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Dance With an Oxford Accent.

Once, someone very unkindly suggested that my own highly distinguished alma mater in England was chiefly proficient at sending its students out into the world with a totally unjustifiable arrogance and a certain proficiency at handling reference books and simple research material. Well, for myself, you couldn't meet a less arrogant person in a day's march--I will in front of a shrinking violet!--but I think I am rather good with basic reference material. I learned very early on--yes, perhaps it was at university--that shameless skill which all journalists shamefully need to acquire, of becoming an instant expert on almost any subject within, say, twenty minutes of entering an appropriate library. It's admittedly a small skill, and, yes, perhaps a rather arrogant one, but it has served me generously over the years.

Now in dance and theater I have my own pretty complete library. I am assured that in these days of the World Wide Web, such personal reference sources are unnecessary, even redundant. Maybe. But simply by knowing where to look and, quite often, remembering my alphabet, I can find out or confirm most dance facts before your average Internet provider could get you online. There is still some terrain where donkeys travel faster than racing cars. Despite what you may have heard to the contrary, there is no CD-ROM of an encyclopedia as easy, fast and efficient to use and manipulate as the basic encyclopedia itself. On the other hand, the CD-ROM is cheaper and takes up less shell' space.

In any case, for reference sources on dance there is no CD-ROM available, and while you can certainly browse and research the Web for specific purposes in the way of articles and various background material, there is no quick fix for dance knowledge, except in the most general sense. Yes, you can almost instantly find out how old Merce Cunningham is, where he was born, where he started to dance, etc. But try to do the same for James Cunningham and you would find it much more difficult. Which is why we need the specialist dance shelf.

Recently, a few large-scale dance reference books have been published. Most people, apart from dance journalists, would not own them but refer to them in libraries, notably the six-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of Dance, published in 1998, and the slightly earlier two-volume International Dictionary of Ballet and the one-volume International Dictionary of Modern Dance, both published by the St. James Press. In these pages we have already belabored, rightly I think, the inadequacies and infelicities of the big Oxford Encyclopedia, and I find I use it surprisingly little and then with not overmuch confidence. The St. James so-called dictionaries (they are far from comprehensive, but do deal with the included subjects most comprehensively) are, I find, far more useful, although these too are also far from infallibly accurate.

But there is also a need for a popular readers' dictionary or encyclopedia, a need first recognized by Anatole Chujoy when he brought out his own Dance Encyclopedia in 1949. It was a remarkable achievement--the whole world of dance alphabetized from "abaisser" to "Zullig, Hans." It had fairly lengthy articles spread between the reference items, some written by the likes of Edwin Denby, John Martin and Walter Terry, but the body of the book was Chujoy's own long labor of love.

Other reference books followed. In 1957, G.B.L Wilson wrote a very useful Penguin paperback, Dictionary of Dance, later extended, first in 1961 and then in 1974, into two hardcover editions, unfortunately only readily available in Britain. Then in 1959 came the very attractive and useful French Hazan Dictionary, with lovely color illustrations. This was also produced in slightly different English, American and German versions. Like the Wilson, all four are very much worth having, not only for the facts, but also for the many ballet set and costume designs reproduced in full color.

In 1967, Chujoy, together with P.W. Manchester, who was his associate on his newspaper/magazine Dance News, presented a completely new edition of his Dance Encyclopedia, more lavish, fuller, and now illustrated. This, although more than thirty years out of date, remains a standard work. Ten years later, Mary Clarke and David Vaughan edited an (also attractively illustrated) Encyclopedia of Dance and Ballet, but this, while pretty accurate and with many distinguished contributors, was more a coffee-table reference, far from comprehensive.

Certainly by no means an entrant in any coffee-table stakes was Barbara Naomi Cohen-Stratyner's Biographical Dictionary of Dance, published in 1982. This is an enormous tome that profiles, as its preface suggests, "2,900 figures from four centuries of dance history in Europe and the Americas." What is particularly interesting about Cohen-Stratyner's approach is that, to a greater extent than even Chujoy, who tried to be catholic in his choice of entries, she included "a wide range of dance and theatrical genres, from the opera ballet to the Broadway musical, from the burlesque striptease to the television variety show." And, yes, it is the only dance reference book to include "Ann Corio--the Girl with the Epic Epidermis," sandwiched neatly between Winthrop Corey and Francesca Corkle, both ballet dancers of less epic proportions. To be honest, the book is not all that accurate (although I assure you that with most dance reference books, accuracy is a very relative thing), but it does have people in it you will find nowhere else--such as not only Corio but also Corey.

