After years of privileged obscurity, dance, says Walter Terry, has entered a "Golden Age." In quantity, it would appear, dance books have too. There's a healthy new audience for both, armed often with more enthusiasm than knowledge. Terry speaks to this group in How to Look at Dance.
Terry's long career as a dance critic has been spent in the service of selling, indeed justifying, the art he obviously loves. That's been his mission. Don't worry, he soothes the reader, dance is not really as mysterious, as intimidating as it might at first appear. His recipe for dance-watching is sound: just take a basic understanding of dance history, of the different forms and their techniques, then open your eyes and your senses--and don't worry. Terry seeks to be our guide, to provide the information required to prepare the novice audience for the grand experience of being overtaken by the dance.
When it comes to defining in simple terms the basic movement vocabularies of ballet, modern, jazz, tap, and ethnic dance, Terry is concise, insightful. But technique, he cautions, is not an end in itself--not like scoring a goal in the athletic contests he compares to dance--it is a means to something greater. Needless to say, this is pretty basic stuff.
It becomes, however, too simple. To hear Terry relate the saga of modern dance, one would think that its apex came in 1932 with the creation of Kurt Jooss' ballet masterpiece The Green Table, that Martha Graham's contractions were the genre's last grunt. The blending of ballet and modern dance is given a chapter, yet Terry discusses this "cross-over" phenomenon not in esthetic terms, though this trend has been one of the most significant of at least the past decade, but in terms of individuals like Glen Tetley and Todd Bolender who safely made the jump from one side of the fence to the other. While Terry may be addressing himself to an audience uninterested in serious esthetic discussion, this kind of reduction does no one any good, especially the neophyte. In these "golden" days, dance no longer needs to be considered an oddity that must be simplified and justified to be made palatable.
The photos--and there are many--by Jack and Linda Vartoogian are excellent. Yet so often are they unrelated to the accompanying text that one begins to wonder if they're there for any reason other than to give bulk to an otherwise slender volume.
In Striking a Balance Barbara Newman aims for the other audience, the one for whom dance is a subject to be carefully discussed and documented. Using the fan's enthusiasm augmented by the critic's predilections, Newman has chosen to turn her tape recorder on 24 internationlly known dancers, ranging from Russian ,emigr,es to current New York City Ballet principals, with a heavy dose of Royal Ballet stars tossed in the middle. It's a group I take to be Newman's personal favorites, to judge from the praise- filled comments that introduce each chapter--to judge, as well, from the lack of any other apparent overriding logic that brings these dancers together.
Studs Terkel-style, Newman lets each subject speak about his or her craft, uninterrupted by the author's voice. We hear of the decisions that went into choosing a career in ballet; the teachers and coaches who served as inspiration; the nuts-and- bolts aspects of technique; the importance of music and musicality; the working methods of different choreographers; and the creation of famous roles with which these dancers have been identified. Ballet is demystified. It is just something these dedicated, hardworking people happen to do.
While some dance-goers presume that dancers don't think, no one who reads these detailed accounts of each moment in the making of a great role will ever doubt that dancers think, or wonder what it is they think about. The depth of each pli,e is considered, the tilt of each pinkie, the motive behind each fragment of mime intentional. And we hear it all. An Igor Youskevitch, a Lew Christensen, a Tanaquil LeClercq, a Toni Lander, a Donald MacLeary, a Jean-Pierre Bonnefous, offer intelligent and valuable insights into the process of transforming human limits-- the body, the moment--into art. Yet, all too often the recountings just go on and on. They're numbing.
Dancer Judith Jamison has never been more popular, starring, as she is now, in Sophisticated Ladies on Broadway; but for many years she's been a steady favorite of dance fans as the leading member of Alvin Ailey's company. Olga Maynard's Judith Jamison: Aspects of a Dancer, should appeal to both the new and old Jamison enthusiasts.
This is not a biography, Maynard informs us. Rather, Jamison is to be used as the pivot around which will revolve the story of blacks in dance in contemporary America. And for the first part of the volume, Maynard does accomplish this end: the creation of American Ballet Theater (where Jamison first danced) and its early rivalry with the New York City Ballet become drama; Jamison's story, the well- mannered young girl from Philadelphia who is closed out of this ballet establishment because of her color, is fraught with disappointment and revelation.
Jamison's story is as much the story of her mentor Alvin Ailey as anything. We hear of his childhood poverty in Texas, his work with Lester Horton in California, the harsh road to building his company. Digression follows digression and chapters go on with not even a mention of Jamison. As we switch back to her progress, what earlier was treated as subject for drama becomes merely informative: the telling presents a tally of roles created and triumphs celebrated (and to hear Maynard tell it, they all were triumphs). The greater social context slips away. As it does, Maynard's overwritten prose turns positively gooey.
Never are we allowed inside Jamison the person. Quoted material inserted every so often, and in a lump at the book's end, is meant to suffice for the personal side of the story. In fact, from Maynard we learn more about Jamison's relationship with her dog--albeit a close one-- than with her ex-husband or her lovers. Failures or foibles are hardly mentioned. Maynard is so protective, so uncritical, so obviously enamored of her subject, that one can't fully trust her. Still, the intention of Maynard's volume, and the success she achieves when she sticks to that purpose, is one that offers a solid approach to serving both the dance fan and the dance expert at once. Dance doesn't have to be an obscure subject at all--it can just be a good read.