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Lightning in a bottle

Dance, by nature, defies definition. Some try. Few succeed.

By JOHN FLEMING
Published March 11, 2007


Dance is the most ephemeral performing art. A play has a script, a piece of music has a score, but a dance exists entirely in performance. You only have now, George Balanchine used to tell his ballet company. Once a dance is over, all that's left is the impression it made.

Dance is also the most difficult thing to review - Merce Cunningham said speaking about dance is like nailing Jell-O to the wall - so it is a pleasure to welcome back into print Dance Writings, the reviews, essays and lectures of Edwin Denby, the pre-eminent American dance critic of the 20th century. Denby was a poet and former dancer who brought an uncanny blend of sophistication and down-to-earth simplicity to his work for Modern Music, the New York Herald Tribune and other publications.

Denby was the right critic at the right time when a pair of titans, Balanchine and Martha Graham, were literally creating the American ballet and modern dance tradition with every performance. He "had the advantage of writing in defense of an art at a time when it needed explication and when it needed a gallant knight," Robert Cornfield writes in the introduction.

Denby was the rare critic who could describe evocatively but plainly what dancers actually do onstage. Take this passage from a review of Balanchine's Concerto Barocco:

The ballerina "is lifted by her male partner, lifted repeatedly in narrowing arcs higher and higher. Then at the culminating phrase, from her greatest height he very slowly lowers her. You watch her body slowly descend, her foot and leg pointing stiffly downward, till her toe reaches the floor and she rests her full weight at last on this single sharp point and pauses. It is the effect at that moment of a deliberate and powerful plunge into a wound."

Denby wrote with a humility that tended to underplay his brilliance, such as the offhand observation in a review of Antony Tudor's Romeo and Juliet that "ballet sharpens the eyes and opens the heart." He took the critic's educational role seriously, often devoting his Sunday column to accessible primers on technique and aesthetics.

Denby also had fun, writing about the World's Fair, the Ice Capades and the circus from a dance critic's point of view. And he could turn a phrase, such as this putdown of the design of a ballet production: "The hundred costumes were so ill assorted in color that the stage looked like a dollar-tie counter pawed through by Christmas shoppers."

The only dance critic who has rivaled Denby was Arlene Croce, who wrote for the New Yorker from 1973 until 1998. Croce's successor, Joan Acocella, has a new book, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, and it reflects a change at the magazine, and in journalism in general, that devalues reviews. Where Croce mostly wrote dance criticism, Acocella is more an essayist and reporter. Her book includes nine pieces on dancers and choreographers, such as Bob Fosse, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Suzanne Farrell and Frederick Ashton.

Acocella has a sharp eye that makes you wish she wrote more reviews. One of her best stories is a tough-minded assessment of Twyla Tharp that contains a succinct description of the dancer's 1970s style: "The bent knees, the loose hips, the smart feet, the cool upper body, the easy elastic relation to the beat: it's the insolence of rock and of the nascent youth movement combined with the wit and elegance of jazz."

Acocella's book includes a brisk account of the chaos that overtook the Martha Graham Dance Company after its founder died. It is required reading to complement Acts of Light: Martha Graham in the 21st Century, a book of photographs of the company's dancers by John Deane, with text by his sister, Nan Deane Cano.

The Graham dancers are beautiful, and Deane's mastery of color and composition is impressive, but there's something empty about the pictures, which were taken in a studio.

For the reason why, it's a temptation not to be resisted to quote Denby, from a review that discussed the problem with dance photography:

"A shot can show you only one gesture, which is like hearing only one note of a piece of music, or one word of a poem. The more painstaking the photograph, the more pointless the effect. You don't see the change in the movement, so you don't see the rhythm, which makes dancing. The picture represents a dancer, but it doesn't give the emotion that dancing gives you as you watch it."

Leave it to Denby to get it just right.

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.