When movement met modernism: a new essay collection offers fresh discoveries and insights.
Today's dance historians, especially those who spend time in academe, tend to isolate the art from the environment--from the world in which it developed. Or, in their zeal to give the dance a wider context, they become expository, rather than evocative. Yet dance is to a very great degree an art of evocation.
Sixteen years ago, critic and historian Lynn Garafola (who is a DM senior advising editor) proved this with her atmospheric, yet solidly researched volume, Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Since then, she has published extensively, and in her new Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance she has grouped 35 of her essays, reviews, and lectures into a book that makes sometimes revelatory, sometimes bumpy reading. The strongest group is called "The Ballets Russes and Beyond." It recalls the glamour of the Russo-European artistic world immediately before and after the First World War.
When Garafola deals with context, which she does with special skill, she sometimes sets up a contrast, rather than a framework. It's a wonderfully theatrical device. At the beginning of Legacies she tells about visiting Perm, the city where Diaghilev grew up. "For years," she writes, "Perm was a 'closed' city. In Soviet parlance that meant off-limits to foreigners, tourists, diplomats, correspondents, and scholars. Not that many people itched to see this Urals capital with its chemical plants and munitions factories ... In this city ... where people have forgotten the taste of chocolate and have never known the feel of silk ... Diaghilev gave leave to imagine another kind of world--a lost paradise of beauty, pleasure, and ease."
After this vivid impression of his home environment, it's illuminating to turn to Diaghilev's portrait. It heads a cluster of illustrations farther on in the book. How fine "Big Serge's" features were, how slender his nose, how soft his eyes, and how the top hat and tux, with its white rose boutonniere, suited him and helped to make Monte Carlo and Paris his natural home, as well as home of the influential company he created. Because of Diaghilev's amorous proclivities, his Ballets Russes stressed its male personnel. Thus it offered an apt context for Garafola's colorful essay on the Ballets Suedois, formed in 1920 by Swedish landowner Roll de Mare for his lover, Jean Borlin.
The vast difference between the two impresarios was money. Diaghilev was constantly in search of funding, while de Mare had deep pockets, so much so that his company's Paris opening was accompanied by 100 musicians. Another difference between the two ensembles lay in the Ballets Russes' roots in the danse d'ecole versus the eclecticism of the Suedois. But despite its seeming modernity and novelty, the Swedish company lasted only five years.
In the group of essays titled "Reconfiguring the Sexes," Garafola's musings on gender yield surprises. Her contexts are often psychological rather than social or geographical. The viewpoint is rigidly Freudian. I couldn't believe the amount of sexual innuendo she read into George Balanchine's middle period ballets The Four Temperaments, Agon, and Episodes. "Balanchine's theme was sex," she maintains. "In a broad sense this was the subject of all his ballet ... Balanchine laid bare the anguish of sexual relationships and the ambiguity of sexual identity, with their chance encounters, mechanical pleasures, calculated seductions, and abrupt departures ... His couples cleave to each other as much from loneliness as from irrepressible attraction, cataloguing in their sophisticated love games the obsessions of an era fascinated with sex and the neurotic consequence of its repression."
The emphasis that Balanchine placed on the relationship between movement and music (in this instance Hindemith, Stravinsky, and Webern) is utterly ignored by Garafola. For her, the context for the choreography was Freud, plain and simple--and highly unlikely.
The third major grouping of essays explores New York and its evolving dance scene. Here Merce Cunningham emerges significantly. Garafola is satisfied not to read anything extraneous into Cunningham's dance drapes, with their freedom from formal space or formal sound. She finds the dancers able to choose where they wish to move and suggests that the context can be found in the willfulness and energy of the streets of New York.
Despite her almost Romantic affection for the world of Serge Diaghilev, Lynn Garafola is a born-and-bred New Yorker. Her dance views have the pulse, the occasional brashness, and the poetry of New York at its most urgent, and one might add, at its most unpredictable.--DORIS HERING
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|Title Annotation:||DANCE MAGAZINE RECOMMENDS; Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||May 1, 2005|
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