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Dancing through the pages: Four books in review

On the move: Memoirs by Mark Morris and Carol Rich, Victoria Fortuna's exploration of dance and violence in Buenos Aires, the legacy of a Russian master.

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Almost a year ago I began a series of essays I titled The Year of Living Cautiously, in which I looked back on 2020 and the two live performances I saw that year, and also mentioned that I had read and reread a great many dance books. Part 2, published in April 2021, was about watching dancing online, some of it very good indeed, but for me never as satisfying as a live performance, good, bad or indifferent, because of the absence of the exchange of energy between the performers and the audience.

Now it’s 2022 (I’m writing this on New Year’s Day). Live performance is back, and dammit to hell Covid is still here—and while I am ever-hopeful that we will be able to attend live performances all of this year without fear of contracting or transmitting any variant of the virus, and in venues where all necessary precautions are taken, it occurs to me that reading the words of those who write vividly and urgently about dancing and their dancing lives is another way of taking in this most ephemeral of art forms. 

Many of the books I’ve been reading are memoirs, a form I have loved since adolescence, when my mother gave me Agnes de Mille’s Dance to the Piper hot off the press in 1952, and I have that hardcover copy still. De Mille, in all her books, puts you in the rehearsal studio, the tour bus, and the theater with her. But I’ll begin here with much more recently published books, two of them by Portland writer/artist/teachers.

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DANCE AND MEMORY ARE UNRULY, unreliable, and hard to corral, as Victoria Fortuna, who chairs the Reed College dance department, states more than once in her book Moving Otherwise: Dance, Violence, and Memory in Buenos Aires (Oxford University Press, paper, $35, 276 pages), which I read during Covid summer number one. I was prompted, in part, to look at this study of political dance by my own unruly memories of a 2004 trip to Argentina with the Nashville Ballet, where one performance was delayed by a demonstration by organized labor inside the theater; and also by Portland’s dance-less demonstrations for (and against) Black rights. There was, technically, one exception: “Naked Athena,” as the media dubbed her, the woman who “moved otherwise” from the crowd, stripping herself bare as she confronted the macho (her word) police, and assumed some yoga poses.  This, of course, went viral on the internet, possibly as far as Buenos Aires. I certainly hope so.

I read Fortuna’s book not long after I saw Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of The Sleeping Beauty, my last live performance in a theater early in 2020, and began to search for other ways to look at dancing. Obviously “seeing” dance via the written word is not new to me, and I know what I want from a book on the subject—or from a review or feature story or whatever. That’s at the very least descriptive writing that puts me in the performance space with the writer—whatever and wherever that might be. And I’m not picky about who that writer is—it can be a critic, a dance historian, a choreographer, a dancer, a biographer, a cultural anthropologist, a novelist, or an academic scholar. 

Fortuna fits several of these profiles. At Reed, she functions in the studio as a teacher of modern technique, and in the classroom as a professor of dance history and criticism.  Dance ethnography is also one of her fields, and that comes into play in the last chapter of her book. Her interest in the region’s contemporary dance and literature began early, when she was a teenager, and led her to Argentina as an exchange student in 2006. Her experiences that year caused her to return several times to learn more, much more. Moving Otherwise, which is her revised doctoral dissertation, is the result of her research as what anthropologists have called for decades a participant observer. Moving Otherwise is written more for scholars than for a general audience, and I find its most compelling parts Fortuna’s descriptions of what she saw and did as she delved into dancers’ response to one of the most turbulent periods of the country’s troubled history. This is not Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Argentina, I promise you.

The year 2006, Fortuna informs us in the preface, was the 30th anniversary of the coup that instigated the whitest, most European South American country’s last military dictatorship. Sixty-two percent of the population, she told me in an interview, is fully or partly of Italian ancestry—as she is herself. The regime, which overthrew the Perons, was unspeakably vicious. It lasted from 1976 to 1983 and among other horrors was responsible for the “disappearance” of 30,000 so-called subversives. Many of them were women, and they were “disappeared” by being dropped, restrained and alive, from high-flying helicopters into the sea. Here, from her preface, titled “The Dancing Body on the Line,” is Fortuna’s eyewitness account of a  demonstration in 2006 on the 30th anniversary of that 1976 takeover:

“Standing on one of the streets leading to the Plaza de Mayo—Buenos Aires’s central plaza and home to the government palace—I experienced that year’s particularly robust annual human rights march.  Thousands of participants carrying banners and chanting slogans moved past me on their way to the plaza, a historic site of activist demonstration and political spectacle alike. As they streamed down the street, the physical presence of those marching honored and called critical attention to those disappeared persons who would never move again.”

