Thursday, December 03, 2009

The New Yorker's Shy Date with Modern Dance, 1930

Unless in reference to the latest hotcha dancefloor moves or the hottest entertainers at nightclubs, The New Yorker didn't say anything about dance. The closest they ever got was a somewhat irreverent look at Isadora Duncan's achievements...after she'd died.

So imagine my surprise to find, after all my recent modern dance bloviating, a tiny article called "On With the Dancers" tucked into the January 18, 1930 issue.
Our dancers of today are notable for the minimum of dancing in which they indulge. Their performances have become attempts at drama-in-petto, with almost no display of terpsichorean virtuosity. Dancing that is dancing does not really exist on the stage that devotes itself to the incohate form known as "the dance." (This is to be pronounced as if it were a sacred matter, or at least one not totally intelligible to the laity.)
It's sort of amusing to have The New Yorker accuse somebody ELSE of being snooty, especially in the same paragraph as the word "terpsichorean," but it's interesting (if not surprising) to read somebody from almost eighty years ago saying the same sort of thing that I've been saying all month, only shorter and with even less tolerance for the art.

The pseudonymous author divides 1930s dance performances into four categories. The first are the people who star in musical shows (Jack Donahue, Bill Robinson, the Astaires), "and consequently have no aesthetic status whatsoever." The second is exemplified by Anga Enters, who apparently acted out musical scenes in a form of pantomime.

The final categories are the type of modern dance we're accustomed to. The third is allegorical, modernistic, and intended to evoke a state of mind using "poses, of which there is not, apparently, an unlimited variety." The author is particularly critical of Martha Graham's use of "uplifted eyes to complete her pictures." Today's equivalent, I suspect, is the yearning reach-and-grasp.

The fourth category is the athletic "neo-ballet" school, which uses some traditional "moves" but still tries to escape convention. The author mentions Helen Tamiris (simply "Tamiris" back then).

And what was the author's conclusion, way back then?
If you happen not to be in sympathy with the bodily expression of moods, music, or dramatic concepts, it all will seem like a lot of fussiness in which music is supplemented by something extraneous and dancing is reduced to posturing. If the form interests you, you will discover in the activities of the Dance Repertory Theatre, and those who are going in the same direction, a sincere endeavor to make of "the dance" an entity capable of standing on its own legs--and what legs some of them are!

No comments: