Sight Lines, by Arlene Croce
by Arlene Croce.
Knopf. 364 pp. $19.95.
Arlene Croce is generally thought A to be our most eminent dance critic, but on the evidence of this book, mostly drawn from her reviews over the last five years in the New Yorker, she is no longer responding critically to the current American dance scene. The sad truth is that in these years American dance has declined from the position of dynamic world leader to that of faded past master. Miss Croce’s apparent reluctance to face up to this fact results in an overly rosy and distorted picture of American dance.
The realities are these: after several decades in which American choreographers explored the beauties and profundities of pure dance, the emphasis in the early 80’s shifted to works centered on drama, narrative, or extra-dance themes, for which few turned out to have any aptitude. The pioneering postmodernists, such as Trisha Brown, turned their backs on the spare, nonacademic style they had used in the 70’s and buried their work under hugely distracting sets and decor created by high-fashion visual artists. Other postmodernists, like Lucinda Childs and Laura Dean, as well as some mainstream modern dancers like Merce Cunningham, added balletic elements to their works or even choreographed directly for ballet companies. But for the most part their efforts only succeeded in blurring the distinction between ballet and modern dance, and in emasculating them both.
Also during this time, many American regional companies (like the Atlanta Ballet) either turned themselves into watered-down clones of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet (NYCB) or lost their way altogether amid hyper-eclectic programming designed to build a mass audience. The American Ballet Theatre (ABT), under the artistic direction of Mikhail Baryshnikov, lost several of its superstars and set itself on a more contemporary course which it had neither the taste nor the technique to negotiate.
A good number of the country’s great dancers, such as Natalia Makarova of ABT and Peter Martins of the NYCB, retired, or, worse, like NYCB’s Suzanne Farrell or ABT’s Baryshnikov, continued to dance despite painfully reduced capabilities that mocked their erstwhile accomplishments. The vacuum at the top of the ranks then exposed the vacuum at the bottom: there were few real replacements for the stars, because young American dancers, who had been trained to bend themselves into pretzels, had not been taught to act or even to make artful use of their admittedly impressive technique.
Almost no important new American choreographers came to the fore during these years, although Miss Croce tried to find one—prematurely—in the well-composed but cloddy, simplistic works of Mark Morris. And even great established choreographers seemed to lose their touch: Balanchine’s Stravinsky Centennial Celebration was uncharacteristically kitschy, Twyla Tharp made several incoherent “message” and narrative works, and Jerome Robbins of NYCB seemed to forget what to do with ballet dancers altogether.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, Balanchine, the great genius and guiding light of American dance, suffered a long illness and died in 1983. This proved to be the end of the New York City Ballet as America’s only revolutionary ballet company. Peter Martins, the new Ballet Master in Chief, seemed to ignore the crucially important task of maintaining company style—the sharp edges, haughty posture, swift attack, filigreed hands, and quicksilver footwork for which NYCB was justly famed—and devoted his energies instead to churning out his own choreography: superficial, static Balanchine imitations that shamefully diluted a repertoire of masterpieces.
Eventually Miss Croce arrives in the course of these reviews at a number of similar conclusions about the major dance trends of the 80’s. Mostly, however, she skirts the issue, preferring instead to dwell in loving, overblown reveries on the minutiae of specific performances by her favorite companies and artists, figures whom she seemingly cannot bear to hold to the highest standards.
The encomia fly thick and fast. Thus, Twyla Tharp’s “The Catherine Wheel” is here described as “an uncluttered, intensively lyrical experience” (it is an out-of-control, flatfootedly symbolic stew). Mark Morris’s “mastery of mimetic implication in the logic of forms” is hailed as “a mark of wisdom as rare in choreography as musical mastery.” On Baryshnikov: “No dancer is more eloquent. No actor, either.” On Suzanne Farrell: “By never trying to outpoint her former self . . . she has found the secret of perpetual youth.” On the NYCB under Peter Martins: “How strange that Balanchine’s dancers are more conscious of his principles and more willing to put them into practice now that he is gone.”
By the time Miss Croce finally acknowledges, in the book’s last review, that “there is a void in American dance,” it is hard to know precisely what she is referring to. And even then she does not really explore this “void” at any length, beyond vaguely attributing it, paradoxically and unfairly, to Balanchine himself:
Might it not be time for another essay, called “The Curse of Balanchine,” in which it would be shown how the great choreographer created 20th-century ballet and put it off-limits at the same time? He incorporated into the mainstream everything there was to incorporate—jazz, Bauhaus, twelve-tone music, American pop; yes, even the modern dance—and left the academy at a peak of virtuosity, with nothing further to express. Balanchine’s progeny rework his accomplishments; they can honor his precedents, but they can add nothing to what he has said. . . . His usages have become standard. . . . He even thought up his own heresies, so in order to rebel against him a choreographer has to risk being completely incoherent. . . .
How could any one individual be responsible for all the malaise in the dance world? Does it have nothing to do with the nation’s dance schools and companies, or with the unprecedented numbers of young people now involved as dancers or choreographers? Balanchine may be a hard act to follow, but his talent alone cannot explain the confusion or poverty of much of today’s dance.
Perhaps the whole messy subject of what happened to American dance in the 1980’s is just too depressing for Arlene Croce to probe effectively. But whatever the reason, Sight Lines shows us a once brilliant dance critic who has lost her nerve—and a fair measure of her pertinence.