When I hear the word theory, I reach for my (theoretical) gun. A self-taught dance critic who left the academy before the invasion of the theory sluts, I get squirrelly in front of paragraphs with too many five-syllable words, too many layers of interpretation between the stage and the page. History, though, is a more congenial matter; I treasure the opportunity to wallow in the research and conclusions of colleagues who’ve spent years formulating interpretations of events and artifacts we journalists too often merely glance at.
Catching up this summer with the pile of new dance books accumulating at my bedside, I’ve been constantly transported to the third quarter of the 20th century, the post-war period that—with the help of the G.I. Bill, a series of tours abroad sponsored by the U.S. State Department, and the founding of both the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts—saw astronomical growth in the national dance scene. Memoirs by Yvonne Rainer and Carolyn Brown, biographies of Viola Farber and Lincoln Kirstein, and collections of essays by Joan Acocella and John Rockwell keep pushing the new Harry Potter further down the stack, and remind me of the value of dance criticism in keeping history alive.
Two recent works from Wesleyan University Press—each with an opaque title, an even more abstruse subtitle, and lots of footnotes—use the theoretical armamentarium to illuminate that third quarter. One focuses on the career of Alwin Nikolais, (affectionately known as “Nik”) a choreographer on the verge of being forgotten, and the other explores the sociology of an era of great change in American dance. (Gay Morris’s A Game for Dancers, subtitled Performing Modernism in the Postwar Years, 1945–1960, just received the de la Torre Bueno Prize as the best dance book of 2006.)
Both volumes support their arguments with contemporary reviews, and point out the power of The New York Times‘s John Martin, the sole critic there from 1927 to 1962. Morris posits Martin, Edwin Denby and John Cage as the primary theorists of the era’s dance. She explains the evolution of American aesthetics from modernists like Martha Graham, still in the thrall of emotion-filled, individualistic, dramatic presentations, to Alwin Nikolais and the post-modern pioneer Merce Cunningham, who favored a more “environmental” approach to stage space. She draws on the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in her exploration of the period’s art and its politics, examining Balanchine’s evolution in America, the place of African- American choreographers in the ’40s and ’50s, and the metamorphosis from the politically charged dance of the ’30s to the more neutral, highly designed work— often choreographed by gay men— that came along during and after the McCarthy period.
Cage met Cunningham in Seattle in 1938, and by 1944 they’d both settled in New York, surrounding themselves with avant-garde musicians and painters who made scores, costumes, and scenery for Cunningham’s dances and filled the seats at his concerts even when the press ignored them. Nikolais, who’s exhaustively examined from every angle in the collection of essays subtitled “Bodies, Boundaries, and the Dance Canon,” came from Connecticut, where for years he earned his living accompanying screenings of silent films.
While Morris takes on her chosen era alone, the Nikolais volume collects a retinue of international scholars and critics responding to Nik, who famously declared that he was interested in “motion, not emotion.”
Art critic Philip Auslander calls Nik a “formalist who championed an art of pure, self-referential abstraction.” Nikolais committed himself to “ecological and environmental visions” 30 years ago, using relatively primitive technologies to create effects that can now be managed in an instant with a laptop and cheap video equipment. He mounted light shows and scenes prefiguring LSD trips a generation before these things became the currency of American youth culture. In 1978, Clive Barnes compared Nik’s choreography to a lava lamp.
In “The Returns of Alwin Nikolais” Claudia Gitelman re-creates the atmosphere and energy of Nikolais’s pedagogy, interpolating his own language. Randy Martin positions the choreographer, who stopped dancing after his service in World War II and drew heavily on his dancers’ creative contributions, in the theater and educational community of his time. Marcia Siegel eloquently describes Nik’s work and grounds it in the context of German expressionist dance. Dance scholar Yvonne Hardt limns the politics, visible and otherwise, in his work and its influence on German choreographers working now.
Nikolais was the first choreographer to own and use a Moog synthesizer; various writers discuss his musical contributions and thefts. Mark Franko articulates canonical issues and why they matter in dance. Herbert Blau’s bewildering, 25-page, 43-section essay, which surrounds a portfolio of fabulous color plates by Tom Caravaglia, defends Nik while ruminating on the future of theater.
A third of the Nikolais volume is dedicated to “documents”: brief personal memoirs from Nik and his partner Murray Louis, a selection of illuminating reviews, a chronology of the 118 works Nik made over 50 years, and a log of his troupe’s appearances, plus a fine bibliography. Neither of these books is easy reading, but both yield useful formulations for those who actually think, and care, about the fate of the 20th-century dance canon, and by extension about the future of the field.