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On Edwin Denby

Edwin Denby is well known as an impressive dance critic. By the time he was sixty, the two volumes of his collected notices from the Forties and Fifties were taken as basic theatrical history.1 Although his particular attention referred to performances no longer visible, moral and aesthetic judgment illuminated current parallels. His analyses were superbly constructed, usually constructive, and warmly glowing with an absolute love of the art. They also had a scalpel’s delicate, sanitary edge when detecting a spot as false. His prose was didactic, schooling fractions of audience more than lightly amused. He taught three generations to see more than they had first suspected, and inspired more than one young English literature major to think with care about writing on dancing.

Edwin was a great dance critic primarily because he was a fine poet. His poems, while collected and well presented in 1975,2 through the enthusiasm of close friends, are available today for readers who prize good verse as much as good dancing. He is not anthologized. Modern literature courses don’t take much account of him, nor is he treated as an important lyricist by many beyond a band of admirers, too often discounted as a coterie. But some poets, now far more fully published, appreciate such poetry; this was the only fame he liked. He accepted the nomination of journalist, but craft and insight lifted him to the level of professional artist. In his elegy, “Snoring in New York,” he presents himself:

Summer New York, friends tonight at cottages
I lie motionless, a single retired man
White-haired, ferrety, feminine, religious
I look like a priest, a detective, a con
Nervously I step among the city crowd
My private life of no interest and allowed

Brutality or invisibility
We have for one another and to ourselves
Gossamer-like lifts the transparent city
Its levitating and ephemeral shelves
So shining, so bridged, so demol- ished a woof
Towers and holes we sit in that gale put to proof

It is hardly by chance that the most thorough writers concerned with dance were prime poets—Théophile Gautier, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry. Other verse makers who observed dancing with some attention, but are rarely read for it, are Federico García Lorca and Hart Crane. It is to these master choreographers of words that Denby is most akin.

When his verse is read with the care it deserves and commands, he may be recognized as the clearest lyric voice of Manhattan since Crane’s epopeia of the Brooklyn Bridge. He shares Crane’s quirkiness in implosive short circuits of dense, awkwardly precise rhetoric, odd broken rhymes, reckless rhythm, sharpness of physical imagery and incandescent metaphor. There is a sense of place, of American loneliness, which could serve a geography of candor by Edward Hopper. Crane was a hysteric, his hysteria increasing tragically from self-inflamed euphoria. Compulsive self-indulgence did him in early on. Denby was a survivor, who put an end to himself only when old, when he could no longer manage his body. This he accomplished, with much good work behind him, large in instruction and influence. He endured unspoken pain and took a stoic exit, disdaining to burden further his friends or himself. This is more a matter for celebration than for sadness.

His poetry concerns cities in history, past and present, European and American, detailed with domestic intimacy, an experienced tourist’s familiarity. Rudy Burckhardt, his lifelong friend and illuminator, provided a visual gloss on specific sites. Controlled accident in snapshots is always present in Edwin’s imagery. To say that he had a “photographic” eye and memory is certainly true. The atmosphere, societies and qualities of many cities, Mediterranean and American, form an album of super-postcards, more real than any nostalgic material souvenir.

I stroll on Madison in expensive clothes, sour.
Ostrich-legg’d or sweet-chested, the loping clerks
Slide me a glance nude as oh in a tiled shower
And lope on dead-pan, large male and female jerks.

Later from the open meadow in the Park
I watch a bulging pea-soup storm lie midtown;
Here the high air is clear, there buildings are murked,
Manhattan absorbs the cloud like a sage-brush plain.

In the grass sleepers sprawl without attraction:
Some large men who turned side- ways, old ones on papers,
A soldier, face handkerchiefed, an erection
In his pants—only men, the women don’t nap here.

Can these wide spaces suit a par- ticular man?
They can suit whomever man’s intestines can.

García Lorca, in exile at Columbia University, was miserable in Manhattan. Nevertheless, out of misery, he composed his memorable portrait of Walt Whitman, another psalmist of cities. Whitman’s voice resounds in García Lorca, Crane, and Denby, not only for their “love of comrades” and “sleepers,” but in their substantial miniatures of cityscapes, their crowds, corner bars, shops which frame fierce and tender lives. There is a short-breathed sonnet by Denby, “On the Home Front—1942,” encapsulating a moment in our national story, as every famous wartime photograph does, and its final couplet makes a generalization which is also the portrait of its poet:

The small survivor has a difficult task
Answering the questions great his- torians ask.

