Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

Dance by the book: Moving stories

From the rhythms of tap to the glories of Nijinska to "Why Dance Matters" and more, Martha Ullman West prepares a list of great dance reads just in time for giving.

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You can dance, you can watch dance, and you can read about dance. The three go together like a pas de trois, and in this season of The Nutcracker you can pick up a few good books about dance to give as holiday gifts, or — why not? — buy as a present to yourself. Here are a few good ones to add to your list:

The books:

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Some of these books were published recently, others a number of years ago, and all of them would make good holiday gifts for dance watchers who are interested in dance history; its place in American, Mexican, Russian, and Ukrainian culture; its links to other art forms; and the struggles and triumphs of individual practitioners of the art. Moreover, they all contain material that is relevant to our own troubled times and the changes in the field related to the righting of wrongs, which are many and diverse.

I’ll begin with Aloff’s Why Dance Matters, for several reasons. The editors of Yale’s series Why X Matters pair authors and subjects with the intention of publishing “a concise argument for the continuing relevance of an important idea [or figure].”  Thus we learn why dance matters to longtime critic, historian, and editor Mindy Aloff, who started her career as a writer about dancing in Portland in the 1970s, where she was Willamette Week’s first dance critic. For Willamette Week Aloff reviewed many Portland performances, and for Dance Magazine, for which she was Oregon correspondent, she covered the Eugene Ballet in its early days and also Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet. 

All of this, as well as her childhood experiences as a ballet student, her studies at Vassar in English literature and film, her work for The New Yorker Magazine, her previous books, including the terrific Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation, her editing of dance books for the University Press of Florida (including mine)  informs her argument for why dance matters to her, and should to us. The book is the size of an Anchor paperback and would make a great stocking stuffer for dance lovers and those who might like to learn more about it.

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There’s plenty about Portland in Brenda Bufalino’s Tapping the Source, too. Not only was she a frequent guest teacher at Jefferson High School in the 1980s (I did a feature on her for The Oregonian’s now, alas, defunct Northwest Magazine) she performed here with Honi Coles and the Copasetics at least three times, and did a solo concert at Portland State in the nineties. She was also instrumental in establishing a couple of major summer tap festivals in Portland. Bufalino, who is also a poet, writes eloquently of her life as a dancer and teacher, and also the balancing act that women with children (she has a son) must perform to practice their art.

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Cheryl Willis taps at the computer keys across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Wash., and is a regular at  Portland contemporary dancer/choreographer Gregg Bielemeier’s Saturday morning class at New Expressive Works in southeast Portland. Tappin’ at the Apollo is about Edwina “Salt” Evelyn and Jewel “Pepper” Welch, an African American tap dance duo who, as Willis writes in the preface, exuberantly performed a man’s style of tap dance in male attire. Said one male tap dancer of one of them, “That girl could dance her ass off.”

In the Twenties and Thirties they danced their way from the streets of New York to the Apollo Theater, the Midwest and the South, but evidently not to the Pacific Northwest. These travels are shown with copious photographs and described in straightforward, no-nonsense prose.  Willis interviewed both women extensively, and their story is a significant part of both dance and queer history: they were lesbians and when not on the road  lived in Greenwich Village.  As women, they fought many battles in what was until fairly recently a male-centered dance form, Shirley Temple and the Good Ship Lollipop notwithstanding.

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Balanchine often said ballet is woman. Those words could just as easily have come from the mouths of August Bournonville, Marius Petipa, or, come to think of it, any one of the three Christensen brothers, Willam, Lew or Harold, when it comes to dancing. But, when it comes to women choreographing dances and directing companies, perish the thought. That brings me to La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern, dance historian Lynn Garafola’s biography of Bronislava Nijinska.  

It was published in May of last year by Oxford University Press. The subtitle only partly identifies Nijinska. She was also a ballet mistress and innovative teacher who made use of some of the teaching methods developed by the modern dancers of her day, and a pioneering classical dancer who could and did dance both women’s and men’s roles. In her much better-known brother Vaslav Nijinsky’s “L’Aprés Midi d’Une Faune,” she performed both the title role and the Maiden for whom he lusted. 

Nijinska is best known for the ballets Les Noces and Les Biches, the first one set to a Stravinsky score, the second to one by Poulenc, both of them commissioned by Serge Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes, where Nijnska was both a dancer and a choreographer until she quarreled with the impresario. Counting her own stagings of The Sleeping Beauty and La Fille Mal Gardee, and other classics, she actually made approximately 100 works, many of them for American companies.

Born in Minsk in 1891, Nijinska lived in turbulent times and led a turbulent life, personally and professionally. Garafola, professor emerita of dance at Barnard College and the author of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and Legacies of Twentieth Century Dance and several other books, tells the meticulously researched story of Nijinska’s life in the language of a novelist. It’s long — 497 pages without the endnotes, index and bibliography — and a fine read for dance lovers who are kept indoors by wintry weather. 

Nijinska was twice married, to Russian dancers; the mother of two children by her first husband; and for many years the major financial support of her children as well as older family members. World events (World War I, the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, World War II) separated her for long periods from many family members, including her children when they were very young (she left them in the care of her mother) and she effectively lost her beloved brother to schizophrenia when he entered a sanitorium in 1921. In 1941 she emigrated to this country and bought a house and  opened a studio in Pacific Palisades, California, where, as young girls,  ballerinas Maria Tallchief and Allegra Kent studied with her. The L.A. suburb was home base for the rest of her life; she died there in 1972.

Nijinska and Balanchine crossed paths at the Ballets Russes and did not care for each other at all. I found this part of the book particularly fascinating: Garafola knows this territory well, and her descriptions of Diaghilev’s manipulation of those who worked for him are truly appalling. There is nothing appalling, however, about the resources he made available to them: Debussy, Ravel, and above all Stravinsky, not to mention such painters as Picasso and Roualt. 

While Garafola doesn’t necessarily emphasize this point, Nijinska had a profound influence on the development of ballet as an American art form through her teaching, obviously, and also her work as a stager. When Oregon-born ballerina Janet Reed was dancing with what was then Ballet Theatre, Nijinska cast her as Lisette, the lead female role in “La Fille Mal Gardée.”

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La Nijinska is lavishly illustrated with photographs, many of them in color, which is as it should be—dance, after all, is a visual art as well as a musical one, as K. Mitchell Snow makes abundantly clear in A Revolution in Movement: Dancers, Painters and the Image of Modern Mexico, a book that informed my viewing of the Portland Art Museum’s magnificent exhibition last year titled Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism.

Rivera was a highly theatrical painter, and part of the reason for that was the year he spent in Paris in 1910 or so, when he saw a number of performances by, wait for it: Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with sets and costumes designed and executed by modern easel painters (see above). He likely saw Fokine’s “Firebird” and Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” both of them expressions of different aspects of Russian culture.  

Several of the painters Snow discusses in this book were responsible for the formation of the various Ballets Folklorico de Mexico ,and it was fitting, indeed, that a high school iteration of the Ballet Folklorico performed at an event connected to this exhibition.  Snow is an independent scholar and arts journalist based in Washington, D.C., and he writes both clearly and passionately about the complexities of his subjects: dancers, painters, and revolutionary politics.

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Also recommended:

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Dance

Martha Ullman West began her checkered career as an arts writer in New York in 1960. She has been covering dancing in Portland and elsewhere since 1979 for many publications, including The Oregonian, Ballet Review, the New York Times, and Dance Magazine, where she is a Senior Advisory Editor. She is a past-co-chair of the Dance Critics Association, from which she received the Senior Critics Award in 2011. Her book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet was published in 2021 by the University Press of Florida.

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