Dance View; New is Not Always Better
Jack Anderson, The New York Times
December 5, 1982
Not long ago at a party, an acquaintance came up and expressed amazement that I had enjoyed Ballet Rambert's recent engagement at Brooklyn College. ''But how could you have liked it?'' he demanded to know. ''It was all so 1951!'' Now, to be pedantic about the matter, 1951 was the year in which George Balanchine choreographed ''La Valse,'' Jerome Robbins choreographed ''The Cage,'' Frederick Ashton choreographed ''Daphnis and Chloe'' and Merce Cunningham choreographed ''16 Dances for Soloist and Company of Three,'' the first work in which he utilized chance methods of composition. However, what one says blithely at a party one may wish to rephrase more soberly on the morning after, and I suspect that my acquaintance was not referring to the Rambert's creativity. Rather, he was probably trying to say that he found the British company old hat.
To declare a company's works good or bad is one thing, and it can be fun as well as stimulating to argue over them. But when one pronounces a company outmoded, then one has introduced a whole new consideration into the discussion, for lurking in that pronouncement is the assumption that dance is inexorably moving forward in a certain direction. And this assumption, in turn, is usually accompanied by another, namely that there is a readily identifiable avant-garde leading that moving forward.
Undeniably, our century has witnessed major avant-garde trends. But whereas there can always be vital creative work, there is not necessarily always an avant-garde, if by avant-garde we mean a specific group of artists who make such radical experiments that we are forced to question the very esthetic bases of an art form.
Today, dance has no avant-garde. Its last real avant-garde manifestation occurred 20 years ago with the establishment of the Judson Dance Theater and there has been no new avant-garde since then. People occasionally still call certain choreographers avantgarde, but that designation usually turns out to be a convenient way of referring to artists who are working in the Judson tradition.
Some people may weep over this state of affairs. However, it can be argued that our lack of a choreographic avant-garde is by no means a catastrophe. Too often, those who proclaim themselves or their friends avant-garde appear to believe that they know for certain how art is destined to develop. Yet, should time march on in a different direction, their arrogance can seem preposterous or embarrassing in retrospect.
Other professed lovers of avant-garde art may be more interested in novelty than in quality. For them, the controversy surrounding a new work may be more exciting than the work itself. Of course, newness and controversy have long enlivened all the Western arts, and my friend at the party was surely saying that he saw nothing that he considered really new at Ballet Rambert.
However, to over-value newness may conceivably make it impossible for an art to develop. Early in the 19th century, women revolutionized ballet by dancing on pointe, and Marie Taglioni triumphed as an exemplar of pointe work. Yet, if no one after her had continued to dance on pointe because pointe technique was now familiar, we would never have had ''Swan Lake,'' ''The Sleeping Beauty'' or Balanchinian abstractions.
In our own time, every few years some former admirer of Mr. Balanchine or Mr. Cunningham will complain that because these choreographers have not made any recent innovations they are now repeating themselves and, hence, are uninteresting. But to build upon past innovations can be enriching, whereas an endless quest for novelty alone could result in the depletion of an art's resources, since any novelties discovered would not be further developed.
At present, we live in a pluralistic era of dance, an era that was made possible by one of the theories of our last avant-garde. The Judson choreographers and their sympathizers believed that any movement can function as a dance movement. In the 60's, this led to a use of ''non-dance'' movement. But, in time, choreographers also drew upon skilled movement from fields other than dance - for instance, athletic movement, and choreographers as various as Molissa Fenley, Karole Armitage and the Pilobolus collective have delighted in gymnastic proficiency. Yet, if any movement can function as dance movement, that theory also implies that conventional dance movement is still viable.
Many dancers today are familiar with several ways of moving. Modern dancers study ballet, quite a number of ballet dancers have taken at least a few modern classes, and modern dancers such as Twyla Tharp and Laura Dean have created works for ballet companies. Other dancers have explored Oriental dance, martial arts, meditation, physical therapy, clowning, mime and the sign language for the deaf. Geographical as well as stylistic interchanges also take place. American choreographers have been acclaimed in Europe, the present director of Ballet Rambert, Robert North, is American-born and New York audiences are now getting a sample of contemporary European dance in the Ballet International series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Some contemporary choreographers have staked out particular areas for themselves. Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs and Dana Reitz are all, in their own ways, fascinated by structural rigor. Spinning recurs as a leitmotif in Miss Dean's dances. Senta Driver is concerned with weighted movement.
Much presentday choreography remains plotless or abstract. Nevertheless, some recent productions have exhibited a renewed interest in plot, theme, characterization and, on occasion, social commentary. Consequently, the peace movement's return to prominence has prompted several dances expressing horror at the prospect of nuclear war. Curiously enough, most of the choreographers of such pieces have emerged from backgrounds in abstract dance and have had little contact with an earlier era's exponents of dance-drama. Meredith Monk, Kenneth King and Phoebe Neville have long been interested in thematic works and in the past few seasons there have been fascinating thematic dances by such choreographers as Johanna Boyce, Tim Miller, Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane.
Thus, we can rejoice in variety. However, pluralism, like any other cultural tendency, has its perils. For one thing, it can encourage self-indulgence. Whereas fiercely competitive artistic ''schools'' may engage in endless squabbling, the existence of such rival ''isms'' can also force artists to examine ideas seriously and to take carefully considered esthetic stands.
Moreover, one can fear that pluralism may paradoxically lead to compartmentalization. In order to be noticed, choreographers may decide that they have to possess some stylistic attribute or compositional gimmick that is theirs alone. They may therefore be doomed by their own idiosyncrasies. It would be unfortunate indeed if Miss Dean felt obliged to include spinning in each new dance not because she wished to do so, but because she thought her audience expected it. And would Miss Driver's commitment to heavy movement make her hesitate to incorporate sylph-like lightness into a piece, even when it might be appropriate? Similarly, would Miss Driver ever feel that she could not use spinning because that would be an invasion of Miss Dean's territory? And would Miss Dean, then, avoid weighted movement so as not to intrude upon Miss Driver's turf?
Yet, even taking these dangers into account, the possibilities of pluralism are enormous. At least in theory, dancers should now be able to investigate any form of new movement they wish without fearing that they are betraying some artistic cause. And they can make use of their legacy of movement from the past without risking the charge of being reactionary.
So, instead of pining for an avant-garde, perhaps we should pray to Terpsichore, ''Let there be dance. Let there be different kinds of dance.'' But maybe we had better add, ''O gracious Muse, make all that dance good.''