Anyone who is surprised by the news that the 1990 Lyon
Biennale de la Danse (to be held September 13 through October 6 in Lyons,
France) is to play host to seventeen major American dance companies, plus the
additional odd recitalist, has just not been paying attention to the
contemporary facts of dance history.
The festival is merely the latest-admittedly spectacular-manifestation of what in
choreographic terms has been the romance of the century: the love affair between Europe (with France, perhaps, nowadays in the amatory vanguard) and American modern dance. This tendresse can trace its roots back to the beginning of the century, having run the gamut from Isadora Duncan to Mark Morris.
It is a proverb-hallowed tradition for prophets not to find honor in their own land, and for years American artists have journeyed to Europe to win the overseas
accolade that can make them fully acceptable at home. In comparatively recent years we have seen just this happen to Martha Graham, New York City Ballet, and so on, and it was absolutely the same, and probably even more so, in the days of Isadora Duncan, the Canadian-born Maude Allan, and even Loie Fuller, all of whom found their first real fame in Europe, particularly in London and Paris.
Duncan-with her genius for the bohemian life-style as well as her revolutionary approach to concert dance-made a profound impression upon Europe. Indeed, this girl from San Francisco, with the bare feet, loose draperies, and scarcely tighter morals, joined Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky to form a unique triumvirate of dance icons during the first three decades of the century.
It became a general European conception that although America had no classical ballet (a pretty accurate perception at the time) it did have a penchant for a kind of Greek dance in bare feet and-on a more popular level-excelled in the kind of
pop dance exemplified in movies and cabarets by Fred Astaire, black entertainers, and le jazz hot.
At first the incredible popularity of America in the Marshall Plan years following World War II did not extend itself to traditional culture. Europe admired, a little condescendingly, the chewing-gum culture of Hollywood and pop music but had a snobbish resistance to taking America seriously in the arts. When Ballet Theatre first appeared in London in 1946, works such as Jerome Robbin’s Fancy Free and Michael Kidd’s On Stage! were praised by conservatives as “typically American,” but efforts at Swan Lake and Les Sylphides were gently discouraged.
The present Lyon Biennale to some extent runs true to the past. It celebrates Duncan, Graham, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Doris Humphrey, and Jose Limon.
But also announced is a costume ball celebration of “The Roaring Twenties,” “A Square Dance Ball,” “An Evening at the Savoy Ballroom,” and, a tribute to the fifties and sixties, something called a “A Rock and Twist Party.”
The idea that American culture was in some way more democratic-had a more universal and popular suffrage-than the traditional arts of Europe fitted in neatly with almost every prejudice postwar Europe had of the United States. A superstitious regard for America as the home of the new as well as the brave colored the ambivalent way Europe regarded the arts in the U.S. Thus it was ready for conquest by both American modern dance and American modern painting-two invasions that occurred at around the same time, one occasionally seeming concomitant to the other.
So, after World War II, which was the first American company to take modern dance across the Atlantic? In part it depends on what you mean by “modern dance.” I think I would be inclined to award the palm to Katherine Dunham, who brought her revue, Caribbean Rhapsody, to London in 1948. While it was not, strictly speaking, modern dance, perhaps it had enough mixed in among its variously ethnic roots to qualify.
If we discount Dunham, then it was probably Jose Limon-who opened a season shared with Ruth Page and Bentley Stone in Paris on May 8, 1950, presenting among
other works La Malinche, with Pauline Koner-and a month later Martha Graham and company, including Erick Hawkins and Pearl Lang, arrived in Paris. Unfortunately Graham twisted her ankle on the first night, the season had to be abandoned the night after, and a planned July season for London was canceled.
In fact, Graham did not have a full European engagement until she returned to London in March in 1954, and three years later the Limon company, with Doris Humphrey as artistic director, also gave a London season.
After these Graham and Limon visits there was a profound lull, and it was not until the mid-sixties that American modern dance companies returned to Europe in
force-although a few recitalists, such as the West Coast dancer Eleanor King, preceded them. The turning point came with Graham’s triumphant London season in 1963, and from then on the American invasion was in full flood.
Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Charles Weidman, and Alwin Nikolais appeared in London and Paris, and in Paris particularly Nikolais and Cunningham soon won a significant following. In Holland (the annual Holland Festival played a major role here), Germany, and indeed all over Europe, American dance became big and welcome news.
Then something even stranger happened: Modern dance put down European roots. Of course, there had been indigenous modern dance in Europe before World War II-notably in Germany, with Mary Wigman and Kurt Jooss, and in Sweden-but it had become suspect in the immediate post-Hitler era (thought, perhaps, a shade too “Teutonic”) and all over Europe, particularly in Germany, classical ballet was at first all the rage.
But then modern dance became modish, then acceptable, then popular. France nurtured it, Britain encouraged it, and Germany welcomed it. Astounding things happened: the Paris Opera Ballet opened a modern dance echelon, originally under the direction of former Nikolais dancer Carolyn Carlson; and Britain’s senior ballet company, Ballet Rambert, the troupe that had given birth to Ashton and Tudor, unforgivably abandoned its past classical glories and repertoire to become a provincial modern dance group.
In some respects American modern dance has been misunderstood, or at least
misinterpreted in Europe. And despite the international acclaim of such creators as the American-trained Pina Bausch, there are some (myself among them) who would claim that Europe has yet to produce a major modern dance choreogpraher, although there are a number of “third-stream” choreographers (those who are neither classic nor modern but somewhere in between) of brilliance, such as Jiri Kylian. But Europe has yet to produce its own Merce Cunningham or Martha Graham. Is this a matter of time or a question of cultural climate?
Copyright©1990, Dance Magazine.