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TV REVIEW : Gaps in Eurocentric View of 20th-Century 'Dance'

March 05, 1994|LEWIS SEGAL | TIMES DANCE WRITER

No matter how much dance you've seen, you'll discover archival treasures galore in "Dance of the Century," the five-part documentary that kicks off on Bravo cable today at 4 p.m. Sadly, much of this priceless footage has been cut to snippets to illustrate an arrogantly Eurocentric thesis on 20th-Century dance history.

Jump-cutting from dance performances to newsreel violence is the favorite method of writer-director Sonia Schoonejans to link cultural achievements with social and political events. These arbitrary juxtapositions prove crudely effective, but can't camouflage crucial gaps in her world view.

Although the 20th Century has been an epoch in which major artists all over the world formed dance companies to display and preserve unique, imperiled traditions, you'll find no mention of such figures as Uday Shankar, Amalia Hernandez or even Igor Moiseyev in this 1992 European co-production. No, to Schoonejans, non-white cultures are only worth acknowledging when they directly influence European art.

Indeed, her view of America is similarly skewed in favor of expatriates who danced extensively in Europe or those U.S. choreographers who inspired Europeans in some way. So Karole Armitage looms larger than Paul Taylor in this "Century" and Katherine Dunham doesn't exist.

Mistranslations are frequent enough in the English narration (spoken by former Royal Ballet luminary Lynn Seymour) that some of the most bizarre statements may well be accidents. For instance, while we watch Terese Capucilli dance the Martha Graham role in "Errand Into the Maze," Seymour calls Graham's work the story of "a man lost in the labyrinth of the unconscious." A man?

Not so incidentally, Capucilli is never identified and neither are nearly all the dancers in the series. However, every archive and company that sold those dancers' images receives credit.

Below: capsule descriptions of the episodes with their initial Bravo airdates:

"From Romantic to Neoclassical Ballet" (today). Forget the outrageous misconceptions of Fokine, Ashton and Bejart--or the way music has been badly synchronized with silent films. This account of the Diaghilev era and its aftermath contains invaluable footage of groundbreaking ballets.

"Abstract Ballet: From Academical to Classical Abstraction" (next Saturday). Taking a revealing approach to familiar material, this episode focuses on George Balanchine but pointedly shows what happened under the Soviets to those artists who were his early influences and colleagues in Russia. Yet beware: According to Schoonejans, the inheritor of the Balanchine aesthetic is Frankfurt maverick William Forsythe.

*

"From Free Dance to Dance Theatre: German Expressionism" (June 18). The least familiar subject to American audiences, this fascinating survey of the careers of Rudolf von Laban, Mary Wigman and Kurt Jooss shows dance and history really intersecting--for once validating Schoonejans' approach.

"From Modernism to Post-Modernism: American Dance" (June 25). Full of clips that contradict Schoonejans' conclusions, this highly warped consideration of U.S. innovation at least provides a useful souvenir of choreographers in her pantheon--notably Lucinda Childs and Trisha Brown.

"Contemporary Dance: The Explosion" (July 2). Directed by Luc Riolon, this delirious compendium of Eurotrash attempts to place France in the forefront of new choreography, but lacks the evidence. An unyielding obsession with gesture, character-dance technique and the exaltation of eccentricity just isn't enough to crown 96 years of dance achievement--not even when hyped by narration so overblown it qualifies as neo-biblical.

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