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Modern Dance And Ballet: Uneasy Truce

September 15, 1985|LEWIS SEGAL

When the Joffrey Ballet introduces its production of Pilobolus' popular "Untitled" on Sept. 26 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the performance will mark a new chapter in the stormy, improbable relationship between ballet and modern dance in America.

Up to now, the pre-existing modern dance works acquired by ballet companies have at least shared with ballet a dependence on steps. No longer: Pilobolus' style is based on physical images derived from non-choreographic systems of motion such as gymnastics and other athletic disciplines. It is a style of metaphorical movement theater unrelated to the techniques of classical ballet or previous modern dance. There has even been debate about whether it is dance at all.

Today, of course, when only the disciples of the late George Balanchine seem to stay faithful to the pure classical muse, most balletomanes concede that modern dance adds spice to their repertory diet of 19th-Century revivals and increasingly predictable neoclassic music visualizations. Thus even the most iconoclastic modern dance choreographers frequently move from their own companies to guest affiliations with major ballet troupes.

Twyla Tharp, for instance, has worked with the Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet while maintaining the ensemble that bears her name. Laura Dean, David Gordon and Pilobolus co-founder Moses Pendleton have also fashioned pieces for the capabilities of ballet dancers while moonlighting away from the world of modern dance.

However, a few decades ago it would have been inconceivable for modern dance innovators to have ventured into what was generally perceived as enemy territory. Ballet and modern dance were then considered opposites, at the conservative and radical extremes, respectively, of the dance world.

Ballet had the glamour and grandeur of a 350-year-old imperial tradition, while modern dance had a depth and daring born of rugged individualism. The former idiom denied weight; its technique exalted the floating woman, the leaping man. The latter glorified weight; it found primal drama in human resistance to gravitational force. Between these conflicting dance disciplines and philosophies there could be no rapprochement .

Possibly the most dramatic confrontation between the hostile factions of ballet and modern dance took place on Feb. 20, 1931, at the New School for Social Research in New York. Martha Graham and her company were giving a lecture/demonstration moderated by New York Times dance critic John Martin, and in the audience was the great Ballets Russes choreographer Mikhail Fokine. At 36, Graham had just created "Primitive Mysteries" but had yet to produce most of the works now recognized as her masterpieces. At 50, Fokine had done his most celebrated work--"Les Sylphides," "The Firebird" and "Petrushka"--fully two decades earlier.

According to the account in his "Memoirs of a Ballet Master," Fokine thought "Miss Graham looked like a fanatical prophetess. It seemed that her whole appearance rejected as a matter of principle any sign of femininity and beauty. . . ."

He found her dances "ugly in form and hateful in spirit," slow in tempo, sad in expression "and nearly all the time angry. The fists were clenched. The head and body made the kind of movements that dogs make when barking.

"I thought: 'Barking girls . . . this is not only a cult of grief but a cult of hatred as well.' "

Vexed to the utmost, Fokine was able to keep his opinions to himself--until Graham made what he regarded as a sarcastic remark about Anna Pavlova and also proclaimed that "When ballet performs a Grecian dance it becomes horrible."

That did it: The choreographer of those explicitly Grecian ballets "Narcisse" and "Daphnis et Chloe" started to ask questions--leading questions, nasty questions--though he never got around to identifying himself.

Attempting to prove modern dance "contrary to nature," Fokine parodied Graham's use of the arms and shoulders. Graham didn't recognize Fokine and told him: "You don't know anything about body movements." Later on, she stood derisively in fifth position to demonstrate balletic artificiality. He then told her she knew nothing about ballet.

Eventually Martin intervened. "Mr. Fokine," he began, "we cannot continue this argument. Ballet has had its chance of saying what it had to say during three centuries, so the modern dance has a right to talk for three weeks."

At the mention of Fokine's name, Graham flushed. But she immediately recovered and, looking straight at him, made a statement that confirmed the prevailing view of the distance between her art and his: "We shall never understand each other," she said.

So it seemed for much of the next quarter-century, for when ballet and modern dance did occasionally come together--as in Merce Cunningham's "The Seasons" for Ballet Society in 1947--the latter inevitably compromised its identity in service to the former.

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