The titles of the chapters that follow—five of them—summarize pretty precisely what the book is about, starting with “Mobile Bodies,” which begins with Fortuna’s description of a meeting to discuss a National Dance Law that would have established state support for the art throughout Argentina—what a concept!—that she attended in the fall of 2010, when she returned to the country as a graduate student. The bulk of this chapter backtracks to the ‘Sixties, however, and deals with the influence of European choreographers, or European-trained choreographers, on political dance in Argentina: bodies that are mobile transcontinentally, if you will. 

In Chapter 2, “The Revolution was Danced,” she focuses on female political dancers in the ‘Seventies, with some chilling descriptions of prison dancing, some of them based on interviews with the participants. One dance was accompanied by text from Che Guevara’s speeches, which I found fascinating. And it did make me think of work done by Portland choreographer Josie Moseley, accompanied by text about the Attica prison riots; of Bill T. Jones’s use of political text; and also Bebe Miller’s “A certain kind of heart, also love,” commissioned by James Canfield for Oregon Ballet Theatre, which had a sound score that included a political speech, I forget whose.

“Dance as Survival”, Chapter 3, is Fortuna’s investigation of how “moving otherwise” represents a way dancers and choreographers can survive in a dictatorship dependent on strict regimentation of everything, including the arts, for its own survival. In Chapter 4, titled “Moving Trauma,” she puts tango, the sexy, passionate dance form for which Argentina is best known worldwide, into a political context. She also addresses the subtext of this book, namely those choreographers and dancers who made use of performance tactics to “both remember dictatorship violence and call for justice in the postdictatorship period.”

I was particularly gripped, however, by her description (in Chapter 5, titled “Common Goods”)  of Bailarines Toda la Vida (Dancers for Life), a group she performed with for close to a year, that is closely tied to the country’s labor movement. Apart from dancers’ membership in the labor union AGMA, the American Guild of Musical Artists, how many companies in this country dance about organized labor? Those that were part of the Federal Theater Project during the Depression certainly did so. I can’t think of any today. Here, Fortuna contextualizes this art form in some ways that I think will be of interest to those readers who, like me, are curious about the dance of ideas, as well as dance as protest. And in the Epilogue, titled “The History of Memory,” Fortuna writes of the Indigenous population, small and hidden as it is, and their dance, a topic on which she is now engaged in further research.

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STRICTLY SPEAKING, CAROL RICH’S GORGEOUSLY WRITTEN Life in Miniatures: A View from the Piano Bench (213 pages, paperback, $9.99), published in 2021, is not a dance memoir. Rich, who holds a Doctor of Music degree from the University of Washington and a Master’s in the same subject from Juilliard, retired fairly recently from Oregon Ballet Theater’s orchestra and also the Oregon Symphony. Nevertheless, in the early chapters of this jewel of a book Rich makes it clear that playing the piano requires similar muscle memory to that honed by dancers, particularly in the hands and feet. 

Life in Miniatures is an eloquently written multi-layered love story about Rich’s passion for music, instilled in her when she was young, very young, by her pianist father—they started playing fourhanded piano when she was a kindergartner. Add to this her passion for the Pacific Northwest’s natural world (particularly the coast) and her account of falling in love with her partner, Georgia Arrow, whom she met in Portland, and Life in Miniatures becomes a page-turner you’ll want to read in one sitting.  I did, or rather, in one “lying-down,” far into the night. 

This was partly because I relate to Rich’s experience in many ways—I, too, come from the East Coast; I, too, had a very close relationship with my parents. Her pitch-perfect descriptions of playing music written for the piano, especially Beethoven’s “Appassionata” sonata, trigger lovely memories of my mother, a fine, fine pianist, playing the same music for an audience of one, which was me. Where Rich and I differ, strongly! is in her willingness to get wet and cold in the service of watching owls and other birds that tend to frighten me; so I was very pleased to read, from the comfort of my warm bed, this passage from a section titled “Baby Great Horned Owl and the Murder of Crows”:

“Once, while in the woods, I heard a strange little noise, like a puppy crying itself to sleep. The murmuring came from halfway up an old oak, where a Great Horned Owl pretended to be a lump on a limb. Its eyes were slits, as it was half awake, half asleep. So while I searched for an owl through the saplings, I listened for puppy sounds.” The puppy sounds (and Rich is a dog lover—one miniature is about acquiring two dogs rather than the one she and Arrow had agreed on) sent Rich searching for a puppy in trouble, but what she found was a baby owl perched on a sapling, being terrorized by a “murder” of crows. If, when you reach this section, you are able to set aside the book and do something else before you discover how this tale of “nature raw in [beak] and claw” turns out, you’re a better woman than I am, Gunga Din.

