In 1890s London, George Bernard Shaw’s music reviews frequently took ballet to task. How weary he was of illogical plots and the empty virtuosity of what he referred to as “teetotum spins.” After one disheartening visit to the Empire in 1892, he yearned for dance to find its Wagner: ” . . . what I want now is dance-drama.” He didn’t have long to wait. In 1900, Isadora Duncan hit London as a free spirit, animating great paintings and great music with her own elemental longings. A few years later, Mikhail Fokine and his colleagues in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes began to demand realism in fantasy and to expand ballet’s subject matter and vocabulary.
The story of western dance is in part a tale of squabbled-over dichotomies: virtuosity vs. expressiveness, dance that emphasizes mute narrative vs. dance that presents itself as movement and form. But these extremes are constantly being redefined. Shaw might not be taken with Pina Bausch’s dramatic collages, and fans of Anna Pavlova would find the hit-the-moon arabesques of today’s ballerinas not only mind-boggling but indecent.
One of Duncan’s great bequests was the notion of freedom—freedom to bend, or break with, conventions; freedom to be “oneself” onstage; the free flow of motion through the body. In 1927, around the time Duncan died, Martha Graham redesigned her body and her vision of dance in accord with principles of modernism and expressionism. Duncan’s example fueled that revolt, even though Graham’s taut, austere, muscular early works were a far cry from Isadora’s lush solos. Graham’s “nature” was city streets, not fields.
“Nature” keeps changing. Duncan might not have understood that the work shown at Judson Church in the 1960s was idealistic too. When she advocated “natural” dancing, she didn’t envision diving onto mattresses (as people did in Yvonne Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets) or taking a chair apart (Deborah Hay in a Steve Paxton piece). For her, natural movement was part of a grand design of wind and waves and gravitational force.
In modern dance during the late ’60s and early ’70s, as during the late ’20s and early ’30s, people felt compelled to create new vocabularies of movement. When Trisha Brown wrote, “In the fall of 1972 I was looking for a new dance,” she didn’t mean a single composition but a way of moving that was going to engage her for a long time. During the ’80s and ’90s, as in the ’40s and ’50s, the emphasis has been less on innovations in movement than on development, expansion, and appropriation. Ballet and modern dance have struck alliances. Certifiably modern or postmodern choreographers create works for ballet companies. One of the century’s greatest ballet stars, Mikhail Baryshnikov, has become a modern dancer. Twyla Tharp has created perhaps the first true fusion of classicism with modern dance (her own juicy, jazz-influenced variant).
Three figures in particular anchor the late 20th century. Graham developed a cinematic approach that freed narrative from linearity and influenced how stories get told in dance. You don’t think about Graham when you see one of Meredith Monk’s stunning musical theater collages or something as maniacally up-to-date as Stacy Dawson and David Neumann’s recent Pearl River, but Graham pointed the way. George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham’s brilliant demonstrations of the primacy of movement and form remind us that dancing is innately expressive and can tell a deeper story than any we might affix to it.
The arts in this country have not impressed our legislators as vital to national well-being, but I’m encouraged by the many—sometimes overlapping—audiences for dance. Those who subscribe to the New York City Ballet or thrill to Paul Taylor’s work may not frequent community-based dances, such as those Victoria Marks, David Dorfman, Peggy Peloquin, and others have produced. They’d rather watch experts than nurses moonlighting as dancers. But a lot of us can be moved by both extremes.
As the century turns and the world boils, choreographers want to tell long stories. Violent times breed punitive movement. Prosperity encourages visual extravagance. Virtuosity responds to technology. The speeded-up time and deranged space of commercials and MTV move onto the stage. But even as we’re stimulated by the best of the new, we can know that nothing of value is entirely lost. Lori Belilove performs Isadora’s dances. American Ballet Theatre mounts Graham’s Diversion of Angels. We can see the company Balanchine founded dance his ballets one night, and the next be reminded by Mark Morris’s company that a highly contemporary sensibility is not incompatible with a Balanchinian vision of music as dance’s vital floor. Choreography isn’t racing down a few approved paths; it’s sniffing along many pungent trails to . . . who knows what?
** The notion of freedom acquires ironies in the work of Doug Varone. Unison is rare. When his superb dancers are going full-tilt, fluid designs constantly appear and dissolve as if highly individual particles were trying in vain to form permanent structures. This quest is dramatized in the moving Sleeping with Giants. To bitterly carnivalesque music (Michael Nyman’s Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra), the marvelous Larry Hahn tries to run with a fleet crowd, to grasp what they’re doing, but it’s hard to tell whether the others are helping or hindering. They don’t seem to know either, and, after a punch and a kiss, he ends up crumpled, alone.
Most of Varone’s dances are less narrative than this, but they all—the dark pieces as well as the deliciously funny Bel Canto—tell of unfulfillment. The movement, as luscious as Duncan’s, as full of curves and suspensions as José Limón’s (Varone danced in his company), may suddenly freeze, as in Agora, where Jane Cox’s direly beautiful lighting and the crackling in Julia Wolfe’s score suggest apocalypse. As the fine new Tomorrow begins, Adriane Fang (an exceptionally sensitive dancer) moves closely, tentatively around Gwen Welliver; when she drops into a pose, she immediately jolts slightly out of it as if thinking she’s made a mistake, then settles again. Eddie Taketa and Merceditas Manago dart their limbs into the intimate negative spaces formed by each other’s bodies; when he leaps to crouch on top of her, the firm contact is startling. Fragrant songs by Reynaldo Hahn from the turn of the last century intensify the poignancy of the work.
Some dances are primarily fluid, some, like the gripping trio Eclipse, are stifled, muted in tone. In all of them you see the same tender, non-connecting gestures—the hand that brushes the air above a shoulder—and a physical language of ambivalence: the gathering followed by the tossing away, the snatching that dissolves, the startles and shrugs, the soft flailing, the bold leaps and melts into the floor. Before Welliver leaves the recumbent crowd at the end of Tomorrow, she lies back down for a second, perhaps wanting to remember how that stillness felt.
Because of the constant interplay of reach and recoil, I often lose the focus of Varone’s dances before they end, but they’re as rich as they are troubling. Freedom’s no longer an unmitigated joy.