You can take dance out of the theater, but you can't take the theater out of dance. Or not for long. Such was the refrain of the Dance Critics Association conference in New York a couple of weeks ago, dedicated this year to the theme "Text and Context: The Theater of Dance."
In a manifesto of 1965 that served as a rallying cry for "postmodern" dance, as it has since come to be called, Yvonne Rainer sounded a notorious litany of negation:
"No to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to the glamor and transcendency of the star image no to the heroic no to the antiheroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the perfomer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved."
There followed a period of brilliant and furious experimentation with minimal and severely formalist dances, including many by Rainer, inaugurating an era that seemed at the time defiantly "antitheatrical." It turns out in retrospect that there was a hidden agenda, a swarm of "yesses" lurking under these "noes" -- affirmations of alternatives to the traditional strategies and means of dance art.
Indeed, the theatrics supposedly banished from dance during the minimalist heyday never did disappear; they merely took on another guise. And today, even though contemporary dance still rides under the banner of postmodernism and traces its roots to the rebellious '60s, we're clearly into a new era of expansiveness. Some of the pioneer postmodernists are themselves now striving toward a flamboyant multidimensionality in their work, and among younger practitioners of dance, the impulse toward austerity has given way to an open embrace of the very things Rainer -- in theory, at least -- had banned.
It would be well not to overlook "market factors" in this evolution. The history of modern dance in this country has been largely one of impoverished individuals and groups battling for a place in the artistic sun. The early modern dancers performed in gymnasiums and high schools because they couldn't afford or weren't welcome in more deluxe surroundings. The first generations of postmodernists took to lofts, churches and the streets for much the same reasons. In recent times, however, contemporary dance has gained more of a foothold in "establishment" precincts, such as opera houses and ballet companies, and therewith, access to the illusionary resources of the stage.
Still, there's also been a major change in artistic outlook. Throughout the past two decades, some choreographers have resisted the tide and gone about their own quite different business. In the context of minimalism, they looked "old-fashioned"; now they suddenly seem right up to date. History, in its revolving cycle of trends, has caught up with them. Among this group are a number of leading figures -- Liz Lerman, Maida Withers and Wendy Woodson, for example -- in Washington. In this city -- perhaps because of its centrifugal pressures toward politics and verbiage -- dealing with content, narrative, expressiveness and autobiography has never been out of the foreground.
This very shift in priorities is what made the DCA conference topic -- the relation between dance and theater -- seem so timely. As Roger Copeland put it in a keynote essay for the meeting, ". . . the backlash against formalism (and minimalism) so evident in the dance world today can also be regarded as an embrace of theatricality. The renewal of interest in narrative and emotional expressivity, coupled with a new commitment to collaboration on the part of choreographers, composers, and visual artists -- all adds up to a new theatricality."
The matter of definitions came up repeatedly at the conference. What does "theatrical" mean with respect to dance? Can an abstract or nonrepresentational dance have theatrical aspects? Must a dance be performed in a theater in order to be theatrical?
Obviously there are many usages. Sometimes one speaks of theatrical dance merely to distinguish it from participatory genres, such as social or folk dance. Sometimes theater is equated with drama, and only "story ballets" and other kinds of narrative or symbolic dances are taken into account. In other cases, it's the trappings of stage production -- scenery, costumes, lighting -- that are signified by the term "theatrical." In dance, too, as in other fields, words like "theatrical" or "dramatic" are often applied in a general, atmospheric sense to anything marked by high contrast, conflict, crisis or exaggeration.
Most of the DCA sessions were devoted to examining either the interplay between dance people (choreographers, dancers) and theater people (directors, visual artists, lighting designers, costumers), or to particular dance repertory -- the ballets of Sir Frederick Ashton, recent work by postmodern choreographers, for instance -- viewed from a theatrical standpoint.
Among the panel discussions was one on "Acting in Dance," led by four dancers noted for their dramatic powers -- Lowell Smith, Stuart Hodes, Sallie Wilson and Francisco Moncion. Wilson, a protege of choreographer Antony Tudor, asserted that "dancing is acting, even in abstract ballets; when you're dancing, you're being someone or something on stage, and you must be integrating not just the legs, feet and arms into how you move, but also who or what you are." Smith, a noted principal of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, concurred. "What you see is what you get when a dancer's out there -- if all that dancer is thinking of is technique, that's all you see."
On the other hand, getting into a character not only qualifies a dancer's movement, but can also amplify technique: "When the Golden Slave in 'Scheherazade' leaps off the stage," said Smith, "Lowell Smith holds on for dear life; it's the character who's doing the jump."
Moncion, a great veteran of the New York City Ballet, said that George Balanchine never gave explicit directions to dancers about emotional or dramatic interpretation, but rather chose dancers whose innate qualities as people suited his expressive purpose. "You have to have great mental concentration, pulling everything into you like a black hole in space, even in something as simple as a hand gesture," Moncion said. On the other hand, he said, "a part of you has to remain aware, you must see yourself objectively, otherwise the movement can be so internalized nothing is coming out -- you can be tearing your heart out, but the audience will be untouched."
