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The Diction of Dance

Applying poetics to dance: a review of the recent New York dance season.
In the first of an occasional column about poetry and the performing arts, Wendy Lesser explains how the most expressive choreographers use gesture and movement as a poet uses words.

At first glance, there seems very little resemblance between choreography and poetry. The choreographer’s work is live, ephemeral, taking place at a particular moment in time; the poet’s work, though it can be spoken aloud, endures on the page. The choreographer relies on other people (dancers, musicians, lighting designers, costume and set designers) to enact the work; the poet, in general, works in solitude. The choreographer’s materials are gesture and the human body; the poet’s are words.

But in fact the criteria we use to judge these two art forms are not that far apart. Like poetry, choreography speaks to us about the familiar, but in a way that makes us see it anew. The materials, in both cases, are part of everyday life (speech, movement), but these materials need to be transformed in a way that makes them more than merely documentary. So a certain level of stylization (whereby the real gets stripped of its excess, turned into something clearer and sharper and more shaped) is required in both art forms for them to be art forms. At the same time, the ever-present danger is that stylization may interfere with feeling—may get between the artist’s expression of something and the audience’s reception of it.

To combat this danger, poets and choreographers remain eternally alert to the sensibilities of their own times. Just as Wordsworth revolutionized the poetic diction of his time by bringing it closer to ordinary speech, choreographers must continually replenish their known storehouse of stage gesture with movements that they observe in life: on the street, at home, in offices and playgrounds and parks. Yet to abandon the languages and gestures of the past entirely would be not only silly but impossible. Poetry and choreography both derive from all the work that has gone before them, even as each maker tries something new and special with the form.

I want to show how this has worked in some dances from the most recent New York season. Dance, unfortunately, can’t be quoted from, as poetry can, nor can it be looked up in the library. (Videotape kills dance: if you have only seen a video of a performance, you have seen close to nothing.) Nor are my examples comprehensive, or illustrative of all the kinds of diction one finds in dance. In talking about the productions I describe below, I am simply trying to focus on the particular ways in which two different ballet companies solved this ever-present problem of the relation between the past and the present, between tradition and invention.

Scene shot from The Green Table (PHOTO: Marty Sohl)

The most thrilling performance I saw all fall—in any art form, I am tempted to say—was American Ballet Theatre’s revival of the 1932 Kurt Jooss dance, The Green Table. This was surprising for a number of reasons. For one thing, ABT is a rather conservative ballet company, and The Green Table is anything but conservative, either formally or politically: it still comes across, 73 years after its Paris premiere, as an adventurous and devastating antiwar statement. Like the recent movie Good Night, and Good Luck, it comments on our own period by referring to other troubled times; but unlike George Clooney’s purposely retro black-and-white film, The Green Table does so by projecting itself forward, leaping out of its own decade and into ours without losing a stitch.

The sad fact is that we have not in any way outgrown Jooss’s between-the-wars vision, in which balding, gray-haired, black-suited men plan a war around a long green table and remain completely unchanged by the horror they bring forth. At the end of the piece (subtitled “A Dance of Death in Eight Scenes”), we see the same old men making the same argumentative gestures around the same green table, despite the fact that in the interim we have also seen soldiers fighting and dying, young women raped, old women destroyed by sorrow, and war profiteers gamboling happily about. (I have made plurals of all of these, but in this highly emblematic dance we only get one of each: The Young Soldier, The Old Woman, The Profiteer, etc.)

Kurt Jooss, who was a dancer in his own company as well as its choreographer, composed the role of Death for himself, and it is a wonderful role, requiring both strength and delicacy, both size and power. (Like most of the dancers in the piece, Death wears a beautiful, terrifying mask throughout his performance, but the mask alone will not carry off the role, and the dancer needs to be of a certain height to give the part its necessary weight.) Death hovers in the background of every scene and in some scenes takes over completely, repeatedly performing a strange, haunting signature solo that is both stark and subtle, with foot movements so precise and emphatic you almost feel, as you watch them, that they are drilling their way into your dance memory.

