A Tempus Fugit Jubilee- Of Sorts

A TEMPUS FUGIT JUBILEE – OF SORTS 

As they ruefully say – Time Flies when you’re having fun.  Or even if you’re not, for that matter!  There I was, sitting down at my trusty old computer, listening with one ear to a CD of Tchaikovsky piano music, wondering what to do with the other ear and preparing to write something about the athletic influence, with its Pilobolus-inspired pretzelation and Elizabeth Streb-like mechanization, on contemporary dance.

One day, soon, I shall return to that subject, but meanwhile I was stopped in my track by a sudden thought.  Now, for a journalist any thought, sudden or otherwise, is a rare and occasionally marketable commodity.  Not to be wasted.  The thought was as much a memory as anything else.  As I was sorting out on my computer screen my first scrambled ideas on the new athleticism and dance, quite out of the most azure blue it occurred to me that I had been doing this kind of thing professionally – sorting out ideas on dance, that is – for precisely 50 years.

This month marks my half-century as a dance critic.  Mind you, looking back, I couldn’t have been much more than six or seven years old at the time.  Perhaps younger, I forget.  I must one day look at my birth certificate because I’m sure all the reference books get my date of birth insanely wrong.  Anyway fifty years is quite a time – a jubilee of sorts.  Even a time for retrospection, if one’s in a retrospective mood.  So what has happened on my watch – both in dance, and perhaps more interestingly, dance criticism?

I say more interestingly not out of any particular over-regard for the importance of my profession – I have always thought of critics as often useful, hopefully symbiotic, parasites on the arts – but simply because the end of the last century promoted so much speculation on changes in this or that art that the issue of that century’s changes in dance has been all but thrashed to death.

However while it’s in its last mortal throes I may as well give it a final kick.  Why not?  But let me confine myself to three points suggesting the major trends of dance over the past five decades.  First for classic ballet: in 1950 “nationalism” was all the rage.  What made American ballet American, or Ruritanian ballet Ruritanian?  That was a very serious question.  Moreover, unlike opera companies, ballet companies were, by and large, comprised of dancers of the same nationality as the troupe’s country of origin.

Today in dance, rather as in music, we are far, far less concerned with that issue, which was largely a growing pain of all the emergent “national” ballet companies that were then indeed emerging all over the world.  As for Ruritanian dancers dominating Ruritanian companies, although they may still provide a majority in the corps de ballet and soloist ranks (for various reasons of convenience and law) there is far more free-for-all employment in the top echelons, and quite a few star dancers are members of more than one company.

There are more chauvinist exceptions to this U.N. approach to dance – notably in Russia, France and Australia, but even here “foreigners” occasionally appear.

Such dance internationalization has had an enormous creative impact in the field of modern-dance.  50 years ago, American modern-dance or even European expressionist dance, was largely unknown in the first instance, and largely discredited in the second.  Today virtually all over Europe modern-dance thrives, initially exported from the United States, much as classic ballet had earlier been imported to the United States from Europe.  It is dance’s tit for tat.

The third major trend, connected with both of the other two, concerns the tendency towards fusion of classic ballet and modern-dance.  Here is a twain no longer doomed never to meet, and indeed we have not only seen modern-dance choreographers working happily in a classic fold, and modern-dancers taking classic classes, but also the development of a thirdstream idiom of dance, drawing its vocabulary and even more its spirit from both the earlier disciplines.

The changes in dance criticism over the past 50 years have proved nothing like so dramatic.  Yet changes there have been.  When I started out very few newspapers had specialist dance critics.  Indeed, one of the first, John Martin, was appointed to The New York Times the very same year, 1927, that reference books say I was born.  There were other pioneers in the English-language press, notably Edwin Denby and Walter Terry in the United States, with Arnold Haskell, most noted for his popular informative books and only very briefly a newspaper critic, the historian Cyril Beaumont and A.V. Coton in Britain.  Although there were dance magazines (including, of course, this) with writers such as Richard Buckle, P.W. Manchester and a young Doris Hering, making a mark, in newspapers dance criticism was generally left to the music critic or, more uncommonly, the drama critic.

Today almost every newspaper and commentary oriented magazine, not only in North America and Britain but all over the world, employs a specialist dance critic.  Admittedly not too many of us make a proper living at the game – for the record I myself have only had two years, from when I first joined The New York Times in 1965 until I also became its drama critic in 1967, in which I have supported myself solely with dance commentary – yet editors, while apparently increasingly reluctant to give overmuch attention to dance coverage, do accept the general principle that that coverage requires the attention of a writer at least rudimentarily versed in the history, practice and craft of the art.  This, my friends, is a major advance.

We can today complain about this critic or that critic – and I hope we do for after all criticism is a hopefully unprejudiced yet still subjective expression of a subjective impression lent a fleeting air of objectivity by the authority of style and experience.  Yet despite all our carping we do today have writers eager and, more important, able to comment intelligently on dance’s changing scene.

I don’t, with the blowing of my own and my colleagues’ trumpets want to overstress the importance of this.  After all, without the possibility of a literacy in readily available dance scores, we are still at a disadvantage compared with music, opera and even drama critics, who have ready access to texts, and sometimes our descriptions are either confined to hooray or boo adjectives, or sound more like fifth-rate poetry than analysis.

Yet we exist – in vastly greater numbers than in 1950.  And, in our small way, we do dance a service, if only to make it credible as subject worthy of opinion and discussion.

Copyright©2000, Dance Magazine.

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