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WHAT'S wrong with the word "dansical"? Too obvious, perhaps? Words, words, words. The naming of things is a task found essential even by Adam in the Garden of Eden. As my friend and sometime mentor Edwin Denby once remarked to me, one of the difficulties of writing about dance is the lack of a generally accepted aesthetic vocabulary. I suppose my own generation of dance writers has contributed certain words and phrases that make the discussion of dance a little easier. I think I popularized the use of the phrase "dance image"--more concrete but less poetic than Arlene Croce's "afterimage'--although the phrase had been introduced a little earlier by the late British dance critic Fernau Hall. I am also pretty, sure I first coined the term "plotless" as a more viable alternative to "abstract," making the point nearly fifty years ago in an article in the British magazine The Spectator that you cannot have "abstract" ballet without abstract dancers.

HOWEVER, my more recent attempt to introduce the word "dansical" into the language of dance has so far met with scant response. In somber fact I think I am the only person in the world using it. A pity, for we do need to find a new definition for a new form in theatrical dance--a Broadway-style musical in which there are no singers and no actors, only dancers. It is not a musical, as such. And it's not exactly a ballet, any more than a Broadway musical is exactly an opera. So what is it, exactly? It is simply a popular theatrical entertainment in which dance, in all its eclectic variety, is the major constituent.

Dance started to become more important in the Broadway musical during the 1930s. George Balanchine was the first to be described on a Broadway playbill as choreographer, rather than dance arranger or some other pallid euphenrism. First Balanchine and then Agnes de Mille and, most notably, Jerome Robbins dominated dance on Broadway, to be followed by a post-Robbins progeny that included Michael Kidd Cower Champion, Bob Fosse, and Michael Bennett.

All these choreographers soon moved past simply choreographing Broadway musicals and found themselves directing and even creating the show. West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof were not only staged by Jerome Robbins, they also were "conceived" by him. The dance guy had become the boss man--the artistic director, the Diaghilev-like impresario of the entire shebang. Naturally, dance played a larger and larger part on the Broadway scene. But when did some musical quietly morph into a dansical?

In fact, the first dansicals had nothing to do with Robbins, but were probably shows like Bob Fosse's 1978 Dancin'. They were in effect old-style revues, minus the previously obligatory comedy sketches but with singers still attached, although in the Fosse show the dancers did their own singing.

SLOWLY, dance encroached on the familiar fabric of the Broadway musical, with other dance-happy shows such as Chicago and A Chorus Line. Three later shows revealed the growing impact of pure dance on Broadway. These were Ann Reinking's Fosse (which was an homage to Dancin' and Fosse himself), Lynn Taylor Corbett's Swing, an all-dance revue to pop songs, and finally Susan Stroman's Contact, an experimental evening of three short narrative ballets conceived as a Broadway musical--or, for the morph has morphed, dansical.

If Broadway could have dansicals, why couldn't classical ballet also have them? It already had works like Leonide Massine's Mam'zelle Angot, Ronald Hynd's The Merry Widow, and Roland Petit's La Chauve-souris, ballets based on operettas. Why not based on musicals? Last year Smuin followed up this idea with his all-dance version of the Harold Arlen musical St. Louis Woman for Dance Theatre of Harlem. But the big hits have been Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out, a major recent success, and this year's sensation for New York City Ballet, Stroman's Double Feature. These two works, iii their very different ways, have set a new benchmark for the dansical.

Tharp is one of the leading choreographers of our time, and Stroman is a director of brilliance and a choreographer of rare theatrical imagination. Movin' Out takes a pearl-string of cutely apposite Billy Joel songs and hangs on it a tritely effective story, of the Vietnam generation and its alienation. Tharp made this the base for a dazzling full-evening ballet, with choreography that is by turns inventive, acrobatic, poignant, and passionate. Movin' Out has not only done marvelous business on Broadway, but also, surprisingly, even better on tour.

Stroman's homage to silent cinema (see Reviews) uses basically straight classroom ballet steps (Stroman never met an arabesque she didn't like) given with an expertise that would be impossible on a Broadway stage. But movin' in or movin' out, these are great days for--might we call it?--the dansical!

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes, who covers dance and theater for the New York Post, has contributed to DANCE MAGAZINE since 1956.
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Title Annotation:dansicals
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2004
Previous Article:United we dance.
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