Corkle, of course, was in Koegler! For years--ever since 1977, in fact, when the first edition of Horst Koegler's The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet was published--checking things in Koegler has been a reflex action for dance writers all over the world. Indeed, my reflexes had started before then, having acquired Koegler's 1972 Friedrichs Ballettlexicon von A-Z, upon which the Oxford version was based. (This, despite my worse-than-schoolboy German, still, more or less, yielded its facts to me, though I find the two obviously excellent Russian dictionaries far more obdurate.) There was a second edition of the Oxford Koegler in 1982, and in 1987 there was a slightly, very slightly, updated paperback version of the second edition. So, for more than twenty years, Koegler has been my standard reference; there are mistakes there, I have discovered, but really surprisingly few. And you need both editions, because some entries in the first were abandoned to make room for new entries in the second.

Now we seem to be in the midst of what you might call a dance reference boom. In the last couple of months we have reviewed in these pages two newcomers: Encyclopedia of Theatre Dance in Canada and Film Choreographers and Dance Directors. Unfortunately, I have seen neither, so I cannot comment on them further, but the biggie is unquestionably the new Oxford Dictionary of Dance by Debra Craine and Judith Mackrell (Oxford University Press, $39.95).

For years, the dance world had been awaiting a third edition of Koegler. But that was not to be. Negotiations between Koegler and the Oxford University Press were unsatisfactory on one side or the other, so at the end of the year 2000, the Oxford University Press published a brand new Oxford Dictionary by two well-known English dance writers. Having been sent an early proof copy, I have already been using it for some months. So, and this is the important thing, how does it stack up against Koegler and the rest of the opposition? Because, for better or for worse, this is going to be the most readily available in the bookshops and therefore the most commonly used dance reference book for at least the next decade.

In some ways it takes a new approach from that of Koegler, although I suspect that it has leaned fairly heavily on its predecessor, and having the same publisher there would presumably be no difficulty over the copyright of the earlier text. There are many new additions, naturally enough, but rather more deletions, and overall there are markedly fewer entries here than there were in Koegler. On the other hand, some are longer and definitely more discursive.

I have turned--absolutely at random--to the letter G. Both dictionaries start with "Gable, Christopher." In Koegler, he is awarded about 120 neutral words. In C&M, which of course goes up to his premature death in 1988, he not only gets nearly 600 words, but there are comments suggesting his significance--"a glamorous and intensely romantic dancer"--and hints at a subtext to his career, referring to a "snub that soured his relationship with the Covent Garden management." Do we want to know that? Do we, in a reference book, need to know that? Is it a fact or an opinion? Different readers could well have different answers.

Both Koegler and C&M continue with "Gabovich, Mikhail," with the newcomer being marginally more informative, although unlike Koegler it omits a separate entry for Gabovich's son, a significant dancer in his own right. C&M then has a new entry for the Danish dancer Rose Gad, who came to prominence after Koegler was published, and then both dictionaries join up for the Swedish choreographer Ulf Gadd and the Spanish dancer Antonio Gades, with, once again, C&M being rather the more chatty and informative.

And so the letter G proceeds, with 178 further entries in Koegler but only 97 in C&M. Typically, the C&M entry for the Finnish ballet master George Ge is clearly based on Koegler, rephrased but with no information either added or omitted. However, the piece on Adeline Genee a little later does add to Koegler, giving the correct date of her first American appearance as 1908. (Koegler says "in 1907 she embarked on the first of her many American tours"--as she made her debut in Philadelphia on January 20, Koegler may have thought that "embarked" was a safe bet, but in fact I find she sailed from Southampton on New Year's Day!) They also accurately add the name of the revue she appeared in, Ziegfeld's The Soul Kiss, which sounds more interesting than it doubtless was. There are obviously many G's found in Koegler but not in C&M, some important--such as Peter Gennaro, Irina Gensler, Yvonne Georgi, Poul Gnatt, Noel Goodwin, Paul Goube, Tatjana Gsovsky and Jean Guizerix--and others of less moment. The later work, of course, adds a few G's who came to prominence after Koegler had gone to bed--notably Savion Glover, Isabelle Gu6rin and Sylvie Guillem.

