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Dance's leap of faith

No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century; Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick; Yale University Press: 928 pp., $50

November 16, 2003|Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout is the author of "The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken" and a forthcoming book on George Balanchine. He is a drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and music critic for Commentary. He also writes about the arts at www.terryteachout.com.

Is dance a major art form? By all rights, the question ought to be absurd. Terpsichore, after all, was one of the muses of Greek mythology, and for much of the 20th century she seemed to have taken up residence at ground zero of the modern movement in the arts. Isadora Duncan and Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes put her there, Martha Graham and Antony Tudor kept her there and the "dance boom" of the '60s and '70s seemed to establish for all time that ballet and modern dance were just as significant as literature, music and painting.

No more. Now that the giants of 20th century dance are mostly dead or retired and the dance boom has become a thing of the rapidly receding past, it's tempting to wonder whether the whole thing might have been a gorgeous, insubstantial dream. Although every first-class American city has its symphony orchestras and museums, there are still plenty of major metropolitan areas (Los Angeles, alas, foremost among them) where ballet has never managed to set down secure institutional roots. Mark Morris, the world's most important choreographer under 50, once speculated that the modern-dance idiom in which he works might be nothing more than a passing phase in the history of art, going so far as to compare it to Marxism.

For all these reasons, dance buffs will find it informative and heartening to read "No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century," a tombstone-sized, profusely illustrated history that declares theatrical dance to be "an independent art to be reckoned with and a new humanistic discipline." Those are fighting words, aesthetically speaking, and Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick back them up with an avalanche of lucidly presented, convincingly interpreted facts. To invert a line from the film "Sunset Boulevard," today's choreographers may have gotten small, but you can't put down "No Fixed Points" without realizing that their art form once was very, very big.

As a rule, comprehensive survey histories are approximately as readable as automotive repair guides, but "No Fixed Points" is the intellectual equivalent of a page-turner. The prose isn't fancy but it is clear and direct, and although this isn't a critical history of dance per se, the authors rarely make the mistake of lapsing into the sort of whatever-is-is-right advocacy that renders most such books flabby and useless. They know who all the superior artists were -- and they say so and say why.

At the book's heart is George Balanchine, Diaghilev's last choreographer, co-founder of New York City Ballet and creator of such modern classics as "Apollo," "Serenade," "Concerto Barocco," "Symphony in C" and "The Four Temperaments." He gets the most space and the highest praise, which is pretty much what you'd expect from Reynolds, a former NYCB dancer who wrote the 1977 book "Repertory in Review," the standard history of the company and its ballets, and now is director of research for the George Balanchine Foundation.

Whatever the overall standing of dance among the fine arts, there can be no possible doubt that Balanchine himself was an artist of the very highest rank -- as great as Stravinsky or Matisse, in my far-from-unique opinion. "No Fixed Points" does him justice, not least by correctly placing his "plotless" ballets (a term he preferred to "abstract") in the larger context of modernism:

"Picasso, Joyce, Stein, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ionesco, Beckett, all fractionalized the image -- the wholeness -- of conventional structures to express a different reality. Balanchine, while retaining, unlike the others, the underpinnings of his medium -- the classical [ballet] canon -- like them stripped away traditional contexts to reveal that his reality of dance was dance ... his contribution is a logical development in cultural history, representative not of dance alone but of a twentieth-century point of view."

Yet Reynolds and McCormick, an ex-dancer and costume designer, take care to do equally well by all the other key figures in 20th century dance, summarizing their characteristics and achievements with admirable concision. Take, for instance, this crisp description of Morris dancing a drag role in the 1983 ballet "Deck of Cards": "He made no effort to hide the fact that he was a man, allowing the sinewy lyricism that came naturally to his bulky frame free play in feminine gestures -- in a sense, revealing two genders in one body." Or this wonderfully compact summary of why novices find Merce Cunningham's proto-postmodern choreography so hard to grasp: "His disregard for unity and his elimination of what he felt were extraneous elements -- story line, emotion, self-expressive symbolism, glamorous theatrical accessories -- produced a pared-down system of pure movement and style of presentation that audiences were unprepared for, not dissimilar to Balanchine's neoclassical reductionism in ballet."

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