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Dancers on the Page

Sally Banes's Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage (Routledge, 279 pp., $22.99) is the sort of narrative that draws one on in fascinated pursuit of the author's guiding thread as it snakes through more than a century of dance performance. She has adapted from English lit courses the notion of "the marriage plot" and applied it to an analysis of choreography from 19th-century ballet to the present. This scheme works quite beautifully most of the time; she can show how and why the plot "fails," as it does in La Sylphide, or, as in Doris Humphrey's 1936 With My Red Fires, becomes a catalyst for social upheaval. Explaining how early 20th-century solo dancers like Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, and Ruth St. Denis eschewed the plot leads her into the complex and sometimes contradictory images these powerful and independent women created for themselves onstage. Discussing George Balanchine's 1957 Agon, she's on riskier ground, given that the ballet has no narrative. She's masterful in showing how the power of the female dancers shines through traditional heterosexual partnering; however, her suggestion that the ballet's groupings speak "obliquely . . . of courting or married couples and romantic triangles" brings me up short. They do, in the sense that any pas de trois can epitomize a ménage à trois, but I think she goes too far in implying that Balanchine is presenting a private view of male-female relations rather than simply utilizing a ballet tradition.

I admire Banes's lucid and often witty writing. Even describing key works almost blow by blow, she manages to avoid convoluted prose (although in the process she sometimes inadvertently distorts the time element, giving equal weight to every gesture). She writes, "I am less interested in the sociology of women's lives as dancers or choreographers than in the ways in which choreography and performance create cultural representations of gender identities." This she achieves by compelling strategies that eschew the political agendas of much feminist writing on dance— agendas that, as she notes, too often divest a representation of its complexity.

He's just wild about Fonteyn: Nureyev at the feet of his longtime muse in Giselle.
Reg Wilson/ Rex Features
He's just wild about Fonteyn: Nureyev at the feet of his longtime muse in Giselle.

Banes's is the sort of book that makes me want to sit down with the author and argue a bit. I disagree with this, find that misleading, note an error here, want to pursue a question there. In other words, it's provocative. And a remarkable achievement.

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