Rich writes of great happiness, and also deep sorrow—her older brother committed suicide in 2007; their relationship, like most sibling relationships as this only child understands them, was complicated. Because of the beauty and immediacy of her words and the way she puts them together, you reject and accept and grieve with her. And so it goes throughout the book: backstage at the Keller Auditorium, where she’s been playing with the OBT orchestra (and where I, from the front of the house, very much enjoyed her performance as the pianist in “The Concert,” onstage with the dancers, in Jerome Robbins’s sendup of Chopin “piano ballets”); down at the coast, where she’s walked the beach and encountered much wildlife; up in Alaska, in Denali National Park; and in allegedly more civilized settings such as the Juilliard Conservatory in New York, where she thought she didn’t measure up to her fellow students. 

In Life in Miniatures Rich’s memories of the professional and the personal, of wrenching grief and great delight, are so vividly written that they make me hope profoundly there will be another book. But Rich in retirement is far from idle—she is maintaining a private teaching studio, and among other things, photographing the critters she encounters during walks in Port Townsend, Wash., where she now lives.

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THERE IS NOTHING IN THE LEAST MINIATURE about Mark Morris: not his person, which is substantial; not his talent as a dancer and choreographer, which is enormous; not his body of work, which includes choreography for the Mark Morris Dance Group, for opera, and for ballet companies; not the range of his interests and influences, or the eclecticism of his taste in music, always the impetus for his dances. Hillbilly music, baroque, gamelan, Brahms, Vivaldi’s Gloria Mass (which he says was written “at a time when you were either religious or dead,” and which like Dennis Spaight’s lovely piece pays tribute to a faith he does not share), Lou Harrison and Colin McPhee, all compel him to “make up” dances for us to watch.

All of that said, Out Loud: a Memoir (Penguin Press, 2019, hardcover $30, paperback $18) is, like Rich’s book, a coming-out story and a professional and personal memoir, told, with the help of novelist and songwriter Wesley Stace, in 360 freewheeling pages. Both the memories and the prose in this book are pretty unruly, but although I caught way too many factual errors, and some of Morris’s statements about his elders in Terpsichore’s art are deafening, Out Loud did put me in the theater with him, whether he and his company were performing, or he was watching someone else dance.  And, as exasperating to read as it often is, of equal importance to this longtime observer of the Seattle native’s work, Out Loud gave me some new insights into what some call the choreographer’s process (a word he dislikes as much as I do), making me want to see again such grand pieces as L’Allegro Il Penseroso, ed Il Moderato; Dido and Aeneas; The Hard Nut, his cynical yet musically loving version of The Nutcracker; and shorter works, ranging from the comic Dancing Honeymoon to the not-in-the-least amusing Lovey, which is about child abuse, and The Empty Chair, the last of which I saw him perform at PSU’s long gone Shattuck Studio Theater. He made it look easy, playful, witty, but that’s not how he describes performing the three solos in Out Loud:

“As the dancer, you had to keep track. …[as a choreographer] I was interested in establishing …strict rules and fulfilling them. That’s what I like. If it was something repetitive, I rang changes on it, and even if it looked like a repeat to the audience, it wasn’t. There was some slight ornament or change. These solos were so tricky that at times I had to have someone in the wings telling me how many repeats I had done, because I couldn’t simultaneously dance and count.

“When ‘The Vacant Chair’ ended, I tore up the blindfolding paper bag and faced away from the audience, so they could see my bare back, to dance the role of the tree in ‘Trees.’ I became a tree—who doesn’t love being a tree?—and those shreds of paper bag became falling leaves. There was nothing else to dance.

“The finale, ‘A Perfect Day,’ was wild, spastic, primitive ballet; a tombé pas de bourrée that got bigger, louder, and more grotesque. The torture was that I would do the dance, then exit, go all the way around backstage, running as fast as I could to make my entrance at the end of the four-bar bridge, reenter, do the next verse—the same but harder—exit again, run all the way around, reenter (by this time quite breathlessly), and repeat even bigger and harder still, until I was completely spent.

“It ended defiantly (and stupidly, I now think) with me knocking the music stand over. A mic drop.”

In many respects, Morris has had a life filled with good fortune, albeit not of the financial variety. In Out Loud he describes this, without really acknowledging it, and that’s okay. He was born into a family that loved to perform all kinds of music, in a city where he had access to training in many different kinds of dancing, from folk dance to ballet to flamenco.