Hodes, who danced with Martha Graham's company, agreed. "There's a kind of schizophrenia involved," he said. Hodes also noted, "We've been talking about feeling teaching you movement, but I think it can also work the other way around." As an example, he told of a frightened 16-year-old dancer he was once trying to coax into a gesture of lascivious invitation. "Explaining the character and the feelings just wasn't working, so finally I said, okay, extend your arm, don't let the elbow break, drop your wrist, lift your forefinger as high as possible without moving your hand position, and now look straight down your arm at the boy. That was it, it was perfect, doing the movement had taught her the feeling."
The question of the delicate balance between acting and dancing came up again in the panel on the ballets of Ashton. As Moncion noted later, Balanchine was notorious for demanding steps, not acting (i.e., emoting, characterizing), from his dancers; whatever feelings his choreography expressed were to be inherent in and deduced from the movement alone (though Balanchine himself made exceptions to this rule in works such as "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Don Quixote," "Vienna Waltzes" and others).
It stands to reason, though, that different repertories require different treatment. For a dancer interpreting Ashton, an actor's instincts and techniques would seem indispensable. Even so, as Ashton biographer David Vaughan pointed out, Ashton himself has always insisted on the primacy of movement in his work. Another panelist, P.W. Manchester, recalled Ashton once saying, "If I had my way, I'd never do story ballets," explaining that it was the company's (the Royal Ballet) need for both narrative and pure dance works that led him to creating dramatic pieces.
It has been Ashton's special genius to fuse dramatic gesture and classical dancing into an indissoluble blend, so that, as panelist Dale Harris observed, it becomes impossible in an inspired performance to tell where one leaves off and the other begins: "You can't separate the acting from the dancing; the acting is in the dancing, the dancing is in the acting." The accuracy of the point was hauntingly confirmed in the filmed excerpts from Ashton's "Enigma Variations," "A Month in the Country" and "Romeo and Juliet" shown during the session. In a shatteringly powerful scene from "Enigma," for example, two men exchange a world of feeling in the gesture of clasping each other's shoulders, and a simple arabesque is transformed from an academic pose into a profoundly poetic utterance. The consensus of the panel was best expressed by Richard Glasstone, who said that there are two poles, equally fraught with danger -- dancing that is not in some way aligned with feeling or dramatic idea ends up as gymnastics, and dancing that is overly burdened with acting turns into histrionics. Somewhere in between falls an ideal equilibrium, but the emphasis depends on the choreographic context.
A panel on "Post-Modern Spectacle" afforded a fascinating glimpse of the ways in which some of the revolutionaries of the '60s view today's trends, especially in the light of their own work. Rainer, who couldn't be present, was represented by a film of her path-breaking solo, "Trio A," created at the time of her "No to spectacle . . ." edict. Watching it from the perspective of the '80s proved that no matter how rigorously she strove to keep the quotidian movements and their execution neutral and uninflected, Rainer herself was so potently charismatic a dancer that the performance was intensely, undeniably dramatic. David Gordon, whose "Field, Chair and Mountain" created a stir here last December in its American Ballet Theatre premiere, and who danced in "Trio A" in its earliest version, said that he didn't understand Rainer's manifesto then or now. "I thought she was saying no to conventional theatricality as we know it, and here's mine. To me, 'Trio A' was a very theatrical act."
Gordon also remarked that he never thought of himself as a rebel, even in the '60s. "I had nothing to rebel against. I hadn't come into dance through the usual route of studying with Graham, Limon or Humphrey. I wan- dered in from the fine arts department of Brooklyn College -- I thought I would be a painter. The cultural baggage I brought with me was television, radio, the movies, what I'd read and seen, so that's what got into my work . . . I didn't know we were trying to get rid of anything. I wasn't, certainly. I was try- ing to add something, to include more things in performance than I'd known to be possible."
Copanelist Trisha Brown, whose "Set and Reset," a collaboration between herself, Laurie Anderson and Robert Rauschenberg, was seen in Washington a couple of seasons back, was willing to concede that her recent works "have become more theatrical." "By comparison with the Judson Dance Theater days," she said, "it's all dressed up." She, too, however, said she didn't think of this as a departure from her past -- during which, she noted, "only certain kinds of real estate were made available to us" -- but rather as largely a matter of new opportunities.
A younger trio of postmodernists -- Jane Comfort, Blondell Cummings and Stephanie Skura -- dealt with the issue of "Text and Dance in the 1980s." The three not only talked about but also presented recent work of theirs in live performance, in each case involving words as a fundamental ingredient. The excerpts -- all impressively surehanded and imaginative -- illustrated a rampant diversity in approach to verbal material, and its integration with movement.
