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Mind and Body

Afterimages

by Arlene Croce
Knopf, 466 pp., $12.95

Theatrical criticism is surely one of the most awkward, slippery, and transient of all observant crafts. Its ephemeral reference corresponds to the fragility of the performances it recalls. The artifact, the printed word, persists for judgment; staged action instantaneously becomes matter for ambiguous and fading memory. There is repertory, of course, but casts change. No two performances are ever the same. Dancing, in its cardinal evanescence, physicality, and intensity, is, perhaps even more than spectator sports, the least handy motion for a watcher to fix. And for whom is “dance criticism” written? For the small portion of an audience who may have both seen the identical performance and read the corresponding notice? For an “informed public,” which is a smaller, opinionated segment of the “dance public”? For “the record”—or to satisfy the policy of popular coverage, however perfunctory?

There are a half-dozen writers whose commentaries seem to survive their subjects, by the grace of their gusto, and sometimes keep a life of their own, even superior to the occasion of their primary promptings. For drama, Shaw and Max Beerbohm; for music, Berlioz, Stravinsky (with Robert Craft); for film, Cocteau and James Agee. Their close attention, wide experience of seeing and hearing leave a residue of socio-aesthetic reports which can seem permanently relevant quite apart from their first immediacy. Memorable dance criticism is extremely rare. Apart from having anti-quarian interest, remains from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are largely curiosities, and can only be translated into something vaguely imaginable, with an erudition which can often overkill. In the nineteenth century, there were two French poets and three or four semi-professional balletomanes who still say something about the essence of performance, to us, here and now. At least Théophile Gautier and Stéphane Mallarmé, through the grace of their diction, offer vivid metaphors of the same vein as their great poetic gifts. One is led to believe something of the same of the Russians, still largely untranslated. These all give us furtive glimpses of what dancing may have been like had we been there to see it.

Matters aren’t much easier for our own time; workaday journalism, read even a couple of years after the event, seems as brittle and faded as the newsprint upon which it is printed, although Jacques Rivière and Cocteau in Paris, Cyril Beaumont and Richard Buckle in London; Carl van Vechten and John Martin in New York have left vivid impressions of commitment and practical analysis. On the old Herald-Tribune, Edwin Denby, an ex-dancer and poet, combined expertness and sympathy, and matched the brilliance, wit, and charm of Virgil Thomson. In a few pieces, notably on Martha Graham, Stark Young showed a highly cultivated sense of visual and moral factors.

John Pope-Hennessey wrote of Berenson:

…his published works on art history were dedicated to things seen. The appeal of the visual arts was in his view not to the intellect but to the eye, and the eye therefore was the organ by which they must be analyzed. Visual analysis presupposed visual assimilation, the slow drinking in of works of art until they became part of the fabric of his personality…. Trained minds are more commonly encountered than trained eyes, and his ferocious distrust of iconographical research was due not to the fact that he believed this valueless but that he regarded it as an evasion of the art historian’s main task. “The trouble is, he has no eye,” he would say as he read some learned book—and how often was he proved correct….

Most members of an audience do not use their eyes to any percentage of their muscular or analytical capacity. They do not see; they scan a surface. And, relative to dancing, we can equate art historians with most dance critics, from autodidact journalists without much academic information who substitute sensibility for responsible observation to those professionals trained primarily as musicians whose eyes are subordinate to their ears. And then there is an increasingly large lunatic fringe who treat dancing as a branch of anthropological metaphysics, a subject somehow elevated to a level transcending the visual.

What is useful in a dance critic is what Virgil Thomson provided in his attendance on music, a very expert and inclusive historical comparative method, an immersion in the art of performance, refusal to gossip or repeat received notions, an elevated morality past the blandishment of personalities, plus charm and verbal snap. It is never easy to meet daily deadlines; to say something both bright and true about occasions which are, in so many ways, repetitive but unique. Writing for weeklies affords time for meditation, seeing or hearing a work more than once; correction, carefulness. Instant observation, like sports’ reporting, is seldom more than re-cap, résumé, or the usual proclamation of personal preference which reiterates the primary limitations of the reporter far more than what he reports.

So it is with something approaching consternation that one is handed a body of informed observance with the breadth, depth, wit, power, and elegance of Arlene Croce’s weekly reports on dance from 1973 to 1977, her monthly pieces from 1969 to 1971, and her quarterly essays from 1966 to 1972. She has been free of the curse and responsibility of daily coverage. If there are any critics of dancing, ancient or modern, to compare with her settled judgments, they have not been collected. What is scanned is usually very superficially absorbed and the frailty of absorption is quite satisfactory even to those self-considered devotees whom Nietzsche called “the educated rabble.” Dancing, because of its immediate physicality, its shift in time and space, has a fluid plausibility which is apparently undemanding and comestible. What Croce sees, and how she sees, and is able to transmit, is what dancers, individually, in groups, and in mass, do. She writes as if she were in the bodies and minds of dancers, as well as in the structure and map of their danced design.

