There are three questions people constantly ask working dance writers: Seen anything good lately? What’s the difference between ballet and modern? Can you recommend a good general history of dance?
Sometimes I can respond to the first question. The second one is easy. And the third, at last, has an answer at hand: a huge new book coming this fall from Yale. No Fixed Points takes its title from Albert Einstein and, in its trove of new and recycled information and sophisticated analysis, brings together generations of thinking and commentary by critics, historians, artists, and impresarios. Decades in the making, it’s the work of two scholars who have both performed: Nancy Reynolds danced for George Balanchine, wrote Repertory in Review about the first 40 years of the New York City Ballet, and is now director of research for the Balanchine Foundation. Her co-author, Malcolm McCormick, danced, designed, and taught at UCLA and elsewhere.
Like any vital art form, dance reflects the period and place of its making, and No Fixed Points lays in the political and economic circumstances, the wars and depressions and diplomatic intrigue, that shaped, fed, and sometimes starved dance in the last century. With subtle sarcasm and humor, the authors position the art form’s each development in its zeitgeist, in Europe, America, and Japan. They recount the many amazingly good calls Diaghilev made in his relatively short career as an impresario, which did nothing less than change the course of ballet history. They reiterate Martha Graham’s remark that “the function of dance was communication—that it must speak to the mind and emotions and body of the spectator in terms transcending words.” Following 15 fat chapters tracing the evolution of ballet and contemporary styles are two that succinctly summarize dance in musical theater and in the movies, taking us up to Billy Elliott in 2000.
Anyone contemplating entering the dance field—and certainly those already working in it—would do well to take a couple of weeks’ wallow in this blockbuster, and then assess whether they have anything new to contribute. The authors do not shy away from crises in the ballet field. “The vacuum in creativity at the century’s end may have helped give rise to a welcome emphasis on preservation as compensation for the relative lack of truly revolutionary new work,” they note.
You could go out and get 30 dance books and absorb much of the same information you’ll find here, or you could work your way through this volume—never tedious, always enlightening, and with a bracing focus on the lives and loves of the story’s many protagonists—and then go and read more about the artists and forms that particularly pique your interest. If you choose the second path, don’t skip the hundred pages of notes; they are, as is often the case with books on vast and fascinating subjects, stuffed with detail, anecdote, and suggestions for further reading. Rare is the volume that’s both essential reference and page-turner; No Fixed Points is one.
Nina Fonaroff died last month in London, at the age of 89; her training and experience spanned almost the entire period and scope of No Fixed Points. A native New Yorker, she studied with Fokine, absorbed the style of Isadora Duncan, and first encountered Martha Graham and Louis Horst at the Cornish School in Seattle.
After a rich career dancing in the Graham company and choreographing for her own troupe, she offered lucid, intelligent ballet classes for modern dancers in Manhattan (I was, very briefly, her student, and owe to her sage counsel my decision to concentrate on writing). Later she taught choreography at the London School of Contemporary Dance from 1972 until 1990. At her death she was writing a book about choreography; here’s hoping it sees print.