It is natural that the new dictionary should follow the old--facts are facts--but sometimes this may have led the newcomers into error. For example, in talking about the Utah company Ballet West, the new book names as one of its directors the British ballet master John Field, instead of his contemporary John Hart. The only other source to make this mistake is Koegler--clearly a case of the temporarily blinded leading the temporarily blinded. Incidentally, C&M's individual entry on Hart gets it right--so perhaps this is a comment as much on methodology as accuracy.

Sometimes the proofreading in C&M does indeed seem sloppy. Take, for example, the entry for Niels-Bjorn Larsen, the Danish dancer, director and choreographer. It says he was born 5 October 1913, which is certainly right. It goes on to say "he studied at the Royal Danish Ballet School from 1913 and made his debut ... when still a child." A child? A babe in arms, more likely! Then both Koegler and C&M confuse his two stints as company ballet master and artistic director, apparently not realizing that the job was the same in both instances. He was director both times. Finally C&M suggests "he continued to work even into his nineties," which, as Larsen doesn't get to his 90th birthday until 2003 savors of prophecy rather than scholarship.

Perhaps Koegler was rather Eurocentric; certainly the new dictionary seems somewhat Anglocentric. I was shocked and dumbfounded the other day when I needed to confirm my spelling of the German modern-dance pioneer Harald Kreutzberg, and found he was not to be found. And perhaps not unexpectedly, the entry for The Royal Ballet appears to have more authority than that for, say, American Ballet Theatre. ABT was not first co-directed by Lucia Chase, who was its original prime backer but did not become a director of the company, with Oliver Smith, until 1945. The company was founded by Richard Pleasant, who was its sole director until 1941, when the management effectively passed to Sol Hurok, who appointed Gerry Sevastianov as managing director.

ABT did not, as C&M states, make its European debut in 1945, this coming a year later on July 4, 1946, in London at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. To suggest that Fokine broke away from the company during the fifties is erroneous, as he died in 1942. Robbins's Other Dances was not created for ABT, as implied. It was created for a gala organized by Francis Francis on May 9, 1976, and serendipitously added to the ABT repertoire on June 22 the same year.

These are perhaps minor points, and, as my grandmother used to say, accidents happen in the best of families. Yet such mini-slips--and Koegler was not immune from such (on the question of the Chase directorship, for example, C&M was merely following a Koegler precedent)--are discouraging when found in what is intended as an authoritative source. The general question of an English bias--there is, for instance, no entry for Angel Corella, yet a number of British male dancers of perhaps rather less renown are included--is probably natural in a dictionary by an English publisher and English writers, for this was also abundantly true of the earlier G.B.L. Wilson dictionary.

Every editor of a reference work has to be selective, and no one is likely to agree with every selection, nor to the individual weight given to the entries selected. These things are subjective when they are not arbitrary and arbitrary when they are not subjective. However, one point I think must be made, and that is to regret the omission of Koegler's brief bibliography that accompanied many of his entries. This omission Craine and Mackrell defend on the grounds of space limitations, possibly the result of their publishers unwisely, I think, selecting a larger typeface than it used for Koegler. As Marie Antoinette might have said: "Let them use glasses !"

So where are we? How does this new Oxford Dictionary of Dance shape up? Does it, in the words of the book-jacket blurb, provide "all the information necessary for dance fans to navigate the diverse dance scene of the twenty-first century"? Well, it will certainly help a lot and, as it is the most up-to-date dance reference book on the market, it is definitely indispensable, if only for all its updates and new information. However, don't throw away either of your Koeglers (earlier I asked where you might easily find information on James Cunningham--well, he ain't in C&M, so you might be grateful you didn't trash the Koegler or forget to refer to Cohen-Stratyner in the library!) and hang onto your Chujoy/Manchester and Wilson if you are lucky enough to have them.

The new work is a bargain at forty bucks; it makes for compulsive bedside reading, if only, like King Lear, to check who's in and who's out. But as with every dance dictionary and dance encyclopedia known to man or woman, the dance scholar (as opposed perhaps to the dance fan) would be well advised to note the admonition given by Joe E. Brown to Jack Lemmon at the end of Billy Wilder's movie Some Like It Hot. It was simple and true: "Nobody's perfect." Fade out.

Senior editor Clive Barnes, who covers dance and theater for the New York Post, has contributed to Dance Magazine since 1956.
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Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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