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Flash Flashback, 9-05: It's the Dancer
Let us Now Praise Modern Dancers

By Veronica Dittman
Copyright 2000 Veronica Dittman

(To commemorate ten years as the leading publisher of dance performance reviews and the only publication serving principally professional dancers, the Dance Insider is revisiting its archive. This article was first published on December 22, 2000. Veronica Dittman is the founding editor of the Dance Insider.)

In the most recent issue of Ballet Review (28.2, Summer 2000), Daniel Jacobson has a fourteen-page rhapsodic ode to New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. True, Ballet Review's pages are half-size and there were numerous photos of Whelan; true, there are a few paragraphs discussing her anatomy, which objectification I find more than a little repellent. And true, the prose is way over the top in places, describing her as "an authentic New York wonder: all glass and steel, strong and transparent..." But still.... How wonderful to read a dancer's artistry -- her musicality and use of technique and personal nuance -- analyzed and praised by a knowledgeable writer.

The world of dance publication is tiny, and most of its writing is in the form of reviews, which almost by definition will headline a choreographic work. Yet, I can think of a few other paeans to ballet dancers, but none to currently working post-modern dancers (a group distinct from long-time veterans of the Graham, Cunningham, and Limon companies. And Dance Magazine cover stories about Paul Taylor dancers -- childhood, several auditions for Taylor, injury, now better than ever! -- don't count). Even in the '60s, Selma Jeanne Cohen devoted an issue of Dance Perspectives to an interview with ballet dancer Eric Bruhn, but interviewed choreographers for her book "The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief." Writing about modern and post-modern dance seems always to focus on dance composition, describing the work of choreographers, with the dancers who realize that work mentioned only in passing.

The easiest explanation for this is that in the world of ballet, movement invention is grounded in that vocabulary, stretching it and challenging it now, but still with classical ballet technique as the reference point. Individual performers distinguish themselves more readily in an environment which is "given" to a certain degree, which holds less shock or surprise or possibility. In the world of modern dance, all the attention is on the choreography. With the spectacular fragmentation of the post-modern world, anything is possible, and we're watching to see how those fragments will coalesce in the hands of Doug Elkins, David Dorfman, Jane Comfort, Twyla Tharp, and Mark Dendy. I don't want to steal any thunder from the choreographers, who get deserved critical attention -- their work should be discussed and analyzed -- but I suspect that the spotlight aimed at choreography leaves the artistry of the dancers a bit in shadow. Never mind that in many choreographic processes, the dancers contribute a good bit to the composition; I'm asking for some sensitive and knowledgeable writer to turn attention from the choreography, the "what," and focus on the "how." How are so many talented dancers today expanding, illuminating, and challenging the choreography they perform?

Reading Jacobson's extravagant descriptions of Whelan's work, I longed for someone to do the same for dancers Tasha Taylor and Fritha Pengelly. Please, someone, write at length about the soft finish at the end of Taylor's extensions, the vulnerability she brings to a role (I could go on and on), or about Pengelly's serene precision, her incredible dynamic range (there's so much more). Or please, have Tricia Brouk's dancing be the headline of your review, with Ben Munisteri's and Lucinda Childs's choreography mentioned as context. Please, Vanessa Paige-Swanson, write the whole story that a single line in your Flash Review of choreographer Sam Kim's work begs: "...and by Carolyn Hall, who is such a lovely and multi-faceted performer that I would gladly purchase tickets to watch her cross a street." (See Flash Review 1, 11-7, "Out of Space...") To do so would proclaim acknowledgment and respect for the work these artists do. They deserve more than an appreciative line in a story about the choreographers for whom they work.

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