The new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Dance, by Debra Craine and Judith Mackrell, informs readers about all things dance, from Fred Astaire and George Balanchine, to Japanese butoh, krumping, and tap dancing. At this time of year, theaters are full of wonderful dance productions from The Nutcracker to Swan Lake (and even Black Swan, in a different way, is making a splash). Here are a few entries about choreographers, works, and dance styles that I especially enjoy – with links to videos of some of the works described to further your dance education. –Hanna Oldsman, Publicity Intern
Cunningham, Merce (b Centralia, Wash., 16 Apr. 1919; d New York, 26 Jul. 2009) US dancer, choreographer, and company director. One of the towering figures of 20th-century modern dance… [He developed] a style that combined aspects of ballet (fast rhythmic footwork and high leg extensions) with the free, mobile torso and blunt thrust of modern dance. His works also made a point of eschewing narrative, character, or theme… As an increasingly central figure in the American avant-garde, Cunningham worked with leading figures from the art world including Robert Rauschenberg (resident designer 1954-64), Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Jasper Johns. However a defining feature of these collaborations was Cunningham’s insistence upon the creative independence of design, dance, and music in each work. With the exception of his earliest choreography these three elements usually came together for the first time in performance, and the only commonality between them was that they happened within the same time frame and within the same space. Cunningham also began to create his dances through chance procedures, allowing decisions about the order or trajectory of the movement or the number of dancers to be made by the toss of a coin, for example, or the roll of the I Ching. Throughout his long career Cunningham continued to experiment with new creative methods. He was the first major choreographer to use computer technology, creating movement sequences on screen before setting them on his dancers, and thus facilitating an increasing complexity of action and stage patterning. In 1991 he helped develop the choreographic computer software Life Forms. His 1999 work BIPED was his first digital dance, in which computer-generated images, including dancing figures, were projected onto the stage to create a perspective-altering interaction with the live performers…
Fantasia Disney’s seminal 1940 cartoon contains some masterpieces of animated choreography. Fairies, fish, and mushrooms dance to a section of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker while Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours becomes a ballet for ostriches, hippos, and alligators. Disney’s team made extensive drawings of real dancers including Baranova, Riabouchinska, and Lichine to ensure the comic accuracy of the movement.
lindyhop American jazz couple dance, dance to Swing music. It first appeared at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom in the 1920s where black dancers embellished the choppy steps of the Charleston with increasingly flamboyant improvised moves — fast spins, cartwheels, throws, and jumps were the woman leaped with her legs straddling her partner’s waist or shoulders. After it became popular with white dancers it was known as the jitterbug. It enjoyed a major revival in Britain and the US during the 1980s and 1990s, led by veteran performers such as Frank Manning and Norma Miller and companies such as the London-based Jiving Lindy Hoppers.
Noces, Les Ballet in one act with choreography by Nijinska, libretto (song text) and music by Stravinsky, and designs by Goncharova. Premiered 13 Jun. 1923 by the Ballets Russes de Diaghilev at The Theatre de la Gaite-Lyrique in Paris, with Felia Doubrovska, Nikolai Semenov, Lubov Tchernicheva, and Leon Woizikowsky. The ballet is a rigorously unsentimental portrayal of a Russian wedding whose four scenes, ‘The Blessing of the Bride’, ‘The Blessing of the Bridegroom’, ‘The Bride’s Departure from her Parents’ House’, and ‘The Wedding Feast’, are more suggestive of ritual sacrifice than private joy. Although it re-creates the peasant world of Holy Russia, the ballet was, as the choreographer herself disclosed, strongly influenced by the political rise of the proletariat which she had recently witnessed in Soviet Russia as well as by new trends in Russian theatre and Constructivist art…
Many other choreographers have created versions of Les Noces… Nijinska’s own version, however, with its eloquently muscular choreography, geometrically drilled corps de ballet and powerful designs, remains one of the undisputed masterworks of the 20th century.
For more on the Ballets Russes, check out Sjeng Scheijen’s new biography Diaghilev: A Life.
Serenade Ballet in one act with choreography by Balanchine and music by Tchaikovsky. Premiered 10 Jun. 1934 by students of the School of American Ballet… This setting of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C for String Orchestra (with the 3rd and 4th movements of the score interchanged) is probably the most popular and widely performed of all Balanchine’s works. It is essentially a plotless ballet, though romantic images are suggested in its final movement, which evoke earlier ballets such as Swan Lake and Giselle. Its pure dance sections are largely performed by women, reflecting the gender balance of students for whom it was first choreographed, and two moments — when a woman arrives late to take her place amongst the rows of dancers, and when another woman falls to the floor — were famously incorporated from real events which occurred during rehearsal. After 1936 the work was performed without scenery and new costumes were designed for later productions such as those by Karinska, 1964…
Socialist Realism Under Stalin, dance in the Soviet Union was expected to conform to Party doctrine. Ideally, choreographers were meant to portray contemporary life in a realistic style while at the same time glorifying the workers’ revolution and denouncing the bourgeoisie. Not all artists toed the official line, some finding subtle ways of introducing irony into their work, but the plots of many ballets created between the late 1920s and 1950s show remarkable political correctness. One of the earliest examples was Lashchilin and Tikhomirov’s The Red Poppy. Another notable instance was Belsky’s Coast of Hope (mus. A. Petrov, Kirov, Leningrad, 1959). This ballet is set in two contrasting fishing villages, one on the Soviet side of the sea, whose citizens are happy and loyal, and one on the other side where life is unhappy and repressive. A Soviet fisherman is shipwrecked on the other shore and its people take him prisoner in order to convert him to their ways. He remains faithful to his own comrades, though, and one day the walls of his prison magically burst open and he finds himself back home. Some of the most apparently correct librettos, such as Lopukhov’s The Bright Stream, did not always find approval, though. While this ballet showed Socialist morals triumphing over regressive behaviour its use of classical dance to portray the lives of ordinary people was considered unacceptable as was Lopukhov’s use of Shostakovich’s score and he was dismissed from his post as ballet chief of the Maly Theatre.
A new version of The Bright Stream was staged by one of my favorite choreographers, Alexei Ratmansky, in 2003. (For those of you in NYC, n.b.: it will be performed by the American Ballet Theatre this spring.)
Debra Craine is Chief Dance critic of The Times. She has studied ballet, modern dance, jazz, and dance notation. Debra has contributed to several leading reference books on dance including The International Dictionary of Ballet (1993) and has also worked as a theatre critic. She has been writing about dance for almost thirty years for publications in Great Britain and North America, and has appeared many times on radio as a dance critic.
Judith Mackrell is Chief Dance critic of The Guardian. She studied English and Philosophy at the University of York and the University of Oxford. From 1981-1986, she was a part-time lecturer in English and Dance at the University of Oxford, Oxford Polytechnic, and the Roehampton Institute, and has been a freelance dance writer and arts broadcaster since 1986. Judith was also made an Honorary Fellow of the Laban Centre for Dance in 1986. Her previous books include Out of Line (1992), Reading Dance (1997), Life in Dance: Darcey Bussell (1998), and the Costa Book Award short-listed Bloomsbury Ballerina: A Life of Lydia Lopokova (2008).