Naturally it would be better to have been at the same performances at which she was present, but her notices apply to parallel action and consistent behavior. Her personal preferences are defined with courage; not for her the hypocrisy of a flaccid workaday “objectivity” which can’t mask disheartened routine. She posits a standard of stage behavior which by statement and restatement exacts a proper location of physical and metaphysical factors, adding up to an informal field theory of virtuosic theatrical energy. This is not a matter of accidental taste, of a chemical attraction which is essentially narcissistic. Her sightings are as generous as they can be relentless, cruel and cautious, recognizing the hazards in practice as well as its inexplicable miracles. The quality of dancing, of dancers, and of dance design has to be reduced in analysis, and synthesized in recalcitrant words. Poetic metaphor, impressionist verbiage, panegyric, innocent enthusiasm even, usually tell more about the writer than the dance. And only too often, “critics” prefer to set down something which sounds well rather than what is essentially relevant or revealing.

Only a brief anthology snipped from her collected essays gives a clue to the vividness, justice, and care of her eye and ear.

On choreography:

Good choreography fuses eye, ear, and mind. This fusion is itself the complete experience one looks for, and it takes place in delight—the perfect intellectual delight, as Proust says somewhere, of seeing a pattern. This is why dancing is so hard to discuss with sobriety. Nothing one can think of to say about it afterward is adequate, since the appeal is not to the analytical but to the assimilative faculty….

…In Bournonville as in Balanchine, correct training prepares the dancer for nonstop continuity, complex combinations, neatness and fullness of execution. Visually, the experience of Bournonville is high-density, like Balanchine (and, one might add, with Torse and Rebus in mind, like Merce Cunningham). The steps are joined together with infinitesimal links and preparations and are launched from the front of the foot. The raised heel, the quick and powerful instep create speed, vivacity, mercurial contrast. Bournonville was to dancing in the nineteenth century what Bellini and Donizetti were to singing: there is no separation between substance and decoration….

[On Massine’s ballets of the late Thirties] The pantomime is conspicuously large and clear, carrying a full-throated force like singing. When the classical distinction between pantomime (or speech) and dance (or song) is blurred in this way, the ballet can either leap along on a volatile current or it can hobble ineffectively like a mechanical toy. It was Tudor’s genius, in the period 1936-46, to perceive this danger in the Massine style and to circumvent it by creating a choreography that lowered the lyrical pitch of Massine spectacle. In the forties, Tudor was hailed as a revolutionary realist, but he was actually an introverted Massine. The Tudor ballet remained, like the Massine, transposed opera. In Massine, mime tends toward the condition of dance; in Tudor, dance tends toward the condition of mime. Tudor didn’t abandon the Massine style. Ingeniously, he inverted it….

[On The Four Temperaments] Balanchine’s control of the action’s subliminal force allows us the most marvellous play in our minds; we’re torn in an agony of delight between what we see and what we think we see. Metaphoric implications flash by, achieve their bright dazzle of suggestion, and subside into simple bodily acts. The way the women stab the floor with their points or hook their legs around men’s waists or grip their partner’s wrists in lifts—images of insatiable hunger, or functional necessities? Balanchine gives us a sharp pair of spectacles to see with, but he occasionally fogs one of the lenses. If he didn’t, we’d perish from the glare….

…In Push Comes to Shove, some of the gag material goes beyond the discipline and self-sufficiency of her style, and despite the abundant flow of creative juice throughout the piece, the final impression it makes is a bit slender. When Twyla Tharp gives us more than she has to, she actually gives us less than we want.

Still, she gives us a lot, and she spreads it around. Tharp has a logician’s mind and a vaudevillian’s heart. The tension between the two is her hallmark, and if it occasionally leaves traces of ambiguity in her work (as I think it does here), it gives her a tremendous advantage over every other young choreographer working today: she can be as abstruse as she wants and yet reach the big audience….

