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Dancers on the Page

The dance boom of the '70s sparked more than proliferating companies, public interest in the art, and better pay for dancers. Even in the lean, mean '90s, many more dance books are being published than were 25 years ago. Small houses and university presses bring out material ranging from the stimulatingly intellectual to the obscure. Trade publishers like to gamble on celebrity biographies and autobiographies (by my count, nine former Balanchine dancers have come out with books).

Nureyev: His Life by Diane Solway (William Morrow, 625 pp., $27.50) is both fastidiously researched and a page-turner. Nureyev's highly publicized defection from the Soviet Union in 1961 has the makings of a thriller, and Solway doesn't skimp on accounts of bad-boy behavior and sexual fervor. Although she offers no overarching views of her own, the details she culls from archives and myriad interviews help explain how this complicated, brilliant, and impossible man upped the ante for male dancers, revitalized the career of the great British ballerina Margot Fonteyn (42 to his 23 when they first danced together), became ballet's first male superstar, and lit a fire under the tradition-bound Paris Opera during his tenure as director.

When he danced the pas de deux from Le Corsaire at his graduation from St. Petersburg's hallowed Vaganova Institute, a critic prophesied greatness while remarking on a "passion unrestrained by technique." Most boys entered the school at nine or 10; Nureyev was 17. Small wonder that, as Royal Ballet principal Lynn Seymour remarked, "making your body do what it naturally won't [was] part of Rudy's definition of technique." Often hungry as a child despite a father who was an army officer, Nureyev danced like a man with insatiable appetites— performing even when his physical prowess was sabotaged by age and AIDS. Ballets he choreographed or classics he revamped were stuffed with steps. Unlike his lover Erik Bruhn, whom he idolized, or the later defector Mikhail Baryshnikov, he wasn't out to create an illusion of modesty or ease. He wanted his dancing to look difficult. The way he'd slam his feet into fifth position announced every beginning as a battle; every soaring leap symbolized a victory over adversity. Yet, as Christopher Gable— one of the Royal Ballet men he influenced— pointed out to Solway, Nureyev was comfortable enough with his homosexuality to allow an occasional softness that the Brits had been taught was unmanly. The attack and the unexpected lyricism, along with his smoldering Tatar looks, fueled the image of leonine sensuality.

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.

He wanted money, fame, beautiful boys, possessions, and devotees to take care of him. He got them. He wanted to be a perfect dancer and, for some spectators, tried too hard. He wanted George Balanchine to create a ballet for him. All he got was Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which Balanchine choreographed for New York City Opera (not his own NYCB), and, ill, was unable to finish himself. Balanchine was right to think his fellow Russian's ambition outran his malleability. By the time Nureyev taught Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme to the Paris Opera dancers, it had become almost unrecognizable.

Much of the time this cultivated man seems to have behaved like a teenage lion— lordly, greedy, savage, roughly affectionate (drunk, he might bite those he admired). He generously gave dancers advice on technical matters that they never forgot. Yet in New York with the Royal Ballet, he kicked his partner Merle Park and stormed offstage because the conductor didn't heed his signals to slow the tempo. People forgave him because onstage, at his best, he was a flame. Watch him in an early film of Corsaire with Fonteyn; the brilliance Solway tries to convey on the page startles the soul.

Theories surrounding postmodernism have stimulated new ways of considering and representing performance. Demolishing the myth of objectivity, writers ponder how the contribution of the spectator or the presence of the scholarly observer molds an event. In his fascinating Voices in Bali: Energies and Perceptions in Vocal Music and Dance Theater (Wesleyan University Press, 224 pp., $45 cloth, $19.95 paper), Edward Herbst assumes several voices (signified by differing fonts) to mingle highly technical musical analysis, aesthetic considerations, meditations on Balinese traditions and how they are taught, observation of performances, and anecdotal passages about his own attempts to master vocal styles and theatrical roles. Even a nonmusical reader can become absorbed in how Ni Nyoman Candri advises Herbst to shape a sung melody as opposed to how Madé Sija would have it— and then hear Candri and others perform on the CD sleeved into the book.

Today's dance historians tend to view the forms of Western theatrical dance within the culture that helped mold them and that, in turn, was influenced by the onstage images. Karl Toepfer's stunning Empire of Ecstacy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935 (University of California Press, 422 pp., $50) brings to life many figures whom nonreaders of German know only as names— Niddy Impekoven, Sent M'ahesa, Jutta Klamt, et al.— and phenomena like Nacktballett (naked ballet) most of us have never imagined. But amid the wealth of information, Toepfer develops intriguing arguments about the German modernist image of the body and its various ties to an idealized nature, to eroticism, community, freedom, and individual expression. In the process he queries the too-facile links between body culture, mass conformity, and the rise of the Third Reich: "As soon as the body became an intense focus of performance, it also became a dominant sign and a source of difference, of 'otherness,' in relation to an ecstatic destiny that could never be the same for any other body." What a book! And I haven't even told you about the pictures.

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.

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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