American Dance: PastDance/FutureDance

There has always been an important distinction between major ballet companies and major modern dance companies in America. The ballet companies that have survived for decades have done so as repertory companies. Even Balanchine—who was likely the most prolific choreographer in history—brought in other choreographers to create work or stage historical pieces on his dancers. It was just smart business. It allowed Balanchine to focus on the pieces he wanted to create during a given season while still adding to the company’s overall repertory and expanding what New York City Ballet offers its audience. Most major ballet companies have long incorporated the works of modern choreographers as well. American Ballet Theatre was performing the works of Ailey and Limón as far back as the 1970s, and many ballet companies worldwide followed suit. That’s why it has long been curious that major modern dance companies have tried to survive based on the works of a single choreographer.

In an exciting step toward his own future, Paul Taylor is radically changing his modern dance company this season. After 60 seasons exclusively performing Taylor’s work, the Paul Taylor Dance Company becomes Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance. Taylor is shifting the company’s emphasis from the single choreographer model to a repertory company model. While he will continue to create works for the company (with two new piece premiering this season), he will also commission work from living choreographers, and bring in other dance companies to perform masterworks—this season, those masterworks are from Jose Limón and Shen Wei. This is a rare choice in the modern world. New Dance Group of course thrived with its collective of choreographers for years, and the repertory model has sustained Ailey. Since Jose Limón’s death, his company has also relied on producing new works alongside core programming from Limón and Doris Humphrey. The Graham company, too, has increasingly added new dances or re-imagings of Graham’s own body of work in order to stay afloat. But not everyone is excited about Taylor’s decision:

Last fall, DanceMagazine’s editor, Wendy Perron, bemoaned Taylor’s announcement along with NYU’s establishment of the ballet think tank, Center for Ballet and the Arts (Jennifer Homan’s brainchild). Perron said of Taylor’s plans and Homan’s center:

There’s a ring about each name that implies that the form in question is endangered, and that these initiatives are meant to protect them in their purity….While it’s necessary and wonderful to preserve existing art forms, it seems to me like these two initiatives are going backwards, holding on to a time that is past.

In a piece for the New Yorker this past week, Marina Harss responded to Perron saying,

…the fact is, the early works of modern dance are in danger. The danger is neglect. It’s easy to imagine a time when the only way to get an idea of what “Passacaglia” looked like would be by watching a scratchy video. Is that enough?

No, that’s not enough—a reality that Perron pointed out near the end of her own blog post:

…When [Taylor] first announced his idea in February, he was quoted as saying he wanted to remount masterworks from Graham, Humphrey, and Limón. Well, someone must have clued him in to the fact that the Graham and Limón companies themselves are struggling to find audiences for their masterworks, because the later announcements have shifted the emphasis to supporting a new generation of choreographers.

Perron spends a great deal of time in her post defending the “cross-pollination” of ballet and modern that marks much of the contemporary dance scene as though creating new works that foster contemporary ideas about movement and preserving masterworks are antithetical to one another.

Her dismissiveness of Taylor’s effort to continue producing new work (his own, and that of other dancemakers) seems less informed by an understanding of why preservation is vital to the development of the new, and more systemic from an American attitude that culture is both consumable and disposable. When she points out American Ballet Theatre’s incorporation of modern choreography since the 1970s, she doesn’t bother to acknowledge that those works are performed by a company that still produces a major repertory of story ballets, complete with tutus in a wash of rhinestones.

Further, Perron also fails to give Taylor any credit for presaging the era of postmodernism,

Regarding the Taylor effort, modern dance morphed into postmodern decades ago when Merce Cunningham broke from Martha Graham. His aesthetic was so entirely different that we needed a new name. Merce blew two big ideas wide open: structural unity and the close relationship of dance to music. Neither has been the same since. Of course there’s a historical value in the grounding of Taylor’s company in American Modern Dance, but the American influence that has spread across Europe is that of Cunningham’s and post-Cunningham dance artists like Trisha Brown and Steve Paxton.

Yes, Cunningham was pivotal in the quest for new ways to make dance; but Taylor also made a significant contribution by asking questions about what constitutes dance in the first place. Paul’s work “Seven New Dances” broke major ground (four years before the Judson experiments began) as he stripped out all dancerly movement in favor of pedestrian movements/gestures juxtaposed with moments of stillness.

Shen Wei’s response to all of this in Harss’s post is encouraging though:

I know in Western culture there is great reverence for the new and the innovative [….] and that is what makes this culture so energetic and vibrant. Yet I wish there were more reverence for the past. In China, traditional opera was banned under the Cultural Revolution, but after it ended there was a rush to rebuild this three-hundred-year-old art form, a unique part of China’s cultural heritage. The government supported its revival and today all the repertory exists, and it is thriving.

At least contemporary choreographers like Shen get why this is important, even if Perron doesn’t. That means that there is hope for both what Perron wants in terms of new work, and the preservation of historically significant dances.

Personally—as an artist, dance educator, and historian—I am dedicated to dance: all of it. My dance experience is based on eclecticism. I’ve studied, performed, taught, choreographed, and researched a broad range of concert dance genres. At the same time I was writing my book on classic modern dance techniques, I was also teaching classical ballet classes, and street jazz workshops. Even now, I’m teaching Dunham and Horton; a contemporary fusion (drawing on somatics, ballet, and various modern and jazz ideas), and classical ballet. I value it all because its made me who I am, much like its all made American concert dance what it is—and, what it will become in the future.

Preserving and protecting the past, then, doesn’t mean that we are holding on to it. Instead, it means we recognize the value in the past as a way to understanding our present, and as a foundation upon which the future is built. Besides, this cross-pollination that Perron so loves was born in the studios at Denishawn a hundred years ago. The techniques of Denishawn, Dunham, Horton, Graham, and Limón are replete with elements of ballet. Modern wouldn’t exist without a fusion of ideas that were once both new and old at the same time. But then, Balanchine’s ballet style would not have been what it was had he not embraced modernist ideas—or incorporated Africanist aesthetics after working with Katherine Dunham.

As a scholar, it is exciting to see the reception for my book because it means there is still tremendous interest in historical techniques (and choreographers), and an interest in dance training that is rooted in clear movement principles. That interest exists at the same time that contemporary dance training practices are created and embraced.

While all of that is true, I have made one change in my teaching because of our renewed emphasis on fusion: I’ve stopped talking about training ballet dancers, modern dancers, and even versatile dancers. We are in an era where we are simply training dancers who may be doing ballet, modern, jazz, hip-hop, and possibly a myriad of other things in a single dance. Or, those same dancers might be doing a straightforward classical ballet. American concert dance exists on a broad map, with tremendous terrain, not stuck on a single pin dot that calls itself new, or contemporary. That would be an isolated island that didn’t have much future, because it had no past.

But, that’s the thing about American concert dance. It has always been a fusion even as it historically avoided homogeneity. It has always existed in a place of merging cultures and ideas. It has only known a space that is created when past and present converge. That is how we have gotten to this current future that we call the contemporary era—an era big enough for all kinds of new and historical works to coexist on the stages of a single city, let alone across the globe. And too, this is how we will reach the next dance future.

photo credit: Amy Young and Heather McGinley, of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, perform in a revival of “Aureole,” 2012. PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDREA MOHIN/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX