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Writing Dancing in the Age of Postmodernism

Sally Banes

Publication Year: 2011

Drawing of the postmodern perspective and concerns that informed her groundbreaking Terpsichore in Sneakers, Sally Banes's Writing Dancing documents the background and developments of avant-garde and popular dance, analyzing individual artists, performances, and entire dance movements. With a sure grasp of shifting cultural dynamics, Banes shows how postmodern dance is integrally connected to other oppositional, often marginalized strands of dance culture, and considers how certain kinds of dance move from the margins to the mainstream.

Banes begins by considering the act of dance criticism itself, exploring its modes, methods, and underlying assumptions, and examining the work of other critics. She traces the development of contemporary dance from the early work of such influential figures as Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine to such contemporary choreographers as Molissa Fenley, Karole Armitage, and Michael Clark. She analyzes the contributions of the Judson Dance Theatre and the Workers' Dance League, the emergence of Latin postmodern dance in New York, and the impact of black jazz in Russia. In addition, Banes explores such untraditional performance modes as breakdancing and the "drunk dancing" of Fred Astaire.

Ebook Edition Note: Ebook edition note: All images have been redacted.

Published by: Wesleyan University Press

Writing Dancing in the Age of Postmodernism

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pp. vii-ix

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pp. xi

This book is a collection of my published and unpublished essays and talks on dance since the 1970s. I began writing about dance twenty years ago, in 1973. Suddenly, I found myself in possession of a contract with Chicago Review Press to write a book on contemporary dance. (That book became Terpsichore in...

I. Writing Criticism / History

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I. Jill Johnston: Signaling Through the Flames

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pp. 3-10

Jill Johnston is important to modern dance history not only because her writings afford us a vivid glimpse of avant-garde New York dance in the 1960s (much of which disappeared with little documentation elsewhere), but also because of the kind of writer she was. A champion of the avantgarde - not only in dance..

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2. Working and Dancing: A Response to Monroe Beardsley's "What Is Going on in a Dance?" (with Noël Carroll)

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pp. 10-16

Professor Beardsley's paper is distinguished by his customary clarity. Many of the distinctions he draws will undoubtedly be useful, not only for dance theoreticians, but for dance critics as well. Nevertheless, the way that these distinctions are placed in the service of a putative characterization of what constitutes a dance...

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3. Criticism as Ethnography

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pp. 16-24

About a month ago, I told a philosophelr friend the topic of my talk for today. "I can immediately think of two important differences between dance critics and ethnographers," he said. Now this friend, the son of an African statesman and an upper-class British woman, grew up in Ghana, was educated at Oxford, and teaches at Cornell. Not only does he literally embody cross-cultural...

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4. On Your Fingertips: Writing Dance Criticism

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pp. 24-42

Paraphrasing Goethe on theater criticism, Edwin Denby once wrote that "a writer is interesting if he can tell what the dancers did, what they communicated, and how remarkable that was."l This statement sounds almost banal, if not obvious. But in fact it sums up several...

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5. Power and the Dancing Body

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pp. 43-50

Dance historians often start from the premise that dance ,reflects, society. For instance, in Time and the Dancing Image, Deborah Jowitt writes: Western theatrical dancing ... has always been responsive to current trends. At its most profound, like the other arts, it reflects aspects of the current world picture; at its most superficial, it acknowledges the current fashions .... The dancer's...

II. The Euro-American Avant-Garde

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6. Balanchine and Black Dance

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pp. 53-69

In 1967, at the peak of his career and at the very beginning of the dance boom, George Balanchine choreographed Jewels, an enormously popular evening-length ballet. Its three sections constituted a sampler of ballet styles: Emeralds, to music by Gabriel Faure, danced by women in long tutus, evoked the...

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7. An Introduction to the Ballets Suédois

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pp. 70-81

The year 1920, in which the Ballets Suedois made its debut in Paris, was not a good year for Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. His tours were not successful, and his financial situation was complicated by theft and lawsuits. The following year, Diaghilev's choreographer and lead dancer, Uonide Massine, quit the company precipitously because he wanted...

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8. Soirée de Paris

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pp. 82-91

Soiree de Paris was a month-long season of ballet and theater organized by Count Etienne de Beaumont at the Theatre de la Cigale in May and June 1924.1 According to the souvenir program and the poster, the season was a charity benefit for the Society for Relief for the War Widows and the Committee to Help...

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9. Kasyan Goleizovsky's Ballet Manifestos

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pp. 92-103

Kasyan Yaroslavich Goleizovsky was born in Moscow in 1892. As a child he studied dance in Moscow, where his father was a soloist with the opera and his mother was a dancer. Beginning in 1906, he attended the Maryinsky Theater school in St. Petersburg. His teachers there included Mikhail Obukhov, the great...

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10. Merce Cunningham's Story

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pp. 103-109

Story, a dance Merce Cunningham choreographed in 1963, signaled a new phase of experimentation for the man who had moved in the radical vanguard of modern dance at least since 1951, when he first used chance methods in his choreography. Through the use of chance - employing charts, coin-tossing, dice-...

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11. Cunningham and Duchamp

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pp. 109-118

Marcel Duchamp has suffered the fate of certain great artists: he has become an adjective, a handy category for puzzling, verbally playful, inaccessible, and "intellectual" painters, sculptors, composers, and performers. But applying the...

III. The African-Ameritan Connection

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12. To the Beat, Y'AII: Breaking Is Hard to Do

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pp. 121-125

Chico and Tee and their friends from 175th Street in the High Times crew were breaking in the subway and the cops busted them for fighting. "We're not fighting. We're dancing!" they claimed. At the precinct station, one kid demonstrated certain moves: a head spin, ass spin, swipe, chin freeze, "the Helicopter," "the Baby." An officer called in the other members of the crew, one by one. "Do a head spin," he would command...

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13. Breakdancing: A Reporter's Story

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pp. 126-132

Breakdancing is a craze that has easily surpassed the twist for media attention and wildfire popular diffusion - its energy and ambition seem to symbolize the 1980s. It is also a richly complex phenomenon to examine. First, breakdancing is not an isolated form of expression but is integrally linked to rapping (a form...

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14. Lock Steady

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pp. 133-136

I'm walking down Lafayette Street and I see some graffiti: DONDI ROCK ON BROADWAY WITH TWYLA THARP - TALKING HEADS. I'm trying to learn the basic breaking steps from the B-Boys, and Frosty Freeze tells me, "You gotta keep your head facing front while your whole body turns, then snap your head around at...

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15. Critic's Choice: Breakdancing

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pp. 137-142

Breakdancing may have made it from the black and Latin ghettos of New York City to suburban shopping malls and the cover of Newsweek, but the surest sign that it's gained a foothold in mainstream American culture is its appearance in the dance studio and, fast on those heels, on how-to and feature movie home...

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16. Breaking

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pp. 143-153

Breakdancing is a style of competitive, acrobatic, and pantomimic dancing. It began as a kind of game, a friendly contest in which black and Hispanic teenagers outdid one another with outrageous physical contortions, spins, and back flips, wedded to a fluid, syncopated, circling body rock done close to the ground...

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17. A House Is Not a Home

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pp. 153-156

Kool Lady Blue moved her theater of operations from the Negril to Danceteria while Negril is closed for repairs. The Negril is a reggae club where for the past few months, on Thursday nights, KLB Productions/ Wheels of Steel has been presenting the best deejays, emcees, and performers in evenings of...

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18. Breaking Changing

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pp. 156-158

It's been almost five years since some cops arrested kids for breakdancing in the New York subway, thinking they were fighting, and Martha Cooper, then a Post photographer, began to track down this elusive form of adolescent street dancing. Now, with breakdancers in poster ads for WPLJ and the movie Beat Street plastered...

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19. The Pleasin' in Teasin'

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pp. 159-161

The last in a series organized by Tina Pratt to celebrate black dancers in America, this program had a special resonance because all the dancers in it were women. The black woman as dancer and the images she has managed to create within...

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20. The Moscow Charleston: Black Jazz Dancers in the Soviet Union

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pp. 161-168

In 1926, authentic jazz dance arrived for the first time in the Soviet Union when an American black musical revue toured to Moscow and Leningrad.l The Chocolate Kiddies reached Moscow in February 1926. Billed as a "Negro operetta," the show played at the Second State Circus in Moscow and then moved on....

IV. Other Subversions: Politics and Popular Dance

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21. Stepping High: Fred Astaire's Drunk Dances

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pp. 171-183

Fred Astaire made three "drunk" dances in three films, all in the 1940s. Although they are quite different from each other, all three dances are striking both in terms of their functions in the film narratives and in terms of their formal expressions of drunken sensations and drinking images. I will analyze here the...

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22. The Men at John Allen's Dance House

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pp. 184-199

In order to understand how the experiences of the men at Allen's dance house contributed to the dancing, it is relevant to look at the role of the dance house in the lives of those men. Therefore in this chapter we will consider the men other...

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23. Red Shoes: The Workers' Dance League of the 1930s

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pp. 199-204

The past few years have seen an upsurge of political activity among downtown dancers, from organizing for nuclear disarmament to making dances against U.S. intervention in Central America to making statements about black identity and history. This alliance between the avant-garde and progressive politics might seem...

V. Postmodern Dance: From the Sixties to the Nineties

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24. Judson Rides Again!

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pp. 207-210

Judson Dance Theater has become the kind oflegend whose reality is lost in a mist of nostalgia and imperfect remembrances. The people who were involved in the group nearly twenty years ago remember only fragments and each one, of...

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25. Choreographic Methods of the Judson Dance Theater

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pp. 211-226

The Judson Dance Theater, the legendary amalgamation of avantgarde choreographers in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, represents a turning point in dance history for many reasons. Its cooperative nature as an alternative-producing institution was a conscious assault on the hierarchical nature not only of academic...

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26. Vital Signs: Steve Paxton's Flat in Perspective

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pp. 227-239

The dance Flat, by Steve Paxton, was first performed in Concert for New Paltz (an event organized by members of the Judson Dance Theater at the State University of New York at New Paltz) on January 30, 1964. I saw Paxton perform a reconstruction of Flat at Bennington College on April 18, 1980. The description of...

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27. Meredith Monk and the Making of Chacon: Notes from a Journal

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pp. 240-252

In 1973 a small Chicago publisher sent me to New York City to write a book about contemporary dance. I had been performing, designing and constructing costumes, and writing in Chicago; that summer I had met Jill Johnston, read her writing for the first time, and discovered Judson Dance Theater and the "postrnodern...

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28. Dancing on the Edge

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pp. 252-258

In the West, where the history of the arts since the Renaissance has been the story of specialization, theater and dance are not twins (as they are in many other cultures), but merely siblings - and at times rival ones. The interpretation of the various arts in the 1960s, however, has made an impact on recent dance, bringing...

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29. "Drive," She Said: The Dance of Molissa Fenley

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pp. 259-268

Molissa Fenley's choreography bewilders the eye, entices the ear, and challenges both the memory and the intellect. Incessant, everchanging motion, saturated with polymorphous arm gestures, performed to a driving, repetitive, percussive beat, the dances are complex series of tensions between constancy and mutability...

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30. Self-Rising Choreography

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pp. 268-273

The first time I saw Jim Self dance, he was eighteen and I was twentyone. He had just graduated from high school and was already dancing professionally in one of Chicago's few modern dance troupes. I had just graduated from college and had no idea that I would become a dance critic. But I remember that there was already something clear and authoritative about his dancing. There...

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31. Transparent Living

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pp. 273-276

Wendy Perron's dances open onto the world like a window. They are fra~es that intelligently but plainly reveal particles of daily life. You see, in a group of fresh-faced, sturdy, thoughtful women, moving together, a steady flow of fleeting images: the awkward grace of children playing, the cool sensuousness of slowly...

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32. No More Ordinary Bodies

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pp. 277-279

The line between play, games, and sports, on the one hand, and dance, on the other, is not always a clear-cut one. For one thing, key to many children's games is a dance element, movement sequences savored for all sorts of qualities, from vertiginous pleasure, to the development of muscular or hand-eye coordination...

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33. Happily Ever After? The Postmodern Fairytale and the New Dance

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pp. 280-290

N ow I am going to tell you the story of the postmodern fairytale in the new dance, which is really four separate stories. All four of these stories - the history of recent postmodern dance; the history of theatrical dance since the nineteenth century; the history of the folktale and of recent folktale scholarship; and...

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34. Pointe of Departure

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pp. 290-297

If the 1960s prized speaking directly, the eighties is an age of irony. Quotation marks surround everything; originality becomes a matter of quoting differently, of wearing tuxedoes and tennis shoes. Call it pastiche. It is the aesthetic of postmodernism. An about-face from modernism's "tradition of the new," it at the same...

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35. Classical Brinksmanship: Karole Armitage and Michael Clark

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pp. 297-301

There are times, it seems, when the classical tradition in dance needs massive shocks to the system to renew itself. Karole Armitage and Michael Clark, working on opposite sides of the Atlantic, in their separate ways, keep dreaming up those shocks. Like Diaghilev in an earlier era of crisis, Armitage and Clark both understand...

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36. Terpsichore in Sneakers, High Heels, Jazz Shoes, and On Pointe: Postmodern Dance Revisited

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pp. 301-310

In dance, the term "postmodern" came into use in the early 1960s, when Yvonne Rainer and other emerging choreographers used it to differentiate their work from that of the preceding generation - modern dance. By the midseventies, it had become a critical term to label a movement. Now, in the late 1980s, when...

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37. Dancing [with/to/before/on/in/over/after/against/away from/without] the Music: Vicissitudes of Collaboration in American Postmodern Choreography

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pp. 310-326

In thinking about collaborations in American postmodern dance and music, several distinctions in the relations between the two arts that have emerged in the broader history of theatrical dance are useful. As well, it is helpful to review briefly the history of postmodern dance in terms of its connections to (and disconnections from) music in general. For it may be that the ways postmodern dance...

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38. La Onda Próxima: Nueva Latina Dance

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pp. 327-333

Recent scholarship in multiculturalism and issues about alternative canons and cultural authority have raised questions not only about how national, racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities are produced, but also about how the histories of peoples and cultural systems are written. Dance is usually overlooked as a site where cultural experience and knowledge are produced. Nevertheless...

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39. Dance and Spectacle in the United States in the Eighties and Nineties (with Noël Carroll)

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pp. 333-340

American avant-garde dance of the seventies captured the international imagination. Building on the formal inventions of Merce Cunningham as well as the tendencies of minimalism in the visual arts and music, the makers of what began by 1973 to be called postmodern dance were steadfastly antitheatrical...

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40. Dancing in Leaner Times

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pp. 341-347

Improvisation was the sixties. From social dancing to politics, on fronts of culture as varied as free jazz, Off-Off Broadway theater, and Judson Dance Theater - whose members at times questioned the convention of the "choreographer-as-boss-lady," as Yvonne Rainer put it-liberation and spontaneity were the twin watchwords. Now, in the nineties,...

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41. Going Solo

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pp. 348-352

It seems clear that there are more choreographers working solo these days. Is it a sign of the times? Of the recession economy? A producers' gimmick? Or is it a standard feature of modern and postmodern dance? Wendy Perron, who organized the week-long Solo Flights program at Jacob's Pillow last summer, speculates that the solo is appropriate for a recession economy because...


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pp. 353-386


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pp. 387-412

E-ISBN-13: 9780819571816
Print-ISBN-13: 9780819552662

Page Count: 428
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Dance -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Ballet -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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