, one goes with Lemon on a journey both through space and states of being, recapturing, magically, the quality of Lemon’s brainy, beautiful, but unresolved dances, which inevitably manage to snare me with a dozen little hooks and won’t let me go.

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