First, a bit of autobiography. Years ago I set out to write, to teach, perhaps to become a literary critic. Tortured by the need to sit still, I took dance classes to break up days at my desk, and was pointed toward dance journalism by a teacher who liked my reviews. Ditching grad school in English literature to write for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the alternative press, I decided to read all the dance books in the Vancouver Public Library: about eighty the day I counted them. “Piece of cake,” I said to myself, figuring that when I was done I’d be ready to dive in to dance criticism.
That was in another country, and another century. Now there are probably eight thousand dance books written in English, and so many piled up in my apartment that I’ve considered replacing my queen-size bed with a single to make more room for shelves. This boom in dance literature coincides with the tailing-off of the boom in performance, which has been evident since the early Nineties; many funders now more readily support scholarship and archiving than creative projects. University dance departments seek candidates with doctorates, and require them to publish. That obligation is our gain; herewith, a quick look at the crop of the season.
Susan Rosenberg, an art historian at St. John’s University, directs its master’s degree program in museum administration. Her Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art focuses on the first half of Brown’s fifty-year career, and gives pride of place to illustrations; academic authors typically bear the costs of including visual material in their publications, but Rosenberg landed several grants to underwrite this expense, and her book fetchingly abounds with reproductions of performance and studio shots, posters, and pages from Brown’s extensive notebooks. Brown, who died last month at eighty, enjoyed enduring collaborative relationships with the twentieth century’s most significant visual artists; her process naturally attracted Rosenberg, who worked in museums for twenty years just as choreography began to be found worthy of attention by institutions whose goal is preservation.
Another art historian, Bruce Robertson, collaborated with dance scholar Ninotchka Bennahum and critic, editor, and Trisha Brown alumna Wendy Perron on Radical Bodies, the catalog for an archival museum show now at UC Santa Barbara and heading for the NYPL’s Library for the Performing Arts next month. The attractive, large-format volume gives props to 96-year-old Anna Halprin, on whose outdoor dance deck Brown began her improvisatory experiments in 1960 and first met Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti, later to become significant colleagues at Judson Dance Theater and Grand Union. Included alongside essays by the three co-curators are reminiscences by Forti, critic John Rockwell, and composer Morton Subotnick, all collaborators in Halprin’s radical practice.
Rosemary Candelario, a young scholar with a background in anthropology and a doctorate in culture and performance, does a masterful job plumbing the history of Eiko & Koma, dance artists born in Japan but living in the United States since 1977. Her Flowers Cracking Concrete provides a useful critique of decades of reviews of the duo’s work, and of how that work has often been misinterpreted, even by the Voice‘s Deborah Jowitt. Ably negotiating the often tedious demands of academic writing, the book provides a valuable record of forty years in their lives and ours.
The gratifying thing about these writers is the way they use dance journalism as a scholarly resource, bringing the thinking of many critics to bear on their own theoretical work. The frustrating thing is the obscurity of some of the prose. Dana Mills’s Dance and Politics, a reworking of her doctoral dissertation at Oxford, sets about expanding “our notion of what is political so that it includes dance.” A teacher of political theory, she posits transactions between artists and audiences, using as examples Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, South African gumboot dancers, Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising action to end violence against women, and Israeli choreographer Arkadi Zaides’s danced protests against human rights violations in Palestine. She interpolates the URLs of YouTube clips so we can follow along. She examines a “moment of subversion through the body operating within the normative-theoretical idea of radical hope: a new ontology that gives its subject the possibility to dance a world in becoming.” Say what? Her writing is so convoluted that parsing it has taken me weeks.
The general atrophy of periodical dance criticism, now reduced in even so august a publication as the New York Times, reaches a new low in the current issue of Dance Ink, a publication spearheaded by philanthropist Patsy Tarr, designed by Abbott Miller and Andrew Walters of Pentagram, and edited by Nancy Dalva. Launched in 1989, suspended in 1996, and replaced soon after by another project called 2wice, the quarterlies used to sparkle with dazzling art and writing. (I remember fondly photographs of steam locomotives by O. Winston Link, with commentary by critic Tobi Tobias.) This spring’s slim ten-by-fourteen-inch journal is essentially an abecedary, displaying abstractions of an alphabet designed by Abbott Miller behind Pari Dukovic’s photos of dancer Melissa Toogood (in a pieced unitard by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung) striking poses choreographed during the shoot by Pam Tanowitz. Bookending these are a 250-word introduction by Dalva and a page of biographical notes. The magazine is handsome but opaque. The thoughtful essays we so valued in those early editions are gone. For comparable fare this season, you’ll want to check in with Jowitt’s pieces, at artsjournal.com, or seek out Ballet Review, now publishing in glorious, living color.
Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art
By Susan Rosenberg
Wesleyan University Press
Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in
California and New York, 1955–1972
By Ninotchka Bennahum, Wendy Perron, and Bruce Robertson, et al.
University of California Press
Flowers Cracking Concrete: Eiko & Koma’s Asian/American Choreographies
By Rosemary Candelario
Wesleyan University Press
Dance & Politics: Moving Beyond Boundaries
By Dana Mills
Manchester University Press
Dance Ink, Vol. 8, No. 2
2wice Arts Foundation