In a section from Comfort's "TV Love," a man and a woman on chairs closed in on another man striking bravado postures between them, the seated duo all the while carrying on a fugal babble about "Mr. Wonderful." In "The No-No Song," Cummings, dressed as a nun, huddled on the floor crooning the single word "no" over and over, as her body, her tone of voice and her timing converted the recital into a dithyramb of vacillating emotions. The excerpt from Skura's "Chase Scene" had Skura standing beside a video showing herself dancing on and around a ladder, as Skura delivered an increasingly rapid, risingly hysterical free- association monologue about the video piece.
Cummings uses words, she said, because "I'm working with characters, and words are another energy for understanding character, they give characters a place and time and personal identity." She also said that she grew up with African traditional dances as her model, in which words and movement were never separated: "You were always singing and dancing at the same time."
Comfort said that she, too, was influenced by other kinds of movement traditions in which words played a part -- Afro-Brazilian capoeira, and sign language -- and that she'd always thought of movement in terms of sentences and paragraphs. On the other hand, she uses words less for their meaning than for their rhythm. "I think of my work as making a symphony," she said. "My goal is to integrate the words into the dance so that you'll never ask why I'm talking. I go to dance performances and ask myself why aren't they talking, just as when I hear a 6-year-old asking at a 'Nutcracker' performance, 'Mommy, why didn't those people talk when they told that story?' "
Skura had yet another point of view. "I thought for a while about just doing dance movement, but words always crept in, not in a premeditated way. I'd dance, and say whatever was on my mind, about things like picking up the laundry. When I began doing this in performance, I felt that it enabled the audience to see that other things were going on in the dancer, and also that it eliminated the internal censor, it was a way of getting other aspects of a dancer, as a person, working in performance. I'm also interested in fragmentation and interruption in words and movement. In the theater most of the time, we get one line at a time. But life isn't like that -- there's a thousand things going on in our heads at once, making plans, flashbacks, daydreams, especially in a place like New York, where we're so used to being bombarded. Instead of pretending that it's one line, in my work I'd rather document what really is, the things that drive us crazy . . . what makes it not just crazy and disoriented is a kind of relatedness, a unity of texture that's the beauty of it."
Meanwhile, as the DCA sessions took place, all over town in various spots within New York's teeming dance culture, performances of awesome variety were bearing out the advent of the "new theatricality" and the issues it raises.
At Lincoln Center, New York City Ballet performances of Balanchine's "Four Temperaments" and "Symphony in Three Movements" were looking diluted precisely because a virtuosic but youthful generation of company dancers was unable to embody the dramatic implications of this so-called "abstract" but unmistakably metaphorical choreography. By contrast, seeing Suzanne Farrell -- now 39, and a more sublime artist than ever -- dancing in the romantic "Elegie" movement of "Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3," demonstrated just how flagrantly theatrical a Balanchine dancer can become without doing violence to the classical proportioning of the master's vision.
At the Gershwin Theatre, Twyla Tharp's new version of "Singin' in the Rain," based on the peerless 1952 MGM musical, was in previews (as of this writing, the opening had been postponed again, this time indefinitely). The lesson here was the immense -- possibly unconquerable -- challenge of transcription from the one medium to the other. Tharp, in her debut as a Broadway director, as well as choreographer, astonished many by opting not to refashion the Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor tap numbers in her own manner, but instead trying to duplicate the original choreography on stage. There are, however, at least two gigantic obstacles. One is the problem of transferring material so closely tailored to Kelly and O'Connor onto the very different bodies and personalities of Don Correia and Peter Slutsker. The other, even more formidable, is the absence of one of the film's essential collaborators -- the camera. The lack of cinematic mobility and montage is felt most keenly in what were the film's hottest spots -- O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" routine and Kelly's title number.
At other locations -- "alternative" arts centers where most of the stimulating new dance work in New York gets seen -- further dimensions of dance theater waxed high. At La Mama E.T.C., an interesting new company calling itself Urban Bush Women (they performed at Takoma Park yesterday in the "Sisterfire" festival) was presenting "Spirit Rising," assimilating African ritual, folk tales and games into the framework of contemporary performance.
In a "Dance and Popular Culture" program at Long Island City's P.S 1 (Project Space One), the prodigiously gifted, fast-rising choreographer Mark Morris (his company will appear in the "Dance America" series at the Kennedy Center in November) demonstrated in "Lovey," a new quartet to music by Violent Femmes, how punk sensibilities and the MTV look can be distilled into an acidly satirical new idiom.
And at the Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, Bessie Award-winning choreographer Fred Holland was showing just how wild and inclusive the "new theatricality" can get with his staggering "Harbor/Cement." Chaotic, patchy and mystifying, but also riveting and provocative, it's a multimedia opus involving, among other things, 20 performers, deafening music, color film, slide projections, painting, chanting, recitation, oratory, nudity, shadow- play and a mammoth lifeboat that is raised and lowered periodically over two tall stories.
The winds may change at a moment's notice, but for now, it's hard to see how dance and theater could be more closely intertwined.