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I often recall an old Foreign Legion movie which I think was satirically inclined, although by now I'm not quite sure, in which a sweaty and despairing officer turns to his equally sweaty and despairing Legionnaires, surveys the limitless sands around them, and announces, in confident tones: "Legion of the Lost--we're lost!" Sometimes I rather feel that way about the avant-garde, whether it's in dance, in drama, music, painting, or gardening.

Avant-garde is a curious term. It implies progress, movement, of course, and the very phrase ("advance guard") is obviously of some military origin or connotation, implying perhaps an enemy such as those very Philistines that old Robert Schumann's Davidsbundlertanze was so concerned about. When was the phrase first used? Well, J. A. Cuddon's invaluable Dictionary of Literary Terms cites Gabriel-Desire Laverdant's 1845 work, De la mission de l'art et du role des artistes, a treatise with which I am not familiar but which sounds pretty comprehensive. Now, according to Cuddon, Laverdant wrote: "Art, the expression of society, manifests, in its highest soaring, the most advanced social tendencies: it is the forerunner and the revealer. Therefore, to know whether art worthily fulfills its proper mission as initiator, whether the artist is truly of the avant-garde, one must know where Humanity is going, what the destiny of the human race is...." Personally, I often have difficulty in, knowing where dance is going, let alone Humanity and the human race--so perhaps in considering the dance avant-garde I am operating under disadvantages amounting to double jeopardy.

However, at first the term avant-garde was used more politically than artistically, and it was only toward the end of the last century, possibly with the rise of the French symbolist poets, such as Rimbaud and Mallarme, that the phrase slowly became slanted toward the arts, and finally, in this century, virtually annexed. Today it is a term of cultural description, so let us forget what it means and concentrate on what it implies, particularly what it implies in dance.

Critics are modestly good at describing the present, modestly better at describing the past, but moderately useless in describing the future. Kenneth Tynan, whose field was theater, put it aptly enough in describing the critic as a backseat driver facing the wrong way. Which is why, when faced with quite a goodly amount of contemporary dancing--barefoot, toe-shoed, or hobnail-booted--I feel very much like that Legion officer, facing my readers, you honest, adventurous Legionnaires, and confessing to you: "Legion of the Lost, we're lost in the sands of time in the desert of the avant-garde. Somewhere lies the way to the oasis, but you, my dear Legionnaires, can probably guess it, or not guess it, as well as I can. Only our eventually slaked thirst or blanched bones can render the answer." Of course, I don't actually say this. Like every critic on earth, I fake it.

As I write this, looking back over the past few weeks of my dance-going experience, I realize that I have been touched by what we might call the dance avant-garde on quite a few occasions. But I intend to pick just two choreographers--Stephen Petronio and George Balanchine. I select Petronio because, rightly or wrongly, I came to view his work rather more favorably than in the past, and Balanchine because here I can look at history and pat myself on the head, if not on the back, as having been at least fugitively right.

The appreciation of any art is largely a matter of seeing the forest and making sure the trees don't obscure the view. Although I often admired Petronio's way with a dance, he seemed determined to let trappings and externals get in the way of that way. When his company recently gave the New York City premiere of his first evening-length work, Not Garden [see Reviews, page 104], it seemed a breakthrough--whether for me or for him, who knows or cares? I started to see the forest.

Not Garden is Petronio's swing-into-the-millennium offering, and he apparently took Dante's Inferno as a point of departure for a journey through chaos to something approaching peace. The title simply suggests some paradise lost eventually to be regained. It starts with a solo by Petronio full of arching arm gestures and rag-doll torso squiggles; the densely made dances that follow are all basically variations from that material and a later duet for Petronio and Kristen Borg. This work was the most artistically coherent and aesthetically integrated work of his that I've seen.

Of course, as we move into the millennium we will hear more and more about twentieth-century modernism--and no better guide could be found than Balanchine. Consider simply his Apollo and Episodes--two lodestars of what we now identify as modernism. Stravinsky's seventy-one-year-old score for Apollo--today older than such Victorian bonbons as Delibes's Coppelia were when it was composed--still sounds strikingly modern, while Balanchine's choreography, although adapted over the decades, equally retains a residual shock of the new. As for Episodes, created in 1959 to music culled from the orchestral works of Anton Webern, its dancers surprisingly yet excitingly still seem to have their feet firmly placed in the quicksand of the avant-garde. Balanchine uses such devices as angular dislocation of classic line or the frozen detached time of fashion photos, matching and measuring Webern's reorganization of sound, eerie harmonies on the chill boundary of space.

Both ballets were part of New York City Ballet's recent all-Balanchine week, "Balanchine Black + White Celebration." Twelve ballets were showcased--all danced in black-and-white modified practice costumes (except the classical Symphony in C), all with no real story and presented with no scenery--to draw attention to Balanchine's insistence that dance was the true subject matter of dance. The message was the medium. When these works were new, some sniffed and called them "abstract ballets"--but you can't have abstract ballets without abstract people, and these admittedly plotless works are full of emotion and expression--call it Balanchine's abstract expressionism, if you like. It certainly forced twentieth-century classic ballet to explore territory few had even visited before.

So what is the avant-garde, you ask? Perhaps the true avant-garde is what remains of the avant-garde when it is already deja vu! Those French have a word for everything.

Senior editor Clive Barnes covers dance and theater for the New York Post.
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Title Annotation:dance`
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 1, 1999
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