They are, in fact, drilling their way in, or at least they did so for me. I had seen this dance only once before in my life, when the Joffrey Ballet toured it in 1967 or 1968—which means I was only 15 or 16 at the time. Geoffrey Holder, a marvelous dancer, played Death, and he was phenomenal. So here were the second and third surprises of the ABT revival: that David Hallberg, a young man who is not even one of the company’s principal dancers, could hold his own so brilliantly in the Jooss/Holder role; and that the dance itself looked, sounded, and felt exactly as I had remembered it from nearly 40 years before.

This is due partly to ABT’s employment of Jooss’s daughter, Anna Markard, as dance mistress, director, and general enforcer for this production; she apparently made sure that each dancer was doing exactly what he or she was supposed to be doing, in terms of gesture and timing and expressive mood, at every moment of the dance. My memory was a true one, that is, in the sense that this production, like the earlier and equally supervised Joffrey version, was rigorously faithful to Jooss’s original performance. Dance, I have suggested, needs to respond to its own time to stay alive—but with regard to the subject of The Green Table, which is war and its causes and effects, 1932 is frighteningly close to 2005. Kurt Jooss’s masterpiece remains a masterpiece in part because it captures a still-unchanged truth about reality.

The strength of my memory was also due, I think, to the elemental quality of the dance itself. Something about the very nature of the gestures, with their echoes of George Grosz, Metropolis, and Brechtian theater, defines a certain moment in Expressionism that became, at least for me, the starting point of all modernist performance. (Expressionism, which sought to convey interior feeling directly, and modernism, which sought to emphasize the materials out of which art was made, might seem at first glance to be in tension with each other, but in some of the most powerful artworks of the 20th century, these two impulses went hand in hand.) I was to see that moment of fusion reemerge in Grotowski’s and Kantor’s Polish theater experiments of the 1970s, in films and plays directed by Peter Brook, and (as recently as last fall) in the Deutsches Theater Berlin’s performance of Lessing’s Emilia Galotti at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

It is a certain vocabulary of movement which insists that the body can tell stories and render emotion more truly even than the voice—not through miming or sign language, but by arriving at particularly poignant or stirring gestures that emphasize their meaning through repetition. You do not have to know this language beforehand: it teaches itself to you in the course of the dance. In the case of The Green Table, the learning process is strongly aided by the music for two pianos that F.A. Cohen composed as the background and basis for this piece (and that David LaMarche and Daniel Waite ably played live for the performance). Jooss would not, I am sure, have arrived at precisely these gestures had he set the dance to any other music, and we would not respond as strongly to the movement were we not also hearing those eerie, evocative chords.

The risks of this kind of dance are sentimentality and oversimplification. That is always the danger when one tries to tell basic human stories in heightened, expressive, apparently transparent language (and this is true of poetry, of course, as well: think of Robert Frost, who usually sidestepped the pitfalls, and Randall Jarrell, who sometimes didn’t). But when those risks are transcended, as they are in The Green Table, the triumph is all the greater.

Surprise of a different kind characterized another happy dance experience, this one out at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The company, Compagnia Aterballetto, was an Italian group I had never heard of. The program was a reworking of two much-loved classics, Les Noces and Petrushka, both composed by Stravinsky and initially choreographed for the Ballets Russes by Bronislava Nijinska and Michel Fokine, respectively. This meant that the room for error, in terms of a gap between the treasured originals and the fallen moderns, was potentially huge. The advance word from the New York press was not enthusiastic—“mechanistic” was, I believe, the most frequently repeated adjective.

As it turned out, my trepidations about Aterballetto were all unfounded. From start to finish, both ballets were a pleasure to watch, not in spite of the risky reworking, but precisely because they had been so intelligently rethought and redone. There was an allegiance to the original Ballets Russes conception (especially in the pigeon-toed movements of Petrushka himself, and the doll-like stiffness of the Ballerina and the Moor who danced with him), but there was also something new and exciting here. Both dances were filled with images, movement choices, and even plot structures that were not in the originals, but in each case the updating had been done with complete consistency, so that the relationship of the dance to its music, say—or to its setting, or to its theme—was solid and comprehensible. And because of this essential faithfulness to the source material, the two dances seemed very different from each other, even though they had both been rechoreographed by the same person.