In the book’s early chapters, which do include some painful details about bullying and a sexually abusive ballet teacher, Morris makes his home life sound a bit like the family in the George S. Kaufman/Moss Hart play You Can’t Take It With You: slightly mad, always living in the moment (good training for a dancer!).  His mother, Maxine (to whom Out Loud is dedicated) soon realized her son needed dance training, and she put him into the Verla Flowers  Dance Arts school, which was for children, where he studied ballet and several other forms, did some choreography, and fell in love with flamenco. He fell out of love with it when at 19 he went to Madrid to study Spanish dance (of which flamenco is one form) and learned that under Franco, Spain was a dangerously homophobic country, much more so than the United States at the time.

So he came back and danced with a couple of Eastern European folk groups in Seattle, and then headed to New York, where he got more ballet training dancing professionally with Eliot Feld, and additional modern and post-modern schooling  performing professionally in the companies of  Lar Lubovitch and Laura Dean. A State Department-sponsored tour with the Dean company took him to Southeast Asia, where he fell utterly in love with Indian and Balinese dance and music, and you can see and hear those influences in much of his choreography.

Morris founded his own company in 1984, and had the good luck to perform at New York’s Dance Theatre Workshop, where New Yorker Magazine critic Arlene Croce was in the audience and subsequently gave him a review that he says, gratefully, put him on the map. The review, which I recently reread, is a lot of fun: Croce didn’t want to like this show, or find it good (two different things) and she says so. In clearcut, witty prose, Croce validates what’s good, which is a lot, and gives Morris an extremely helpful shove onto the national scene.

Morris’s company began to tour extensively and internationally, and in Stuttgart, Morris had more good luck when Peter Sellars, the radical opera director with whom he had worked on Nixon in China, came to see the company dance, and then introduced him to the director of the Brussels Monnaie Opera  House, just as Maurice Béjart, the director of the resident ballet company (Ballet of the 20th Century), was departing, taking the dancers with him. Morris got the job, and with it all the production resources of a European state-supported opera house, including a live orchestra. He seized the moment and the resources, and, in addition to choreographing for the opera repertoire, created all of the major works listed above and more. What’s most interesting about this chapter is Morris’s discussion of Gerard Mortier, the opera house director, and his assessment of why he lasted only three years working for him. His conclusion is that the Belgians hate dance, not that he was responsible for acting like a know-it-all, I-will-now-save-you-from-yourselves American. Other Americans working abroad have done this too; Todd Bolender was one of them, in Turkey and in postwar Germany, until he learned better.

Morris’s memoir takes us to his successful present: his own building in Brooklyn; the filming of new work that will not be performed until after his death (at 65 he was thinking about his legacy); the development of dance therapy for people with Parkinson’s disease; and implicitly, to get himself on the record about his life, including his sex life, while he can. At the book’s beginning he writes of his dislike of pre-curtain speeches. Those of us who have gratefully watched the company perform in several White Bird seasons already know this.

It must have been around 2008, when Christopher Stowell was still directing Oregon Ballet Theatre, because he was onstage with White Bird’s Paul King and Walter Jaffe for the pre-curtain ritual—Stowell had danced in Morris’s work for the San Francisco Ballet.  Suddenly the curtains parted, and Morris, in costume and makeup, stuck his head out and demanded, loudly and irritably, “Can we do our show naow?” I’m ashamed to say I applauded (my own feelings about pre-curtain speeches are well known to Arts Watchers). There is a good deal to applaud in Morris’s and Stace’s book as well, specifically its direct, clear writing about American dance (and LBGTQ+) history from a significant participant’s highly opinionated point of view.

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LEGAT WHO? I SAID TO MYSELF when I received a review copy of The Legat Legacy (two books, really, reprints in one volume of Ballet Russe: Memoirs of Nicolas Legat, and Heritage of a Ballet Master), edited by Mindy Aloff, with a foreword by Tasha Bertram and Introduction by Robert Greskovic (2020, University Press of Florida, $29.95). Nikolai Legat, I soon learned just from glancing through the book, was a multi-talented man, a dancer who partnered Anna Pavlova and  Matilda Kshesinskaya while dancing with the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, and a choreographer who was a contemporary of the much better-known Michel Fokine, of whose changes in Russian ballet to make it more expressive, in the modern sense, Legat thoroughly disapproved.

In his introduction, dance historian and critic Greskovic (whose Ballet 101, by the way, is an invaluable resource) points out that Legat’s principal legacy is as a teacher, although he was resistant to changes in the curriculum at the Imperial School and in many respects was highly conservative. I don’t know how many traditional ballet teachers, however, compose the music for their classes and perform it on the piano while keeping their eyes on the precision of their students’ tendus and pirouettes—this strikes me as multi-tasking taken to its most complicated point. Legat was also an artist whose caricatures of Pavlova, Diaghilev and Karsavina remind me a bit of Hirshfeld’s—and that’s a compliment from me: I love Hirshfeld’s caricature of Luciano Pavarotti almost as much as I love the tenor’s singing.

