Ed. Robert Gottlieb
(Pantheon Books, 2008)
With spring’s overdue arrival comes the promise of viewing things with fresh eyes. For dance lovers and writers, Robert Gottlieb’s anthology Reading Dance fits this bill. The subtitle alone describes it all: “A Gathering of Memoirs, Reportage, Criticism, Profiles, Interviews, and Some Uncategorizable Extras.” And while it specifically reflects Gottlieb’s predilections dating primarily from the 19th and 20th centuries, it’s clear that all the subjects he has chosen to include, and the writers too, have touched his heart.
It is this catch-all, yet personal, approach that makes this hefty volume entertaining as well as informative. It’s a safe bet that 1300 pages restricted to dance criticism or profiles would be, if not downright dull, at least a reliable slog. But the book’s sections skip from theme to subtheme. Take, for example, George Balanchine: his sections are devoted to essays on the choreographer, his ballets, his lost ballets, and his dancers. The list of authors ranges from critic (Edwin Denby) to macher (Lincoln Kirstein) to ex-wife (Vera Zorina). By viewing the man and his work from so many angles, we get something approaching a three-dimensional picture. This goes for the writing too—we sample many rich ways that words can describe dance. (Gottlieb’s own writing represents just a small percentage of the contents.)
Many contemporary, if older guard, artists are included—Mikhail Baryshnikov, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp. We get glimpses of their formative years, of the first impressions they made upon peers, not all flattering. Setting “Push Comes to Shove,” Tharp notes: “Almost instantly, two things became very clear about Misha. One, he was unbelievably eager for new movement, trying anything I did with complete sincerity and heart. And two, his concentration span was practically nil.” Not something that’s commonly divulged about the man. On the flip side, Baryshnikov notes, “In Twyla’s work, the body can switch direction in the middle of the beat for any given movement. She not only has these changes in the arc of each movement, as well as complicated variations of them, but the choreographic structure is very broad, all over the stage, and performed at top speed. So the breathing is very difficult. As you are dancing you feel like a fish in the sand.”
Adding depth and texture are essays like Susan Sontag’s “Dancer and the Dance”; Isadora Duncan’s recollections of Russia; Barton Mumaw recounting Denishawn ending, literally, in flames; Akim Volynsky describing how Anna Pavlova, “fifteen minutes before the curtain goes up…quickly gulps down five ham or roast-beef sandwiches. And then she flies onto the stage.” While such ditties mark these legends as human, most of the distinguished writing praises its subjects with affecting concision.
It’s tempting to list who and what are missing, but instead, thank Gottlieb for unearthing and curating such a rich and variegated collection—another anthology will just have to take shape around this one.
Susan Yung is a New York-based culture writer.