Les Noces (the French title means “the nuptials” or “the wedding”) began with two facing rows of dancers, women on the left and men on the right, with a long, high, benchlike table between them. The dancers all stood on the rungs of identical silver-colored, tall-backed chairs, and as the dance began, they rocked back and forth in unison, creating a rhythmic thump on the stage. Then one man—a shaved-headed dancer with an incredibly sinuous torso and a remarkable sense of balance—broke from the right-hand ranks and moved to the table, where he performed a series of complicated and expressive gestures while the people on the sidelines continued to do things with their chairs. (In the course of the piece, the dancers were to lift these chairs over their heads, interlock them with each other’s chairs, balance and rock on them in different ways, and finally leave them hanging from a horizontal rung of the giant table, gently swaying back and forth to the exact rhythm of the music—all in all, a near-miraculous feat of Italian design.) At one point the bald man walked on the very edge of the central table—or, rather, danced on the very edge, extending each leg in turn out to the side before putting his foot down in front of him, half on and half off the table. It struck me at that moment that the whole piece was structured around the idea of various kinds of balance: between human bodies and props, between men and women, between classical-modern music and modern-classical dance, between what is inherited and what is newly invented.

These are useful pairs to keep in mind during a dance about a wedding, and as the initial man was succeeded by soloists of both sexes, and then by dancing couples, the marriage theme became more and more visible. What the choreographer, Mauro Bigonzetti, had realized was that marriage doesn’t mean the same thing now that it did when Nijinska first designed the dance in 1923. Nor does Russia (the first performance apparently featured allusions to the Red Army). Nor does ballet (in the original, the women were on pointe; here, all the dancers danced barefoot—and, more surprisingly, all of them had extremely expressive and flexible torsos, which is not at all the result of traditional ballet training). All these changes, in dance and in the world outside dance, have placed a barrier—not insuperable, but a barrier nonetheless—between the original choreography and the original feeling it generated, a feeling of witnessing something startling and disturbing and beautiful. To get this feeling, Bigonzetti had to search for what T. S. Eliot might have termed a new objective correlative. He had to start, not from scratch, because his choreography fully acknowledged the dance’s origins in the Age of Machines and the Age of Crowds, but from some point other than Nijinska’s early-20th-century perspective.

When he came to Petrushka, he was dealing with an even more beloved classic: the incomparable Nijinsky—Bronislava’s more famous brother—played the first Petrushka in 1911, and the story itself (the tale of a soulful puppet who falls unhappily in love) had strong roots in Russian folktales and folk imagery. Bigonzetti resolved the problem of the work’s heavy heritage in part by giving in to it—he retained, that is, some of the particular dance gestures one associates with the puppet Petrushka—and partly by ignoring it entirely. He replaced Russian folk idiom with Italian folk idiom, so that Petrushka became a petty thief in a clothing store, a hapless creature of poverty and the nighttime, pursued by comic-incompetent cops and mocked by the better-dressed characters around him. Best of all, he cast as Petrushka our bald-headed friend from the first act, a French dancer named Adrien Boissonnet who, I am now convinced, can do just about anything.

Petrushka began with Boissonnet running up the auditorium’s central aisle onto the stage, where he grabbed assorted clothing from the various color-coordinated racks. (Think Benetton, with its swatches of matching garments.) Later this trickster figure streaked back and forth through rows of standing dancers who had recently peeled off their white chrysalises to reveal the vibrant orange-and-pink costumes underneath, and as he did so, he skillfully retrieved all the white garments—a magical moment, as if he had simply vacuumed the stage and produced color. Compared to the flailing-limbed police, he was a figure of grace; compared to all the other couples (not just the blond-wigged, doll-like Ballerina and the stiff, soldierlike Moor, but also the mix-and-match boy-girl couples that repeatedly swirled through the dance), he was a figure of pathetic loneliness. It was a tragicomic Punch-and-Judy show made for the present moment, a new work that proudly wore the old one jauntily on its shoulders. And, as such, it was extremely true both to its modernist origins—since modernism always strove to be of its moment—and to its dance vocabulary, since dance is necessarily ephemeral, fleeting, and in that sense touchingly mortal.
  • Wendy Lesser, the editor of The Threepenny Review, is the author of six books of nonfiction as well as a recent novel, The Pagoda in the Garden. This year she is a fellow at the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.


The Diction of Dance

Applying poetics to dance: a review of the recent New York dance season.
  • Wendy Lesser, the editor of The Threepenny Review, is the author of six books of nonfiction as well as a recent novel, The Pagoda in the Garden. This year she is a fellow at the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

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