The first, Ballet Russe: Memoirs of Nicolas Legat, is his account of the last three decades of the Imperial Ballet, before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution completely changed the lives of the author and many others, including George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova, who wrote the foreword to the second book. In his memoir, Legat writes that he may have had a premonition of that world-changing event just before he went onstage for his Jubilee (25th anniversary) performance as a dancer, when he was feeling an unaccountable sadness:

“The enthusiasm of the evening was in no way affected thereby. … With the inimitable Matilda Kshesinskaya I danced to perfection my favourite ballet Esmeralda, and at the conclusion I received the Tsar’s gift of a large gold cigar case bearing the Imperial double eagle and a certificate conferring the title of ‘Soloist of His Majesty’ accompanied by a pension which of course I never drew.”

Instead, he and his dancer wife, like so many others, fled and in 1922 ended up in England, where they founded a school that still exists in Suffolk. It was established in  London, and such well-known dancers and choreographers as André Eglevsky, Agnes de Mille, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Anton Dolin, Leonide Massine, and Dame Alicia Markova took class there over the years. Heritage of a Ballet Master contains lesson plans, the scores of his music for class, many drawings and caricatures of his pupils, and charming—and not so charming—short memoirs by those students.

Because I am ever-interested in the places where dance and visual arts intersect, I love this graphic novel of a memoir: the caricatures, the drawings and the cover illustration, Legat by Legat, his right hand extended to the side in the generous open position that would have earned him the Balanchine seal of approval. And because I also continue to think about what makes ballet American, I continue to chew, mentally, on what Legat had to say about what made that country’s ballet an expression of their culture:

“The secret of the development of Russian dancing lay in the fact that we learnt from everybody and adapted what we learnt to ourselves.  We copied, borrowed from, and emulated every source that gave us inspiration and then, working on our acquired knowledge and lending it the stamp of the Russian national genius, we moulded it into the eclectic art of the Russian ballet.”  

I don’t know if this is still happening in Russia, frankly, but last October we saw an example of it here when Oregon Ballet Theatre programmed Black choreographer Jennifer Archibald’s Sculpted/Clouds, a work in which she incorporated hip-hop, classical ballet (not on pointe), swing dance, and traditional modern technique. 

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I HAVE ALSO READ WITH PLEASURE in the past year and a half Gavin Larsen’s memoir, Being a Ballerina, in published form (another disclaimer: I read a couple of early versions of the manuscript, Larsen  is my friend, and she has kindly listed me in her acknowledgments) and John Clifford’s Balanchine’s Apprentice, for which I wrote a jacket blurb. Clifford’s book is full of unconditional love for Balanchine, insights into his choreography and teaching at the time that Clifford was dancing and choreographing for New York City Ballet (after I left New York, so I saw none of it), and some really interesting stuff about his early training as an actor and a dancer in Los Angeles. Both were issued by my own publisher, the University Press of Florida, as was K. Mitchell Snow’s A Revolution in Movement: Dancers, Painters and the Image of Modern Mexico, a really beautiful-looking book I will read before the Portland Art Museum opens its Frida Kahlo show in February. 

Also in the 2022 queue are Wendy Perron’s Grand Union: Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970-1976 (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), another participant-observer’s account of an important movement in American dance that has nothing whatsoever to do with classical ballet; Staging Brazil: Choreographies of Capoeira, by Ana Paula Höfling, which I’ve had since it came out in 2019; and a book that The Legat Legacy inspired me to give myself for Christmas, Romantic Recollections, by Lydia Kyasht (Noverre Press, 2010), another Russian ballerina who fled to England: Her book was originally published in 1929.

And, as preparation for seeing Oregon Ballet Theatre’s performances of Ben Stevenson’s evening-length Dracula in February, may I recommend Bram Stoker’s novel of the same title?

                                                           

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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2 Responses

  1. Your review made me want to read all the books you describe. I so envy the “real” reader, who penetrates, delights, and inspires the lesser readers among us who assimilate content but but are unable to go further. Much appreciation.

    1. Dear Nancy, if you’re a “lesser” reader than I’m a monkey’s uncle, and since I have no siblings I’m definitely not that. Thank you so much for this comment, can’t tell you how grateful I am to have it from a dance historian who “penetrates, delights, and inspires” further exploration of many aspects of the field with the clarity of your writing and the love for the field it expresses. Many thanks, many.

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