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Looking at the Dance

WRITING IN THE DARK, DANCING IN THE NEW YORKER By Arlene Croce; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 768 pp., $30

November 19, 2000|LYNN GARAFOLA | Lynn Garafola is the author of "Diaghilev's Ballets Russes" and curator of the exhibition "Dance for a City: Fifty Years of the New York City Ballet."

In 1973, when Arlene Croce, the dean of American dance critics for the last quarter century, began writing for The New Yorker, the dance boom was at its peak. The public appetite for dance, from the most traditional forms of ballet to the most experimental postmodern varieties, seemed insatiable. "Uptown" dance was exploding throughout the American mainstream; "downtown" dance was sinking roots in former hippie enclaves. With the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts, the number of dance companies soared, new venues came into being and choreographers, like audiences, proliferated.

Twenty-three years later, in 1996, when Croce gave up her column, that world had vanished. Its titans--George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins, Robert Joffrey, Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, Agnes de Mille, Alvin Ailey--were inactive or no more, and the companies that survived them had either changed identity or ceased to perform. New choreographers had come on the scene, and new artistic and moral imperatives like multiculturalism had replaced the old verities. Huge sums were being spent on "Draculas" and other evening-long clinkers while companies disbanded, and dance studios were swallowed up by the real estate market.

"Writing in the Dark, Dancing in The New Yorker" is Croce's fourth collection of criticism. Unlike its predecessors, it spans the whole of her time at the magazine, registering the shifts and tides of a quarter of a century. What is lost in depth is gained in breadth, in being able to trace the full arc of the period, its premieres, discoveries, trends and failures. But for all the history packed into these hundreds of pages, "Writing in the Dark" is a kind of memoir, the journey of a powerful critical intellect from passionate engagement with her subject to voluntary renunciation of the act of criticism. "Is dance really alive when nearly everything that happens is a version of something that has already happened?" she asks in 1990. By decade's end, with her eyes increasingly trained on the past, dance seems alive only in the palimpsest of memory.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 10, 2000 Home Edition Book Review Page 2 Book Review Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
The feet of the dancer in the photograph that accompanied the review of "Writing In The Dark, Dancing In The New Yorker" by Arlene Croce (Book Review, Nov. 19) were misidentified. They are the feet of Vikkia Lambert who, at the time, was with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, now retired from the company.

Born in Providence, R.I., Croce moved to New York as a college student in the 1950s. She reveled in the city, its theaters, art houses and burgeoning avant-garde scene. She wrote her first criticism for Film Culture and Film Quarterly. She saw Merce Cunningham, Graham and the Bolshoi. And she fell in love with Balanchine's New York City Ballet. By 1957 she had become a self-confessed "addict," one of those hyperactive "balletomanes" or "ballet fanatics" who comprised the "insider" audience for Ballet Review, the journal she founded in 1965. In 1972, she published her only full-length work (apart from collections of criticism), "The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book." By 1973, when she started writing for The New Yorker, she had nearly two decades of dance-going behind her, the sharpest eye in the business and a pen to match.

Croce was at her best in the 1970s; for the first time she had a mainstream platform for her work, a venue with a belletristic tradition and limitless freedom for its writers. Her excitement is palpable in the opening pages of "Writing in the Dark." How much dance there was to see, and what passion it kindled! Croce summons up her gods with silver-tongued magic. Of Mikhail Baryshnikov just before his 1974 defection from the Kirov Ballet: "Perhaps his greatest gift is his sense of fantasy in classical gesture." And soon after that momentous event, of his performance in "Giselle" with American Ballet Theatre: "The dancing pours out of him as if in a fever of pent-up eloquence." Of Suzanne Farrell, Balanchine's great muse, when she returned to the New York City Ballet in 1975: "Your eye gorges on her variety, your heart stops at the brink of every precipice." And of Farrell's farewell performance in "Vienna Waltzes" in 1989, when an era seemed to come to an end: "[I]t was an unadulterated Farrell performance, with enough of the old touchstones . . . to hold us awe-struck: the anguishing in her partner's arm, . . . the sudden quiet melt to the floor as the big melody is about to enter and her partner comes to claim her and, finally and unforgettably, the back-bent exit into the wings."

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