What is remarkable about these younger choreographers is precisely their tacit acknowledgment—through coyness, obstreperousness, or insularity—of how devitalized and directionless their kind of dancing has become. And yet there they are, season after season, bringing on premières. Many of these premières are supported by funds from the New York State Council on the Arts or the National Endowment for the Arts, and there are those who argue that it would be healthier for dance as an art if such aid were discontinued. A Draconic solution. Better a “benign neglect” in which the government is benign and the dance public is neglectful, just as it is now. There’s no point in bludgeoning the second-raters, because they don’t stick up far enough. They play to a minority; their budgets are as small as their audiences, and they’re immune from the most common form of corruption. No choreographer who tries to develop a repertory and maintain a company of his own can be doing it for the money. But the counterproposition—that he’s doing it for art—isn’t necessarily true.

On individual dancers:

[In the Vestris solo] What’s thrilling about it is Baryshnikov’s ability to switch in the flash of a second from absolute frenzy to absolute calm, or from states of hilarity to states of gloom, or from buoyant youth to doddering old age. It’s a kind of mime equivalent to the invisible preparations in his dancing….

[Suzanne Farrell in Balanchine’s Chaconne] Farrell (now with hair classically knotted) is high rococo expression in every limb and joint. Architecturally and ornamentally, her dancing is the music’s mirror, an immaculate reflection of its sweep and buoyancy, with no loss of detail. Farrell’s response to music is not to its moment-by-moment impulse but to its broad beat, its overarching rhythm and completeness of scale. When people speak of her as the perfect Balanchine dancer, this is probably what they mean….

[Martha Graham’s successors] Graham training has a tendency to breed young hags; Pearl Lang is an elder ingénue. Always one of the blandest of dancers, she remains in her maturity Graham’s antithesis. Her dancing is not feeble; it has the vigor of docility….

…Dan Wagoner’s difficulties start with his physical limitations. He has an immobile thick torso, a heaviness in plié and relevé which leaves him no means of occupying space except by running or skittering through it. But he’s a furry, crinkly-eyed Teddy bear, and he has built a style on presence alone….

On companies:

The Moiseyev is still selling “folk spirit,” but why are we buying it? Do we want to think Russians are happy simply because Moiseyev dancers leap high and smile? (That’s like citing the antics of well-adjusted performing seals to discredit the stories about the plundered herds of the polar icecaps.) Or is there something in the spectacle that we envy while disbelieving the political message? The energy that the critics attribute to a still vigorous folk heritage is undeniable, but its roots may be more tangled than the critics suspect. Igor Moiseyev’s art is a mixed thing, an art compounded of the folk festival, the circus, and the music hall, but also an art officially sponsored by the state. It is popular entertainment constrained by official party-line wisdom.

Here present is always what Anthony Burgess found lacking in Yehudi Menuhin’s charming and graceful autobiography, the experience of an art itself, “the quiddity, the whatness” of the dynamic expressive act. In her ipseity Arlene Croce never lapses into solipsistic shyness. It is her response to energy at peak moments that distinguishes her criticism. And not the least of her judgments is directed at the sorry confraternity of those whose ensign is an idiosyncratic timbre, more gush than gusto:

The critics are lazy, and they are also timid. Complimentary notices about almost any dancer of rank abound, but the compliments are apt to be vacant, the adjectives interchangeable: so-and-so’s “icy beauty” or “thoroughbred line”—that sort of thing. What about “thoroughbred beauty” and “icy line”? And just which icy thoroughbred is being evoked here? Blot out the name and you can take your pick. The worst thing about such compliments is that they’re neutral; you can’t really tell how the critic is responding—whether excitedly, evasively, sentimentally, or good copy-ly. The out-and-out adverse judgment is so seldom made that you’d think that all dancers now performing are about equally fine on about the same level. I get the feeling that many critics think reviewing dancers just isn’t good form because it may get personal, but surely criticism is a personal act, intimately personal, just as dancing is…. The “disinterested” critic is the sort who will frequently say, in effect: It isn’t my opinion, it’s the public’s….

Afterimages can be read as the most reliable chronicle of theatrical dancing in the United States from 1966 to 1977, which is the most prolific epoch of the art in America. In this period the big international companies showed their advanced development and their contrasting characters. Martha Graham was acknowledged in the fullness of her heroism, Balanchine in his mercurial appetites. The “modern” dance became victimized by the epigones of earlier innovators. The classic traditional academic opera-house discipline of ballet began to surpass its European forebears. New York became the dance capital of the world, and dancing began to enter the appreciation of a populist audience. Our parochial culture, which hates to flatter quality by defining it, equalizing every criterion with a desperate but passive egalitarianism, needs a powerful vocal authority to separate what is fine from what is phony. This is what Arlene Croce has done for the decade. Her book should be a vade mecum for aspirant critics and, maybe most of all, for dance students. As much as possible, she guides curiosity in how to look, and what to look for.

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