Coming of Age

1976–1985: Punk to Pomo, Basquiat to Breakdancing

I asked Joanne Akalaitis how the play came about. . . . She mentioned a Theatre Communications Group Conference, set up specifically to get theatre workers in touch with thinkers from the sciences. "I heard Richard Falk and Sheldon Wolin and other guys say that the probability is there'll be some sort of 'small' nuclear war within five years, and a wider one within ten, and then all the theatre people kept talking away about next season's Shakespeare."
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Yale's Fab Four: Deep in the Heart of Texts

By Walter Kendrick

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October 21, 1981

A local wit once told me that New Haven was the American capital of two isms; literary criticism and transvestism. As a Yale grad student, I saw daily proof of the first, but the second was a puzzle. America's top transvestites, I was told, flocked to New Haven to stay at a certain motor inn and eat at a certain diner. Why, then, hadn't I ever seen any?

"That's easy," my witty friend replied. "If you're a really successful transvestite, of course you don't look like one."

The same might be said of literary critics: the better they are, the less they look like themselves. The finest critics of the past—Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, Eliot—demand to be read as artists; their commentary comes detached from, and sometimes even overwhelms, the "creative" work it comments on. No one complains: those great men wrote plays and poems as well as criticism, and besides they're dead. But how do you respond to a crew of hard-core academics who flaunt their criticism as if it were creation?

If you're a run-of-the-mill lit. professor, teaching remedial English in a one-horse burg like Oshkosh or New York City, you mutter something nasty about New Haven. Not since the early '50s has the mention of that unprepossessing town (or its principal university) evoked such knee-jerk outrage from academic critics who have the good fortune to be employed elsewhere. Thirty years ago the tsk-tsks went to Cleanth Brooks, W.K. Wimsatt, and the other avatars of New Criticism. They wrote unconventional, unsettling books; they wrote them with, for, and about each other; and they revolutionized the reading and teaching of literature all over America.

Now in the hinterlands it's fashionable to deplore a new gang of Yalies who are shaking up academe with an even more profound revolution than their precursors'. Next time you meet a provincial lit. professor, try dropping the name of Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman, Paul De Man, or Harold Bloom. Chances are his eyebrows will rise, the corners of his mouth will turn down, and he'll ask something judicious about the "value" of what they do.
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image
Ty Fly flipping as Ken Swift and friends look on (May 1981)
photo: © Martha Cooper

Breaking Is Hard to Do: To the Beat, Y'All

By Sally Banes

April 22, 1981

"Spy, he's called the man with the thousand moves, he had a girl and he taught her how to break. She did it good. She looked like a guy."

"Spy, man, in '78—he was breaking at Mom and Pop's on Katona Avenue in the Bronx; he did his footwork so fast you could hardly see his feet."

"I saw Spy doing something wild in a garage where all the old-timers used to break. They had a priest judging a contest, and Spy was doing some kind of Indian dance. All of a sudden, he threw himself in the air, his hat flew up, he spun on his back, and the hat landed right on his chest. And everyone said, 'That was luck.' So he did it once more for the priest, and the hat landed right on his chest. If I didn't see it, I would never have believed it."

The heroes of these legends are the Break Kids, the B Boys, the Puerto Rican and black teenagers who invent and endlessly elaborate this exquisite, heady blend of dancing, acrobatics, and martial spectacle. Like other forms of ghetto street culture—graffiti, verbal dueling, rapping—breaking is a public arena for the flamboyant triumph of virility, wit, and skill. In short, of style. Breaking is a way of using your body to inscribe your identity on streets and trains, in parks and high school gyms. It is a physical version of two favorite modes of street rhetoric, the taunt and the boast. It is a celebration of the flexibility and budding sexuality of the gaudy male adolescent body. It is a subjunctive expression of bodily states, testing things that might be or are not, contrasting masculine vitality with its range of opposites: women, babies, animals; illness and death. It is a way of claiming territory and status, for yourself and for your group, your crew. But most of all, breaking is a competitive display of physical and imaginative virtuosity, a codified dance form cum warfare that cracks open to flaunt personal inventiveness.

For the current generation of B Boys, it doesn't really matter that the Breakdown is an old name in Afro-American dance for both rapid, complex footwork and a competitive format. Or that a break in jazz means a soloist's improvised bridge between melodies. For the B Boys, the history of breaking started six or seven years ago, maybe in the Bronx, maybe in Harlem. It started with the Zulus. Or with Charlie Rock. Or with Joe, from the Casanovas, from the Bronx, who taught it to Charlie Rock. "Breaking means going crazy on the floor. It means making a style for yourself." In Manhattan, kids call it rocking. A dancer in the center of a ring of onlookers drops to the floor, circles around his own axis with a flurry of slashing steps, then spins, flips, gesticulates, and poses in a flood of rhythmic motion and fleeting imagery that prompts the next guy to top him. To burn him, as the B Boys put it.


Mass Productions

Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Contemporary Art Scene
By Roberta Smith
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