Edwin’s presence was that of a dancer. Forty years ago he looked like a boy retired from ballet. Slim, trim, eager, and courtly, he kept trimness and courtesy, always. Quiet elegance solidified in a firm aura while his handsome head turned gray to white. His presence at performances of the New York City Ballet was steady reassurance; while his fair opinion was always hoped for, his silent authority made any casual gossip superfluous.

His essay on Stravinsky’s and Balanchine’s Agon (1957) is the most telling and comprehensive technical appreciation of a dance work that has been written. To be able to make visible in words what was, and is, difficult to grasp by eyes alone, treating steps lacking any narrative pretext, is in itself a tour de force, more exhausting than any thirty-two fouettés en tournant. Denby’s degree of penetration touching the irreducible skeleton of a masterpiece was equivalent in quality to the matters in question.

Many attached to classic academic ballet read his particulars of performance as sturdy correctives. He loved every tribe of dancer, traditional, ethnic, experimental, popular. He had no preconceived prejudice and was not the keeper of any personal, possessive flame. He tended to lean eagerly toward pioneers, not only giving newcomers benefit of doubt for their daring, but because he delighted in and was amused by any effort to budge human bodies in alternatives to habit.

Balanchine talked little and thought less about journalism covering dance events. Actually, he read everything he laid his hands on relative to his own company, while steadfastly denying this. However, it amounted to the same thing, since he was so secure in his own opinion that he disqualified columns he found irrelevant as nonexistent. After all, dance critics, like cobblers, had to earn their living. But after reading Edwin’s extraordinary essay on Agon he sent it to Stravinsky.

Long ago, Balanchine was asked point-blank how he estimated two then very famous, influential critics. Akim Lvovich Volynsky (1863-1926) wrote a “Book of Exultation” (Kniga Likovani), 1923, one of the first studies to employ detailed photographs of ballet positions, attempting to establish a canon of correctness. An erudite art historian, Volynsky had the temerity to open “a private choreographic school” on his own, after the October Revolution. Balanchine said he was not an unfamiliar type of fraud, who, since he was a balletomane, thought he could teach ballet: “He was an idiot, but not blessèd.” The other, André Levinson (1887-1933), a Russian émigré, became a capital force in the Paris press. A rampant enemy of the innovations of Diaghilev and Nijinsky, he wrote in Candide, June 21, 1926, that Apollon Musagète (Stravinsky-Balanchine-Bauchant-Chanel) betrayed the entire tradition of classicism and was the disaster of aesthetic perverts. Balanchine said only: “Levinson was a cop whose goddess was Anna Pavlova.”

When he read Denby’s criticism of Concerto Barocco, he told Richard Buckle, “If you must write, try writing like that.” Buckle replied sadly: “But I’m not a dancer….” Edwin was trained as a dancer: he knew in his own bone, mind, and muscle how dancers feel about how they step. Gautier, Mallarmé, Valéry, were not dancers, but their gifts as lyric poets fulfilled the discrepancy. Edwin was both dancer and poet. His prose is textbook information, chapter and verse.

Some of us believe in the beauty and scope of his songs (written for Aaron Copland’s operas), his sonnets, his elegiac praise of towns, his strong sense of the inhalation and exhalation of peoples, day and night, in their mass, in their individuality. Here is scent and sense not to be found in any other “modern” American versifier. This, a second stanza from “Groups and Series”:

In enterprise, in sleep, how well men wear
the shifting illuminations of the air:
watching a sleeper we will come to trust
the body anchored in its breathing’s thrust;
loosened in sleep, his weight lies there as such,
rounded in all this moonlight, cool to touch.
Beside you, broken by the lamp’s short beams,
he shows you shadows black as parts of dreams.

  1. 1

    Looking at the Dance (Curtis Books, 1973); Dancers, Buildings and People in the Street (Popular Library, 1979)

  2. 2

    Collected Poems (Full Court, 1975).

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