The growing catalog of dance on home video not only provides souvenirs of some of our favorite artists and works, but whole worlds of dance that seldom reach local stages. Two recent releases are especially noteworthy for linking the search for new forms of modern dance expression to the legacy of the art's pioneers.
Summarized in a set of three cassettes from Mystic Fire Video, the distinguished choreographic career of Jean Erdman bridges the gap between the founders of American modern dance and the generation that rejected linear narrative and psychological characterization for an intuitive style of poetic abstraction grounded in myth.
Erdman was born in Hawaii 80 years ago, studied Polynesian and Japanese dance forms there and by 1938 had become proficient enough in modern dance to join the Martha Graham company. She also married social anthropologist Joseph Campbell the same year (actually, the same week) and in 1941 started presenting her own choreography. "Dance and Myth: The World of Jean Erdman" focuses on the 1940s and '50s, mixing archival footage with more recent interviews, coaching sessions and performances of 11 works.
The body language of Graham and the cultural perspectives of Campbell prove major influences on these pieces, though it's unfair to suggest that Erdman simply read her husband's books on mythology and set out to create Campbellesque choreography. Rather they both sought the structures and themes common to all societies, with Erdman increasingly making dances related to a cycle of birth, triumph, destruction and renewal.
Directed by Celia Ipiotis of the long-running PBS "Eye on Dance" series, Part 1 finds Erdman's dancers looking lost in space due to the dead-black backdrops and floors; worse, their interpretations appear dutiful compared to the glimpses of Erdman's own performances in antique black-and-white footage. Her superb wildness in the solo "Ophelia" (1946), for example, is scarcely matched by Leslie Dillingham's numb diligence.
But "Ophelia" and other early works boast a secret weapon: wonderful, unfamiliar music by John Cage and Lou Harrison, among others. For instance, the trio "Daughters of the Lonesome Isle" simultaneously depicts different stages in a woman's life, with Cage's prepared piano resourcefully evoking many contrasting sound-scapes.
Composer Henry Cowell takes on the same kind of challenge for "Changingwoman" (1951), a solo on Part 3 that dramatizes female endurance by setting Dillingham against a number of projected nature-backdrops, switching the movement vocabulary each time and adding a new signature sound for the dancer to make.
This concept of woman as the measure of all things dominates Parts 2 and 3, both directed by Dan Berkowitz and Erdman specialist Nancy Allison with an emphasis on presenting the dances in full-stage shots. Of course, the epic feminism that Erdman espouses connects her to Graham and other early modernist icons, but her depiction of the regenerative power of women in a world dominated by male brutality also brings her in sync with many of the major figures in contemporary German tanztheater (dance theater).
Beginning in the late 1960s, but with roots going back much earlier, this controversial idiom is given a brisk, uneven overview in "European Dance Theater," a new documentary by Harold Bergsohn and Isa Partsch-Bergsohn for Dance Horizons Video.
Only a few of the two dozen works excerpted here have ever been seen locally: Kurt Jooss' "The Green Table" (a precursor from the early '30s), Pina Bausch's "The Rite of Spring," Sasha Waltz's "Travelogue: Twenty to Eight" and, most recently, Daniel Goldin's "Paper Children."
Unfortunately, the excerpts are so fragmentary, especially in the first half, that they make no effect whatsoever. With a half-hour more dance footage and not one additional sound bite telling us what to think, this very ambitious project might have been engrossing to dance audiences as well as instructive to dance students.
And even the students may be turned off by the endless, unconvincing attempts to explain exactly what tanztheater is and why it's different.
Maybe they should have asked Erdman. On one of her tapes, she unintentionally supplies as good a definition as any: "We all decide what we think dancing is independently, and everybody's right."
* "Dance and Myth: The World of Jean Erdman, Parts 1-3," Mystic Fire Video, P.O. Box 422, New York, NY 10012-9687. $29.95 each, $79.95 for the set. (800) 292-9001. "European Dance Theater," Dance Horizons Video, Princeton Book Publishers, P.O. Box 57, Pennington, NJ 08534. $49.95. (800) 220-7149.